Balance, Instinct, and Openness Equal Success for the Aquarelle Quartet

Aquarelle Guitar Quartet Classical Guitar magazine

The Aquarelle Guitar Quartet—Vasilis Bessas, Rory Russell, James Jervis, and Mike Baker—was established 18 years ago, when the members were studying together at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, with Craig Ogden. With four previous successful recordings on Chandos under their belt and a performance in Classic-FM radio’s annual gala at the Royal Albert Hall, London, they were eager to talk about their highly eclectic most recent album, Aspects, and about the chemistry of their quartet.

CLASSICAL GUITAR: Your latest release, Aspects—with works by Gioachino Rossini, Alberto Ginastera, Andrew York, Phillip Houghton, and more—is almost a summary of your work over the past 18 years as a guitar quartet. How do you decide what you are going to record?

MIKE BAKER: This new disc is really a snapshot of where we are now and, as you say, a summary of our careers so far. We’ve always strived to perform an eclectic mix of music, but on our previous recordings with Chandos, the projects have been much more themed as a package: The first one was purely Brazilian music [Spirit of Brazil, 2009], then music inspired by dance [Dances, 2010], film music [The Final Cut, 2012], and Spanish music [Cuatro, 2013]. For this latest recording, we wanted to do something that was more representative of what we do in our live concerts. So we looked back to see which pieces really meant a lot to us as a group, have been well received in concerts, and have progressed our playing.

CG: Do you choose to be eclectic as a solution to keep the four different personalities in the quartet musically satisfied?

RORY RUSSELL: All four of us have lots of different areas and genres of music that interest us and we are open to the idea of any one of us bringing music that they’re arranging for the quartet to a rehearsal. If it works, we’ll play it. That’s how we’ve always worked—we’ve always been very democratic in choosing repertoire.

CG: What happens if there is music that one or more of you doesn’t like?

JAMES JERVIS: I can’t think of a time when that has happened. We have a shared interest in and a respect for good-quality music, and variety is something that everyone enjoys.

VASILLIS BESSAS: When we play through arrangements, there are some that we end up liking more than others, so we keep them in the program. Also, pieces evolve as we work on them—we start them one way and expect them to go in a particular direction, but sometimes they go in a completely different direction. In the end, we play what works best for the group and for the occasion.

CG: When you first started as a quartet, were there many guitar quartets around?

BAKER: The main one that everyone knows about is the incredible Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, and before them, Los Romeros, with utterly fantastic playing from both groups! There have been British guitar quartets as well, like Tetra, who were going for many years before we formed the quartet.

BESSAS: Guitar Trek from Australia, as well.

BAKER: Absolutely, but it was still considered very niche. If you look now, though, there are very good, well-rehearsed guitar quartets, and I think it is much more of an accepted medium now. It has always been our goal to completely immerse ourselves in the quartet. Other than the occasional project that pops up, we don’t actively pursue solo careers strongly.

When you go through college, everyone is expecting to be the next John Williams or Julian Bream. From very early on, we found that we all enjoyed playing in the group; it was something fresh and new for us. We knew there was an instant chemistry when Craig Ogden, our tutor at the time, put the group together, and we just wanted to pursue it as a main goal and take it as far as we could.

CG: Did you follow the path of a particular quartet, such as the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet?


BESSAS: I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we said that we were not looking up to and being influenced by them in one way or another. The main influence was that we realized that the guitar quartet could play lots of different styles of music and not be restricted to purely classical or Spanish repertoire. I think that was the main influence they had on us.

BAKER: Another big influence on our group and our playing has been the Assad Brothers guitar duo. We got funding to have lessons privately with Sérgio Assad and it opened up our minds about how you perceive music. He came at music from a completely different angle than how we had been taught before.

CG: I really enjoyed listening to Aspects. You often sound almost like one instrument, but with a very expanded range. The middle movement of the Danzas Argentinas by Ginastera is so intimate; is it an arrangement?

BESSAS: Yes, it’s stunning. It was arranged by João Luiz Rezende Lopes from the Brasil Guitar Duo. He used to be with the Quaternaglia Guitar Quartet. What I really liked was that he made the arrangement after having listened to the beautiful interpretation by the pianist Martha Argerich—it wasn’t just an arrangement of the music, but also of her interpretation.

CG: A more recent work on Aspects is David Pritchard’s Stairs.

BAKER: Stairs has such a beautiful soundscape, and if you have a listen to David Pritchard’s other compositions, they all have an ethereal quality to them. David is a Californian steel-string guitar player. We were very taken with Stairs after we had heard the LAGQ recording. We also found his own recording of it with him playing all four tracks, multi-tracking it on a steel-string guitar.

RUSSELL: He wrote to us recently to congratulate us on the recording and he was very complimentary indeed.

CG: Phillip Houghton’s Opals—“Black Opal,” “Water Opal,” and “White Opal”—is incredible.

JERVIS: I think the Phillip Houghton piece almost plays itself. The detail in the score is immense and Phillip has scripted in depth how each part should be played.

BAKER: We did deviate from the tempo markings, especially in the middle movement, which we think has more of an atmospheric ambiance to it when we take it at a slower tempo. It has been said that we are quite “high-octane” a lot of the time in our playing, so it’s nice to draw things back and play slightly slower on occasions.

JERVIS: We do have tiny ebbs and flows, very small adjustments to what he has written, but in the main, we follow “the manual” because we believe in what he’s written. It’s such a beautiful work, especially the middle movement.

CG: Aspects also has a piece by another of my heroes, Chris Thile, the American mandolinist—“Flippen (The Flip)/Soon or Never,” credited to Swedish composer Mikael Marin and Thile’s Punch Brothers group.

RUSSELL: Chris Thile is just a brilliant musician! The precision of his playing and how well thought-out everything is—no matter what style he plays, he is successful.

BAKER: Vasilis was the first one of us to discover Chris Thile and the mandolin music he was producing. He has been in many different bands and has collaborated with many musicians, such as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the bass player Edgar Meyer. His band, the Punch Brothers, plays such progressive bluegrass music; it’s like nothing I’d ever heard before. “Flippen (The Flip)” from the Punch Brothers CD Who’s Feeling Young Now? just struck me as a fantastic piece of music. I knew before bringing it to the rehearsal that the guys would like it.

JERVIS: When Mike first brought that piece to rehearsal, we all looked at him and thought he was rather crazy for suggesting that we could play something quite so fast and high. Obviously, we’re playing without a plectrum and also, to replicate the high notes of the mandolin, we are right up on the upper frets of the guitar. We’re hanging on for dear life, trying to get these little sections of music played, which pass among us very quickly, especially in the opening. It’s very, very quick; if you blink, you miss it!

CG: The Welsh Dance No. 2 from Tair Dawns Gymreig for harp by Dalwyn Henshall has been arranged by Mike, and is a premiere recording.

BAKER: I’m married to a wonderful harpist, Louise Thomson, and through her I have been introduced to a lot of incredible harp music. The Welsh Dance is the middle movement, the adagio, of a three-movement work. It is a beautiful lullaby, which is really free and almost improvisatory at times as it weaves in and out of different time signatures and keys. It gives the group a chance to be really expressive.

CG: Do other quartets request your arrangements?

BAKER: We get asked for our arrangements a lot—almost on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, we can’t publish certain arrangements for copyright reasons. We have acquired the rights to perform and record our arrangements, but we don’t have the rights to publish or distribute them.

BESSAS: We do literally get emails saying: “Please take my money and send me a copy of the dots,” but we just can’t.

CG: String quartets famously can have quite a conflict-ridden existence. I get the sense that you don’t suffer from those issues.

JERVIS: Not yet!

BAKER: We are very lucky in that respect: we’ve gotten on so well for so long. I can’t imagine doing what we do if we weren’t getting on. Hopefully, that rapport comes across in our concerts and recordings.

JERVIS: I think we have a good work ethic. In rehearsals, we are diplomatic; we agree to differ on a few things. When we do disagree, we manage to come to some sort of agreement and then move on. We don’t dwell on differences, but differences are good to create some interest in what we put out. We do manage to keep it all together and enjoy each other’s friendship outside of the quartet as well.

Character-wise, if you were to look at us as individuals, I think you would find us all to be very different in various ways. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, though we seem to find a good balance between us and we work well together.