CD Reviews: Looking In on New Zealand Classical Guitar (Discs from Mike Hogan/Christopher Hill, John Couch, and the NZGQ)

A CG Online Exclusive

By Blair Jackson

One might not immediately think of New Zealand as being a hotbed of classical guitar activity, but in fact the South Pacific nation and its much larger neighbor, Australia, have long had active CG scenes, with numerous home-grown performers and composers, several guitar societies, scattered festivals, and visits from top international players, etc. (Anybody here who wouldn’t love to visit that beautiful, if remote, part of the world?) Among the most prominent NZ guitarists are Christopher Hill and John Couch, who are one-half of the acclaimed New Zealand Guitar Quartet, but also play solo and in various other configurations.

Hill’s Dark to Light CD is a solo guitar exploration of pieces by fellow Kiwi Mike Hogan—in fact the release is under composer Hogan’s name, not Hill’s. Hogan has been composing pieces for guitar (solo and ensemble) for 15 years now and has had his works performed by many of the country’s top players.


The title of the album says much about the music, as Hogan’s pieces are full of tonal and textural contrasts—dissonant and melodic, spare and full, rhythmically steady and abrupt/jerky. Whereas a piece such as “Reprise 2009” has a lovely natural flow that gives it a certain pastoral gentility, “Study #5” is marked by short bursts of four- three-, two- and single-note combinations and off-kilter punctuation, all in a heavily reverberant field, where notes seem to decay endlessly until new ones take their place. There’s an effective scale descent late in the piece that ends at a spot where the pretty main melody fragment is developed further, if only briefly, and then it concludes on a more serious turn. Hogan’s album notes mention that “Buttress Point” was adapted from a piano study and uses only the top four strings of Christopher’s Simon Marty guitar; indeed it does have more resonant bass tones in its insistent rhythm; a certain dark mystery.

The centerpiece of the album is Hogan’s impressionist, four-part, 22-minute Matariki Suite (From Dark to Light) which was commissioned in 2004 by guitarist Matthew Marshall, and originally consisted of six parts, but was revised and completed in 2013. “Matariki” is a Maori name for the brightest star in the seven-star Pleiades constellation, which was mythologized by native mariners as a mother and her six daughters (it’s called “the seven sisters” in Western culture). Hogan explains that the suite “follows the transition from dark to light as the days lengthen,” and each part has a brief conceptual descriptor in the notes—for instance, the vibe of “Tapuanuku” (all four parts are named for Matariki’s “daughters”) is: “The stars rise, thoughts turn to the past year”; and with just a little imagination it’s easy to hear the first minute of the piece, single notes all, as stars appearing in a dark sky, one by one, before it falls into a lovely melody tinged with darkness and light. “Waita” returns to some of feeling of “Study No. 5,” with ringing, echoed combinations of notes, contrasting with consonant chordal work and, near the end, some harmonics. “Waipunarangi” is faster-paced, galloping at a good clip, and melodically more conventional than most of the other pieces on the disc, with its faint echoes of Spain and the Baroque. The final “Ururangi” mixes tempos effectively, moving from lovely rhythmic cascades, to a return to the spare beauty of the suite’s opening star-rise, to a final optimistic crescendo and then quiet ending.


All in all, it’s a fascinating disc that demands repeated listening to reveal its depth. I would have preferred a little less echo overall, though as noted it is often used to good advantage.

John Couch’s Ask Me Tomorrow couldn’t be more different, serving up a half-dozen contemporary pieces by New Zealanders and Australians—Couch, Campbell Ross, Sally Greenaway, and long-time resident emigrés Richard Charlton (born in the UK) and Marián Budoš (Czechoslovakia)—and three different configurations: Couch solo, Duo Downunder (Couch and violinist Judith Hickel), and the New Zealand Guitar Duo (Couch and Matthew Marshall, mentioned above). It’s a beautiful and varied album from start to finish, tilting heavily toward the melodic and accessible, which isn’t to suggest it’s in any way lacking in depth or passion.

The opening four-part suite, Campbell Ross’ Sonata 1, with Couch solo, is my favorite; indeed I’ve listened to it repeatedly ever since the disc arrived. Ross mentions in the album notes that he was inspired by Mexican composer Manuel Ponce (who wrote numerous pieces for Segovia in the 1920s and ’30s); indeed, the first section of Ross’s work, “Moderato con Movido,” has a catchy repeated figure that is somewhat similar to one in the third movement (“Fiesta”) of Ponce’s 1939 Sonatina meridional. Ross’s second movement, “Larghetto Sostenuto,” is subtitled “Homage to Franz Schubert” and has a highly lyrical but somewhat melancholic quality. And the following “Andante Solemne” continues the meditative mood, before giving way to the closing “Rondo Allegro,” which begins with bright chordal flourishes and contains echoes of the first movement, proceeds through insistent strums, and ends on pretty concluding passage and an “up” ending. It’s a wonderful piece, and at exactly 15 minutes on the recording, it’s easy to imagine it could be a popular concert piece if it got some exposure in the classical guitar community at large.


Marián Budoš Linn Linnaeus (named after the famous Swedish botanist) presents four movements corresponding to the four seasons, as a violin and guitar duet, with Couch and Judith Hickel as amazingly sympathetic players freely trading melodies and rhythms over the work’s variegated landscape. More often than not it feels as though the violin is driving the piece, with Couch offering a sort of rippling underscore, but then the roles switch, as at the end of the spring movement, where Couch carries the melody as Hickel plays a single high note for 30 seconds.

Couch’s “Ask Me Tomorrow” is the lone guitar duet (with Marshall), and a lovely piece it is, moving gracefully in and out of a joyful waltz tempo to more solemn spaces during it’s brief (2:43) duration. Then it’s back to solo guitar and more Budoš on the four-part The Magic Lute (A Minstrel’s Tale), which is perhaps the most challenging work on the entire disc in terms of the technical requirements of the guitar part. It is also the most “modern”-sounding. Richard Charlton’s “Night Rain in a Tropical Garden” is another powerfully impressionist guitar-violin duet, and the concluding Sally Greenaway pieces for Couch solo, “Sin Luz” and “De la Luz” contrast beautifully, moving from contemplation and sorrow in the former to a sort of quiet affirmation in the latter. A superb CD, beautifully recorded.

Lastly, while we’re tackling New Zealand guitar CDs, we should at least give a mention to the New Zealand Guitar Quartet’s late 2013 opus (not reviewed in CG) The Storm. This recording was made before Couch joined, as it features Cheryl Grice, rather than Couch, playing with Christopher Hill, Jane Curry, and Owen Moriarty. The disc features four well-known suites—all of which have been previously recorded many years ago by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet: Bizet’s Carmen Suite, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol (both arranged by the LAGQ’s Bill Kanengiser), Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (arr. by James Smith), and Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite (arr. by Moriarty). This is not a criticism; the NZGQ play all of them with precision, verve, and personality; they’re definitely not just copying the LAGQ, and it’s nice to have them all on one disc.

Two of the three shorter remaining tracks are by Wellington (NZ) composers: “The Storm” is Ka’isa Beech’s aural depiction of a storm at sea, from calm waters to a fierce (but never jarringly dissonant) maelstrom, and back; and Craig Utting wrote “Onslow College Suite (II),” which also features a striking build in its middle section. The third piece, “Sarajevo Nights,” by Alnmer Imamovic, was originally written for flute and guitar, but the composer re-tooled it for the NZGQ. It’s an exciting uptempo piece that really shows off the quartet’s skills to the fullest in a more contemporary context—say, isn’t that the riff from The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” popping up at various points in the tune? Nice choice!