Sharon Isbin surrounded by the Pacifica Quartet (L to R): Mark Holloway, Austin Hartman, Simin Ganatra, Brandon Vamos
Some weeks we take a peek at recent albums or sheet music releases. Here are four CDs I like that have come into the Classical Guitar office within the past several months.
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Souvenirs of Spain and Italy Sharon Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet
Dance Jason Vieaux and the Escher Quartet
It’s quite a coincidence that two of Americas finest (and most popular) guitarists have recently put out albums on which each fronts a string quartet and the repertoire is dominated by the same two works: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet Op. 143 (for guitar and string quartet) and Luigi Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet No. 4 in D Major (“Fandango”); arguably the two most-played quintets in the repertoire. And why not? Both chamber works are extremely appealing; excellent showcases for the guitarists and the quartets. Isbin’s album was recorded in early 2019; Vieaux’s in 2015.
The four-movement Castelnuovo-Tedesco piece was written at the beginning of the 1950s for Andrés Segovia (for whom he had been writing occasional works since the the mid-1930s), and recorded by the Maestro in Siena, Italy, in 1955, for a 1956 Decca release called Andrés Segovia with the Strings of the Quintetto Chigiano. The work serves up a lovely mixture of styles, from Romantic-era melodic flights (Castelnuovo-Tedesco himself noted that it “has a simple, flowing, almost Schubertian lyricism” in places), along with some explicitly Spanish passages (especially in the exciting fourth movement), a gorgeous Andante mesto, and also, I would posit, occasional moments where the influence of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s years working as a composer for Hollywood films seeps into his writing.
Needless to say, both Vieaux (with the Indiana-based Escher Quartet) and Isbin (with New York’s Pacifica Quartet) are up to the challenge. I hesitate to compare them, because both are excellent and also fairly similar. But generally, I’d remark that the Vieaux/Escher sounds a tad warmer and more mellifluous; the Isbin/Pacifica has a little more bite and definition to the instruments, especially Isbin’s guitar, which never feels subsumed during the busier ensemble passages. (I went back and listened to Segovia’s mid-’50s mono recording and it sounds superb!)
The Guitar Quintet No. 4 in D Major, which closes both albums, is quite different, of course, reflecting the era in which it was written (end of the 18th century; Boccherini lived from 1743–1805), so it could be regarded as somewhat conservative musically, but what a fantastic piece it is, from beginning to end! I’ve always loved that it opens with a movement dubbed “Pastorale,” easing us into the piece with a courtly gentility. However, it is justly most famous for its final “Fandango” movement, which is full of Spanish character and motifs—not too surprising given that Boccherini lived in Spain for many years. I particularly like the whimsical cello-violin dialogue at the movement’s midpoint, and of course the added castanets, which always surprise me, for some reason. (I’m not sure about the tambourine on the Isbin, however). Again, both guitarists (and quartets) sound marvelous throughout.
So, that leaves the middle section of each disc to the programming whims of the guitarist and quartet. On the Isbin, she and Pacifica first dip back into the Baroque era with Vivaldi’s sublime Concerto in D major, RV 93 as arranged by Emilio Pujol (the Largo is as beautiful as it can be). That is followed by La oración del torero by Joaquín Turina (1882–1949), handled by the string quartet alone—interestingly, Turina originally wrote the piece in 1925 for lute quartet, before writing the string quartet version the following year. It’s a very dramatic piece of writing, with lots of interesting and vibrant interplay, forceful statements, and then a long, graceful concluding section that is heartbreaking (or ecstatic, depending on how you hear it).
On the Vieaux/Escher disc, the middle 15 minutes is occupied by a contemporary number by Aaron Jay Kernis called 100 Greatest Dance Hits. I first learned about this piece through an article we ran in the Spring 2019 issue of Classical Guitar called “The Guitar Quintet: From Obscurity to Celebrity,” by Dr. Kevin Gary, who described it as “a postmodern crazy-quilt of American music, a stylistic polemic not lacking in irony.” All true, but also not to my personal taste. It’s all over the map stylistically—with section titles such as “MOR Easy Listening Slow Dance Ballad” and “Dance Party on the Disco Motorboat,” that was to be expected—but the music doesn’t actually reflect the jokey titles that much, and I also don’t hear that much thematic development within the movements or overall. I first heard this through a YouTube video of David Tanenbaum and the Telegraph Quartet performing it, and I admit that watching them play it charmed me (particularly the percussive first movement). Hearing it on this disc, between the Castelnuovo-Tedesco and the Boccherini, it did not. I wonder if I would have liked it more if it had a different title. Probably not. There’s a better than even chance you will disagree with my assessment; it just feels a bit gimmicky to me.
Isbin: Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet, Op. 143 (Castelnuovo-Tedesco); Concerto in D Major, RV 93 (Vivaldi); La oración del torero (for string quartet; Turina); Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet in D Major, G448 (Boccherini)
Vieaux: Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet, Op. 143 (Castelnuovo-Tedesco), 100 Greatest Dance Hits: Introduction to the Dance Party, Salsa Pasada, MOR Easy Listening Slow Dance Ballad, Dance Party on the Disco Motorboat (Kernis) Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet in D Major, G448 (Boccherini)
Signature/Still Life Les Frères Méduses
(Les Productions d’Oz)
Lest you believe that I really just don’t like modern guitar music, here’s an all-contemporary program I endorse wholeheartedly. I was thoroughly engrossed and entertained when I saw the French-American duo Les Frères Méduses (Benoît Albert and Randall Avers) perform three of the four pieces that make up Disc One of this two-CD set at the GFA convention in Miami this past June (2019). And repeated listenings have impressed me even more. As I noted in my review of that GFA performance, Avers’ piece Rhapsodie “Mekanisk,” which opens CD1 (Signature), has echoes of Paolo Bellinati’s Jongo for me, though, true to the personalities of these two guitarists, things get a little more abstract here than they do in Jongo. Right out of the gate, the chemistry between the two guitarists is palpable, as they trade melodic bits, finish each other’s thoughts, so to speak, and effortlessly entwine their parts over an ever-changing landscape. Albert’s more than 15-minute Trois Caprices also shows their marvelously intuitive communication, as they pass rhythmic ideas back and forth, explore contrasting rhythms, occasionally off-kilter melodies, and unusual harmonies. There is a fair amount of dissonance, yet sometimes it is played against more conventional melodic ideas to very interesting effect. The unpredictability of it all is part of what makes it so exciting. And listening on headphones (or ear buds) is quite an adventure! (That’s Albert in the left channel, Avers in the right; Albert engineered the superb recording). Bulgarian composer/guitarist Atanas Ourkouzounov wrote the five-part Broken Grooves for the Frères, and if you are familiar with that composer’s oeuvre, you will not be surprised to learn that the piece is laced with Balkan musical ideas, shifting meters, clashing harmonies, but also spare and beautiful passages that sound unmistakably Middle Eastern. It’s a rich and diverse piece. The Signature disc concludes with another piece dedicated to the Frères, American composer/guitarist Joseph V. Williams II’s two-part Memoria, which opens with a gorgeous “Prelude” bookended by glistening strums, then offers a longer “Fantasy” that is more insistently rhythmic, sometimes playful, sometimes dark, until the interesting, moody close. Another fine work that sounds like it would be fun to play.
CD2, Still Life, consists of 17 improvisations (totaling a bit over an hour) by Albert and Avers, and again I found it completely compelling. Now, I should state that I am predisposed to like this sort of thing: As a fan of the Grateful Dead rock band for 50 years, I have spent you-don’t-want-to-know-how-many hours listening to the free-form duo improvisations by (electric) guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir that constituted about ten minutes of just about every Dead concert—a segment known colloquially as “Space.” It could be noisy, atonal, beyond-bizarre, or it could be melodic, minimalist, or veer into intricate duets that touched on all sorts of styles and ideas. Well, what Avers and Albert do with their “Free Improvisations” (I’ve always liked the term “spontaneous composition” instead) is not that dissimilar, though without the electronic legerdemain that is so much a part of the Dead’s world. But in both cases, you can hear the players truly listening to each other, leading and following by instinct more than design, allowing each other the latitude to develop ideas and also to take charge in an instant when it feels required. In their improvs, the Frères get to use their extraordinarily rich musical vocabulary (full of harmonics, pull-offs, quick accelerations, and rhythmic invention) in pursuit of unknown destinations which always prove to be fascinating places to go, whether the music is flowing, jazz-influenced, spacious and spare, or somewhat (or very) disjointed. The “pieces” range in length from 1:11 to 6:29 and it’s amazing how coherent and self-contained they are. Take a chance on this one!
The first time I popped this excellent album by Belgium’s Edenwood Duo (guitarist Catherine Struys and cellist Wouter Vercruysse) into my CD player, I momentarily wondered of I’d put the wrong disc in: the first track, “Empty, with stillness” from Nathan Kolosko’s Luminance suite, almost sounded like it was being played on piano and shakuhachi flute! But no, the warm round tones were from a guitar and the long, haunting, harmonic squeals were from the cello. But it announced that this was going to be a different sort of guitar-cello duo than I’ve been used to. Indeed, in the other four movements of Luminance, one features the cello plucked like a jazz stand-up bass while the guitar plays bent and slurred notes; another where brisk cello-bowing sounds like a hive of bees, while the guitar plays a lilting pianistic melody; and one where Struys plays slide guitar against plucked cello. (You can watch them play it below.)
Another Place is an album full of mysterious delights and surprises. The composer I am most familiar with here, Mathias Duplessy (whom I know through his multiple collaborations with French guitarist Jèrèmy Jouve) has a wonderful recent piece called Presto, which builds to a couple of powerful moments (low cello line vs. high guitar part, and vice-versa) during its circuitous journey. Two Estonian composers are represented—Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Spiel is a long, complex, modern work touching on several different moods and textures, whereas Cantus by Ester Mägi (still with us at age 97!) is more conventional, and uses the two instruments in a more traditional way. Belgian Michel Lysights’ Meditation is a pleasing neo-Romantic excursion, and Italian composer/guitarist Raffaele Bellafronte’s Suite No. 1 is another multi-style workout for the duo (perhaps you’ve heard the Dmitri Illarionov-Boris Andrianov interpretation on disc or YouTube), which they handle beautifully. And the concluding Soledad by Armand Coeck (written for the duo) is a haunting and moving work that lives up to its title (“Loneliness” in Spanish). A varied, affecting album!
Luminance: 1. Empty, with stillness, 2. With anticipation, 3. With longing and sorrow, 4. Sly, cunning, 5. Stoic, powerful (Kolosko); Presto (Duplessy); Spiel (Tüür); Meditation (Lysight); Cantus (Mägi); Suite No. 1: Preludio, Histèrico, Romantico, Tango (Bellafronte); Soledad (Coeck)