From the Winter 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY OLLIE MCGHEE
Picture a historic church set in the Midlothian countryside south of Edinburgh, Scotland, 500 years ago. Its hard stone walls hear the daily rituals of Mass and prayer as well as providing protection from warring Scottish families. The site on which Crichton Collegiate Church now stands has borne witness to the Reformation and to conspiracies against James III of Scotland—but more recently hosted classical guitarist Sean Shibe’s debut album recording.
Released on Delphian Records and produced by the label’s founder, Paul Baxter, Shibe’s Dreams & Fancies: English Music for Solo Guitar was recorded over two sessions during the winter of 2015–16. “It was cold,” the guitarist says, “but not as cold as you’d expect. It was a beautiful church—atmospheric with a resonant acoustic.”
I meet Sean Shibe before his Newbury Spring Festival Lunchtime recital, which includes a program of three short works by John Dowland, J. S. Bach’s Lute Suite No.4 in E, and three of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Preludes. He’s dressed in a dapper dark suit with a red peaked handkerchief just visible in the front lapel pocket. He has a striped tie sporting the full Windsor knot, and bright orange socks. His style is definitively smart-casual. He speaks with a soft, considered eloquence that belies his youth.
Shibe’s debut album is an intriguing one. It has been compiled by a Scottish artist on a Scottish label (even the album photography is based in Edinburgh), and recorded in the aforementioned Scottish church, but the program features an all-English lineup of composers, as the title of the record confirms. So many debut classical guitar albums feature Spanish-based repertoire; not this one.
“I see so many people who have [so many] Spanish albums thrown at them that they become saturated by them, and eventually become bored of them,” Shibe explains. “I do think English repertoire has much to say and a lot of it is first-rate. The all-English CD is a substantial route into debut classical guitar recordings, albeit something many artists might do for their second or third album. It’s underexplored as an initial album concept.”
The album begins with William Walton’s Five Bagatelles. This is a work Shibe has long been acquainted with, since first studying it at the age of 14; eventually it became a focus for his studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The Bagatelles come across as well-planned, but with a natural fluid mastery of the whole work, so the listener is as much at ease with the slower second bagatelle as the tempestuous fifth.
Next up is Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina for Guitar, Op. 52/1. “To me this piece and Walton’s Bagatelles are some of the most tender writing ever put to page,” Shibe says. The album concludes with Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for Guitar, Op.107 and Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op. 70.
“Britten’s Nocturnal is an incredible piece,” the guitarist comments. “Even though it stands out as being more alien than the others, it’s generally accessible to music lovers, especially those who consider themselves serious listeners.”
While this is indeed Shibe’s first solo album, he has worked on other recordings. Before Sir Peter Maxwell Davies passed away in March last year, Shibe did some solo recordings of a few of the great British
composer’s works—including Farewell to Stromness (arranged by Timothy Walker)—on a disc for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Linn Records. “I saw Sir Peter just before he died,” Shibe says. “His face seemed more gaunt than normal, and he didn’t seem well. It was a very sad loss for the musical world.” That album eventually climbed to Number 3 on the classical charts. Shibe also contributed to the disc included with BBC Music Magazine’s “Classical Guitar Special” in February of 2016.
Born and raised in Scotland, Shibe, whose mother is Japanese and whose father is from England, splits his time between Edinburgh and London. At just 25 years old he’s already accomplished more than many aspiring guitarists even dream of. He was the first guitarist to be selected for the BBC3 Radio 3 New Generation Artist Scheme; the only solo guitarist to be awarded the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship; the recipient of the Royal Over-Seas League first prize and gold medal (2011). He’s played at such world-famous venues as Wigmore Hall in London and the Heidelberger-Frühling in southwest Germany. He’s played Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and along the way picked up endorsements from D’Addario and from Dewar Arts, and gained support from the Hattori Trust.
“I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had,” Shibe comments. “In my experience, classical music seems to have become the refuge of the upper-middle class—particularly for those who can afford the incubation period after obtaining their bachelor’s degree, if they want to become a performer. It’s the same for those that do drama. If I wasn’t born in Scotland and had access to the State school structure it gave me and had free education at a specialist music boarding school, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’ve been very fortunate and had a lot of help.”
Shibe’s next project is an unusual show called “softLOUD.” It’s a juxtaposition of neglected Scottish music from the Renaissance (including lute manuscripts brought to light through the scholarship of guitarist-composer Rob MacKillop) played on Shibe’s Bert Kwakkel Merula Special guitar, along with high-volume electric guitar music played on a Mexican Fender Stratocaster. The louder repertoire includes Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Julia Wolfe’s Lad, written for nine bagpipes—a piece Shibe calls “an elegy,” commenting, “There’s an element of celebration about it, but fundamentally it’s mournful.”
For Shibe, softLOUD is about creating something that represents the emotions of his generation today—frustration, anger and disenfranchisement. “It’s not without reference to the rise of the new right—Trump and Brexit,” he says. “It’s worth mentioning the show doesn’t have a political opinion. Just as Scotland is a nation that each year questions its identity, I wanted to create something that’s more pressing, more urgent. Something that speaks about now in a more pointed way than, say, a Bach suite does; something universally relevant, diffusing its meaning over time. ‘Soft’ represents the beautiful qualities we’ve forgotten about—being humble, but with a gravity and profundity. I feel this is a show that represents now in a more pin-pointed way.”
In another way, the show is also about allowing fans, from those who have an interest in early Renaissance music to those who are interested in the more experimental electric guitar work, to listen to each other. As of this writing, softLOUD is set to premiere at the East Neuk Festival in Scotland at the end of June 2017, with a later broadcast on Radio 3, and then returns to play at the Edinburgh Festival in August.
Another intriguing event this summer is Shibe’s collaboration with the Southrepps ensemble for the Southrepps Classical Music Festival in Norfolk, England. Together, they have conceived of a Spanish Civil War–inspired program, including music by Antonio Jose, Boccherini’s Fandango Quintet, and the reworking of a piece by Catalan musician Roberto Gerhard. Originally, solo guitar was intended to be interspersed throughout a reading of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, but that has now been arranged for guitar and quartet by millennial composer Bruno Dozzer. “It’s a beautiful, well-rounded program,” Shibe says, “but a hard one to play.”
Upcoming engagements include premiering a guitar concerto called Pilgrims by Scottish composer Michael Murray, with the Scottish Ensemble at Sir James Macmillan’s Cumnock Tryst Festival at the end of September, and a series of concerts in Japan in early 2018. “If we don’t commission new works, our instrument will fall behind,” Shibe notes earnestly. “So it’s less a matter of commissioning being this thing that is a new way forward; in fact it’s the bare minimum we have to do.”