June 11, 2020


Chris Brubeck: Affinity—Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra; Leo Brouwer: El Decameron Negro; Antonio Lauro: Waltz No. 3, “Natalia”; Tan Dun: Seven Desires for Guitar; Richard Danielpour: Of Love and Longing. Sharon Isbin, guitar; Maryland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Elizabeth Schulze; Colin Davin, second guitar; Isabel Leonard, voice. ZOHO. $16.99.

Strings for Peace—Music for Guitar and Sarod. Sharon Isbin, guitar; Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Bangash, and Ayaan Ali Bangash, sarods; Amit Kavthekar, tabla. ZOHO. $16.99.

Bach: Partita No. 4, BWV 828; Six Little Preludes, BWV 933-938; Adagio in G, BWV 968; Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1016—Adagio Ma Non Tanto. Marija Ilić, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Outstanding guitar playing, coupled with a strong personal commitment to new music and music outside the Western tradition, is the hallmark of guitarist Sharon Isbin – and is very clearly on display on two new CDs on the ZOHO label. The question for listeners will be how intriguing they find the musical material from their own perspective rather than Isbin’s: the works on these discs explore her preoccupations but may not reflect those of a wider audience. Indeed, the works are specifically designed as what could be called “Isbinisms,” all having been composed or arranged for this specific performer. Chris Brubeck’s Affinity, for example, is a single-movement 16-minute work that is a “concerto” in the sense of using solo guitar with orchestra but that is really more of a showcase for Isbin’s (and Brubeck’s) interest in multiple forms and styles of music. It is also, in part, a tribute to Chris Brubeck’s late father, Dave, one of whose melodies inspired part of Affinity. This kind of intensely personal involvement of composer with performer and of both with biographical material is characteristic of the works on both the new Isbin CDs. Leo Brouwer’s El Decameron Negro, to cite another example, was written specifically for Isbin after she won a major guitar competition; and Brouwer, himself an excellent guitarist, uses the work to pay tribute to his and Isbin’s instrument while giving her plenty of chances to showcase her own virtuosity. For both these works, the question for non-guitarists and people who are not members of Isbin’s inner circle is whether the pieces communicate effectively as pure music – as experiences that an audience can have without needing to read about the works’ provenance and the interrelationship of performers, composers, and biography. On this basis, Brubeck’s Affinity comes across well: it is very clearly jazz-influenced and jazz-inflected, and showcases not only the capabilities of acoustic-guitar virtuosity but also the instrument’s expressive potential. The work is not particularly cohesive, being more a series of sections than a piece with an overarching structure, but it sounds good and shows strength in composing both for the soloist and for the ensemble. Brouwer’s piece for solo guitar, which is in three movements intended to illustrate specific scenes, also works nicely, with well-crafted explorations of the instrument – even though the moods being portrayed are not entirely evident if the audience has not learned about them beforehand.

     The three remaining works on this CD are also enjoyable, but more so for those who know whence they come and how, specifically, they connect with Isbin and her interests. Antonio Lauro’s Waltz No. 3, “Natalia,” is dedicated to the composer’s daughter, and Isbin played it in Venezuela – with the dedicatee accompanying her on the lute-like cuatro. This disc features a two-guitar arrangement by Colin Davin, who performs the work with Isbin. This is nothing like a Viennese waltz, but has a lilt all its own and some nice inter-guitar work. Tan Dun’s Seven Desires for Guitar is a solo piece for Isbin, drawn from the composer’s guitar concerto – also for Isbin. This is one of those multicultural, intercultural works in which one instrument (e.g., guitar) imitates and pays homage to another (e.g, pipa, a Chinese flute). It is well-played (as are all the pieces here) but somewhat overstays its welcome after making its basic point. The CD concludes with a song cycle by Richard Danielpour, written for the performers who offer it here. Again, multicultural/intercultural expression is basic here, the words being translated into English from 13th-century Persian poetry by Rumi. The words themselves are more expressive and sensual than the music to which Danielpour sets them, and the vocal writing, which is rather self-consciously contemporary, is somewhat at odds with the romantic nature of much of the material. The result is a piece that is impressive on an intellectual level without being particularly moving on an emotional one. But this work, along with the others on the CD, is certainly reflective of Isbin’s talent and interests, and will bring considerable enjoyment to her fans and fellow guitar players.

     The CD called Strings for Peace is more specialized and considerably more rarefied. It features Isbin playing music based on North Indian ragas and talas, with the guitar being part of an ensemble whose primary focus is the sarod, a lute-like but fretless instrument whose primary characteristic (at least to Western ears) will be the near-constant use of glissandi by those who play it. Those sounds are underlined and punctuated by the dual-drum instrument, tabla. The shortest of the four works on the disc, called Love Avalanche, is the most effective, largely because it establishes a sound world unfamiliar to Western ears, works with and within it, and then ceases, giving listeners a chance to contemplate and absorb what they have heard. That works at a four-minute duration. It works less well at 13½ minutes (By the Moon) or at 16½ (both Romancing Earth and Sacred Evening). Each piece is based on different material and designed to serve a different purpose; and scholars of North Indian music will surely be interested in the way the underlying ragas are used here. Listeners already familiar with this type of music will enjoy the CD, and Isbin’s fans will no doubt welcome hearing her in a thoroughly non-Western context. But as the title of the disc indicates, this is something of a “cause” release, and as such is designed to communicate a nonmusical (or meta-musical) attitude and approach. It comes across as a kind of “preaching to the congregation” musical collation intended to make points – at some length – about multiculturalism and the equivalence and equal value of all traditions; and so on. The music does not really carry this sort of weight very well: the differing sound of the more-or-less-similarly-shaped stringed instruments is interesting enough, but beyond the sound for its own sake, little of the sociopolitical gloss of the CD’s title comes through; and it is arguable just how much such freight it is reasonable to expect this music to carry. This is basically a disc for people strongly committed to and intrigued by the music of India – especially ones who share the concerns and extramusical worldview that Isbin wishes to promote.

     One need not compare Western instruments with Eastern ones to find examples of more-or-less-similar shape accompanied by substantial differences in sound. One need simply consider the harpsichord and clavichord of Bach’s time and contrast them with the later fortepiano – and then contrast that with the modern concert grand. The sonic disparities among these keyboard instruments are so vast that they have produced unending discussions (and arguments) about the “right” way to perform the works of Bach and other Baroque composers. Maria Ilić plays both harpsichord and piano, which makes her new MSR Classics CD of Bach all the more interesting for the extent to which it comes down on the “piano” side of this discussion. This is nowhere clearer than in Ilić’s own arrangement of the Adagio Ma Non Tanto from the third violin sonata: everything here is warmth and expressiveness, with plenty of pedal and thorough use of the piano’s sustaining ability and the way it allows notes to blend with and carry over into each other. This is a lovely approach for, say, Chopin, but it is about as far from historically informed Bach performance as it is possible to get. Ilić is clearly interested here not in authenticity but in bringing forth elements that she believes are inherent in the music and cannot be fully elucidated with the instruments for which it was written. This is an arguable proposition at best – it assumes Bach somehow yearned for nonexistent instruments even while composing brilliantly and completely idiomatically for the ones of his own time – but certainly Ilić’s playing has a pleasant immediacy about it that many listeners will find attractive. Indeed, pleasantry is the order of the day throughout this disc. The Six Little Preludes are nicely contrasted both in key and in mood, and another single movement – Adagio in G, BWV 968, adapted from the solo-violin sonata in C, BWV 1005 – is both dramatic and expressive as Ilić plays it, again utilizing the resources of a modern piano to underline the work’s emotions in a near-Romantic manner. The little preludes and two single movements stand as appetizers of a sort before the most-substantial work on the CD, Partita No. 4, BWV 828, played in a genuinely polarizing fashion: Bach seems like something of a distant memory here, providing the basic canvas on which Ilić paints a highly variegated and emotionally wide-ranging work of multiple moods – with special attention to the inward-looking ones. The longest of the seven movements, Allemande, is here a kind of mini-fantasia with some of the sensibilities of Schumann, meditative and steeped in emotionalism. The fifth movement, Sarabande, is another focal point, warm and intimate and deeply felt. The lighter movements are fine but are less of Ilić’s focus; and by the time of the double fugue in the concluding Gigue, listeners may largely have forgotten that this is a suite of Baroque dance forms, not a multifaceted deployment of Romantic sensibilities. Ilić plays skillfully throughout and makes a strong case for her approach to all the material here; certainly she is effective in using the piano’s resources to bring out the elements of Bach’s music that she wants to highlight. Whether they are the ones that Bach wanted to highlight is another matter. This is not a disc for historical-performance purists: it is for listeners who find Bach all the more enjoyable when his works are heard on a modern instrument from what is largely a Romantic or post-Romantic perspective.

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