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James Boyd (Guitar)
Shapes of Sleep

John DOWLAND (1563-1626) Fantasia (DP.72) [7:29]; Fantasia (DP.7) [4:08]; Flow My Tears (transcribed Boyd) [6:08]
Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) The Blue Guitar: Transforming [10:24]; Juggling [3:21]; Dreaming [9:12]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Nocturnal After John Dowland Op. 70 [21:26]
James Boyd (guitar)
rec. Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 31 October-2 November 2004.
No catalogue number given [62:11]


The adage that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ does not apply to the review recording. Without listening to even a note of music one is initiated into an environment, a harbinger of aural treats to follow. 

In the liner-notes guitarist James Boyd speaks with reverence of the landscape of East Anglia that ‘has informed everything that he has done’. Boyd states: ‘the world between the tides which belongs to no-one, is like the place of sleep. It is a place of withdrawal, of disturbing images, of solitude.’ 

The review recording entitled Shapes of Sleep centres thematically on music from the Elizabethan era and modern times that reflect aspects of the title. 

Beautiful muted photographs of seascapes and surging tide provide visual images of impressions conveyed by the poet Irene Noel-Baker who wrote: 

And when I see
The white sand-bone of beach
Its sinews solid beneath the grazing wind

That stirs the surface only ... 

From 1996 to 2000, James Boyd studied guitar at the Royal Academy of Music with Timothy Walker and Michael Lewin, and there won the Julian Bream prize. After forming a partnership with tenor Robin Tischler they shared a win in the Robert Spencer Memorial Award. Boyd also studied singing with counter-tenor Charles Brett.

I recall very few guitar recordings comprising such a complementary combination of components that shape, develop and dignify the musical performance. 

Already noted are the presentation and the liner-notes written by James Boyd; from these we learn much about the guitarist: his temperament, sensitivities and disposition. To understand history one must first know the historian. 

The recording was made in the Snape Maltings concert hall of which Boyd said: ‘walking on the stage and looking out into the empty hall, the whispers of its past, cradled in the golden warmth of timbers, create an atmosphere that is curiously uplifting and at the same time humbling.’ 

Another significant component is the instrument played. Much of what we hear from any guitar is directly attributable to the musician, viz a capable guitarist can make even an average instrument sound good.  However on this occasion the balance, power and tonal beauty of Boyd’s instrument are particularly memorable. The guitar used on this recording was made by Kazuo Sato Simon in 1989. It reflects attributes and characteristics of those earlier guitars made in England by David Rubio with whom Kazuo worked for a while. 

Boyd states: ‘I have never played an instrument as responsive as this - it comes alive as soon as it is touched. Having played it for over eight years I am still delighted with it.’ These sentiments are manifested in the beauty of sound, ebb and flow of the music and the dynamic range that Boyd produces on the recording. 

Though the key focus of this review, commentary on the guitar playing has been left until last because much of it transcends words. The overall sound reminds one immediately of that heard on recordings made by Julian Bream. It is lyrical, often serene and intimate yet powerful and embracing when required. The dynamic range achieved in Transforming [2] from The Blue Guitar by Tippett , is impressive and, as already noted, augmented by a very responsive instrument. 

Boyd’s experience with singers such as Robin Tritschler is evident in his approach to phrasing.  It was Julian Bream who indicated that accompanying tenor Peter Pears changed his whole approach to phrasing. 

James Boyd notes: ‘Dowland knew how to make the lute sing in a way that few modern composers have ever achieved when writing for the guitar.’ Intrinsic though this may be to the music it is incumbent on the musician to extract it in performance; this Boyd achieves admirably not only in the Dowland but all the music he presents. 

It may be more than coincidental that an all-English programme spanning several hundred years is so well interpreted and executed by one with a deep love and attachment to that fair land. Although there is much to suggest it but nothing in any available resource material to confirm, may we assume that James Boyd is playing music from his country of birth? 

A particularly fine recording, among those more recently released Shapes of Sleep is hard to beat in this area of repertory; until the next recording by James Boyd this status may be sustained. 

While the liner-notes make no reference to the instrument used, I thank James Boyd for his spontaneous and comprehensive response to my request for information. 

Zane Turner 




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