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String Quartets Vol 1



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Sérgio ASSAD (b.1952)
Wednesdays at Sugar (2011) [9:23]
Fernando SOR (1778-1839)
Gran Solo, Op.14 (arr. Sérgio Assad) (1822) [8:59]
Terry RILEY (b.1935)
Y Bolanzero (2001) [12:36]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No.6, BWV 1051 (arr. Philippe Paviot) (1721) [15:03]
Belinda REYNOLDS (b.1967)
Begin (2009) [7:28]
Peppino D’AGOSTINO (b.1956)
Jump Rope (arr. P.D’Agostino and D.Tanenbaum) (2010) [3:33]
Pacific Guitar Ensemble (Michael Bautista, Peppino D’Agostino, Lawrence Ferrara, Antoniy Kakamakov, Jon Mendle, Paul Psarras, David Tanenbaum, Marc Teicholz), with special guests on Wednesday at Sugar (Sérgio Assad, John Britton, Adam Cockerham)
rec. San Francisco Conservatory (8 Mar 2012 (Assad); 5 June, 7 June 2012 (Riley); 30 June 2010 (Reynolds); Studio SQ, San Francisco (5 May 2012 (Sor and D’Agostino); 5 June 2012 (Bach)).

The Pacific Guitar Ensemble was formed in 2010 by the chairman of the guitar faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory, David Tanenbaum together with Peppino D'Agostino. It comprises eight members, including the two founders. I do not remember hearing a guitar ensemble of this size before. These are not just classical guitars playing together but a variety of sorts including steel string, electric, baroque, oud, bass, theorbo and, in one piece, a sazouki - a recently created hybrid of saz and bouzouki. This helps to overcome the possible timbre limitation of the ensemble, making the sound diverse and engaging. 

The opening piece, multi-cultural in its character and cinematic in its development, is called Wednesdays at Sugar. According to the liner-note, the idea was born in a bar (called Sugar) where the SF Conservatory folks talk and argue and then decide where to go to dinner, each time choosing a different national kitchen. The music is caught somewhere between Chick Corea and Paco de Lucia, urgent and witty, with strong motifs and skilful instrumentation. Colourful episodes of different character alternate - some of them openly oriental, some rumba-style, others song-like. This is an attractive and memorable piece, overflowing with energy.
Sor’s Gran Solo here ceases to be a solo. The ingenious and rich arrangement adds depth and colour, yet it sounds natural, as if Sor originally wrote the music with such an ensemble in mind. A stately introduction leads into a lively fandango-style main body. The music is very Spanish and is heard here with excellent drive. Even the densest parts sound very clean and have a wonderful swing.
Terry Riley’s Y Bolanzero comes from The Book of Abbeyozzud, a set of pieces for various guitar combinations, which are, according to the composer, “indebted to the great Spanish music traditions and to those traditions upon which Spanish music owes its heritage”. The music is populated across a vast expanse with small elements, rhythmic, melodic and harmonic, each one of them Spanish through and through. This is not “postcard” music - after all, Riley is one of the fathers of the musical Minimalism - but Iberian blood certainly courses through its veins are arteries. This is music of dark shadows and flickering flames, of daggers hidden in folds of cloaks. There are minimalistic traits, but far removed from “elementary” minimalism. The development is freely variational over several short motifs.
The Sixth Brandenburg Concerto is a good candidate for a transcription for guitars, as its original soloists are two violas, whose pitch range is similar to the guitar. The first movement is sea-like. Its main element is the harmony, not the melody, and, being placed immediately after Riley, it sounds surprisingly proto-minimalist. The performance flies forward with good momentum - light and dancing. The second movement is a slow, sweet aria. In the original version the violas sing their way through these long, long notes, and the music sounds very different on plucking instruments. The texture is well filled, so even though we hear a sort of musical counterpart to a classical painting which was redrawn in pointillism, this effect is not disturbing, and is even stimulating. The finale is a happy bouncy dance, combining the gallant with the simple. The characteristic Bachian swing is well conveyed by the performers. The faster rhythm with shorter notes and chorded accompaniment fit the guitars perfectly. This is enthusiastic and bright music-making. 

was written by Belinda Reynolds in memory of her friend composer Jorge Liderman. According to Reynolds, in this work she ousted the “polished shine” which she says is more characteristic of her manner, in favour of Liderman’s more “rugged” style. The work’s title reflects the structure of the music, where each section, although harmonically related to the rest, sounds like a new beginning. I hear desolation, loss and loneliness. The music is based first and foremost on harmony, with a nervous rhythmic pulse. Like many good minimalistic works it captivates, if you allow yourself to be submerged.
The disc concludes with a short work entitled Jump Rope. According to its composer Peppino d’Agostino, it “features a persistent off beat that sounds like the high point of a jump rope”. This is an evocative and effective piece. The music has certain dark insistency and is not by any means unremittingly cheerful. That said, the feeling of freedom and the delight of the flight make for really thrilling listening.
Overall, this album is an interesting mix of old and new. It holds together rather well. The arrangements are clever and resourceful, and the performances are inspired. The only possible caveat arises if you have never heard a guitar ensemble before. You should be prepared for a more acidic sound than an unprepared listener would expect; better to listen to online samples before buying. If you enjoy that slightly metallic taste, the album can be recommended without reservation. If the acoustics were deeper there would be a more alluring ambience to the halo-rich guitar sound, but the recording is good enough as it is - both clear and spacious. The liner-notes by David Tanenbaum give a short introduction to the ensemble and recount the history of each work.
Oleg Ledeniov