Musica da Camera
Vladislav USPENSKY (1937-2004)
Musical Sketches on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, for guitar and chamber ensemble (world premiere) (1990) [17:39]
Niccolo PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Sonata Concertata for guitar and violin, Op.61 (1803) [12:13]
Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
Histoire du Tango for guitar and violin (1986) [20:25]
Lily Afshar (guitar)
Timothy Shiu (violin: Uspensky, Paganini), Joy Wiener (violin: Piazzolla)
Daniel Gilbert (violin), Anthony Gilbert (viola), Leonardo Altino (cello), John Chiego (bass), James Gholson (clarinet), Frank Shaffer (percussion ) (all – Uspensky)
Recording dates and venues not provided.
ARCHER RECORDS ARR-31957 [50:17]

Lily Afshar was born in Iran, studied in the USA and became the first woman in the world to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Music in guitar performance. In her recordings she always seeks out new territories and favours world premieres over well-known standards. This is her sixth CD. It opens with a world premiere recording of Vladislav Uspensky’s ‘Musical Sketches on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin’– the same poem (actually a novel in verse) that was the source of Tchaikovsky’s opera. This is an interesting work, well performed and really memorable. The guitar permeates the entire musical canvas, with other instruments providing various colouring.

There are four portraits of the main characters. Tatiana is shown as deeply romantic, all yearning, all impulse, all impatient passion. Her sister Olga is her opposite and is quite content with her life. Her music depicts a kind of boring bourgeois happiness, with lengthy yawns and the drinking tea from a saucer, while flies circle a dim lampshade. Onegin is also bored, but his ennui has elegance and wit. This is a young man who observes and criticizes the world, trying to fill his day with entertainment and not really attached to anything (just like our new over-entitled generation). The music for his friend Lensky is melancholic and plaintive, with feline intonations. Lensky, in this portrait, is indecisive and languid, a bit feminine. And around these four characters, the public is dancing. Dance was the main social activity in the early years of the 19th century, and so, as in Tchaikovsky’s opera, dances are the staples that hold the score together. The style is not far from Prokofiev’s waltzes, especially that in War and Peace or the great Cinderella waltz. The crowds seem to be happy – why then does this music leave such a sad impression? It reminds me of the Soviet film scores of the Eighties, with weary smartness behind the smiling mask. Overall, this is attractive music, even though it does not stand up well to repeated listening.

The guitar and the violin are equal partners in Paganini’s Sonata Concertata. The first movement has a Schubertian grace and bounce. The nocturnal slow movement sets a sombre tone, which is forgotten in the happy dance of the final rondo. The performance is solid and expressive, the playing is confident, but the result at times feels a bit messy, especially in the first movement where I think a lighter presentation would be better. I especially liked the mysterious tone created by the guitar in the slow movement, and the finale has good drive. The dialogue is well balanced, in terms both of performance and recording. The violin sounds clean and jovial. The guitar has a good sonorous voice; the recording captures well its resonant sound.

Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango seems, these days, to be played these in all possible combinations of instruments except for its original one (which was flute and guitar). Here, Lily Afshar is joined by Joy Wiener on violin, and I can’t say I really enjoyed his contribution. The voice of the violin is wiry and often unstable. Maybe it is the fault of the recording made during a live performance (though I don’t hear a big difference in the guitar sound). The hand of Timothy Shiu in Paganini may have been too steady, but Joy Wiener seems to glide across the surface on thin skate blades, and instead of creating a feeling of lightness creates a feeling of unsteadiness, like falsetto singing. It does not happen all the time, but it does at times. Sometimes this creates an enthralling sensation of fragility, like the sound of a glass harmonica, but mostly it is irritating. The music is as lovely as Piazzolla can be - from the carefree, bustling Bordello, through the dreamy, smoky Café and the rainy, troubled Nightclub to the sharp, angular Concert d’aujourd’hui. I would not recommend this as the best way to make a first acquaintance with this work. Everybody these days does Piazzolla, so you can find a better version elsewhere, though I must say that the guitar’s role is played perfectly here.

Overall, this disc is a great showcase for the artistry of Lily Afshar; Uspensky’s work may be minor but is memorable; and the Paganini is very fine. On repetitive listening this album can be a tiring experience, though.

Oleg Ledeniov

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