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A Tribute To The Mighty Handful
César CUI (1835-1918)
Cherkess dances (1858, rev. 1882 and 1885) (arr. Oleg Timofeyev) [5:53]
Cossack dances (1909) (arr. Timofeyev) [5:24]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
"Potpourri from Boris Godunov" (arr. Timofeyev) [13:25]
Mily BALAKIREV (1836-1910)
Mazurka no.3 (1886) (arr. Viktor Sobolenko) [4:54]
Polka (1859) (arr. Timofeyev) [3:17]
Alexander BORODIN 1833-1887)
Polovtsian dances (1887) (arr. Timofeyev) [14:02]
Mily BALAKIREV (1836-1910)
 "Balakireviana" (?) (arr. Alexei Stepanov) [7:24]
Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
"Scheherazade in Spain" (arr. Sobolenko) [10:12]
Russian Guitar Quartet
rec. St Bridget's Church, Johnson County, Iowa, 4-10 November 2014
DELOS DE3518 [64:38]

Let's start off by addressing the issue of the name. Never having spoken to the members of the Russian Guitar Quartet – nor actually having heard their name spoken by anyone else - I'm hazarding a guess here. But, having carefully read the booklet notes and other information gleaned elsewhere, I feel reasonably confident in assuming that the artists here are not, as you might have assumed, the Russian Guitar Quartet, in the same way that you might have a body called, say, the German Guitar Quartet. No, my money goes on them being the Russian Guitar Quartet.

The Russian guitar is a seven stringed acoustic instrument that dates back, it's thought, to the later 18th century. By the mid-19th century its popularity had waned but around about the year 1900 there was a short-lived revival with a fad for quartets composed of differently sized instruments. With this CD, according to its useful booklet notes, the Russian Guitar Quartet is aiming to revive that brief historical episode. Because none of the musical arrangements made for those early-20th century ensembles have survived, the Quartet has either made their own or commissioned others to do so, focusing on this occasion on music by the so-called Mighty Handful.

In that particular area Quartet member Oleg Timofeyev seems to have played a major role, responsible for rearranging the pieces by Cui, Mussorgsky and Borodin, as well as one of those by Balakirev, that feature on this new CD. Those readers with a special interest in this repertoire may be aware of his earlier work in the recording studio, notably playing on a couple of very well-received releases on the Dorian label: 1999's The golden age of the Russian guitar (DOR 93170) and the following year's The golden age of the Russian guitar, vol. 2 (DOR 93203).

This new disc begins with the least known of the five Mighty Handful composers. Cui is a figure who's regularly quoted in booklet notes written about the other four, but we hardly ever have an opportunity to hear his own compositions. The two we are offered here both reflect, as do so many of the Mighty Handful's works, the Russian folk music tradition. Neither turns out to be especially memorable - and, as such, they don't make the strongest of opening impressions for the disc - but it's good to have Cui represented along with his fellows all the same.

The subsequent Mussorgsky pot pourri is billed simply as "arr. Timofeyev", but the latter's own booklet notes explain that there was, in fact, another figure in the compositional sequence - a little-remembered 19th century Russian musician Andrey Evgeniev who made an arrangement of themes from Boris Godunov for amateur pianists. Timofeyev's version uses that as its basis but adds extra material to create a more dramatically satisfying musical impact and, because the themes from Boris are relatively familiar, it's easier to appreciate the arranger's skill here than in some of the less well known music in this collection.

Balakirev, the Handful's central figure, has three tracks devoted to his rearranged music. Two are short but effective piano pieces. The third is a portmanteau tribute based on four Russian folk songs that had been originally included in the composer's published collections and have been arranged here by Quartet member Alexei Stepanov as a mini-suite entitled Balakireviana. Once again, as in the case of the two Cui tracks, it's not easy to judge them as arrangements for guitar quartet when the original pieces themselves are relatively unfamiliar. Nonetheless, as we know from some of his better-known works - the first symphony and Islamey come to mind - Balakirev could certainly write a good tune and these tracks too are generally enjoyable.

Borodin's well known Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor need no introduction. Those jollifications of the fearsome steppe warriors and their molls make up the CD's longest single track and the whole thing emerges as an enjoyable romp that's well suited to arrangement for Russian guitars. Once again, the familiarity of the original music makes it easier for a general listener to appreciate Mr Timofeyev's skill as an arranger and I thought this the most successful single track on the disc. Not too far behind the Borodin in length is music by Rimsky-Kosakov, arranged by Viktor Sobolenko as Scheherazade in Spain. As the name suggests, that turns out to be an entertaining mélange of themes from two very well known works - Scheherazade itself and Capriccio Espagnol. A couple of the gear changes between the various episodes are, admittedly, a little awkward but the use of guitars - even seven-stringed Russian ones - certainly brings out the music's "Spanish" elements. Mr Timofeyev's notes describe Scheherazade in Spain as a "witty post-modern paraphrase"; I just found it a lot of fun.

Mentioning fun, it certainly sounds as if the Russian Guitar Quartet members are having plenty of it too, even if they choose to adopt a somewhat stony-faced appearance in the cover photograph. They are a relatively new ensemble, founded just a decade ago at the inaugural International Annual Russian Guitar Seminar Seminar and Festival in Iowa, USA. As such the Quartet is a self-consciously pioneering group, aiming not just to rearrange existing compositions but also to commission new ones. Messrs Timofeyev and Stepanov, along with their colleagues Vladimir Sumin and Dan Caraway, are clearly not only enthusiasts but perceptive interpreters of their chosen repertoire and highly skilled technicians too.

With everything here is played with style and commitment, the disc offers both an enlightening and entertaining introduction to the Russian Guitar and just over an hour of enjoyable listening. While those with a special interest in the guitar will certainly want to hear it, it would be a shame if others with a more general enthusiasm for Russian 19th century music weren't to do so as well.

Rob Maynard



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