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Souvenirs of Spain and Italy
Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet, Op. 143 [23:45]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741), arr. Emilio PUJOL (1886-1980)
Concerto in D, RV 93 [11:02]
Joaquín TURINA (1882-1949)
La oración del torero for String Quartet, Op. 34 [7:56]
Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805)
Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet in D, G. 448 [18:30]
Sharon Isbin (guitar)
Pacifica Quartet
rec. 2019, Auer Hall, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA
CEDILLE CDR90000190 [61:36]

Perhaps the least impressive thing about this release is its title, neither imaginative nor particularly informative. At first sight, it also may appear misleading, given that all but eight of the disc’s nearly 62 minutes are devoted to Italian composers. In fact, however, all the music has strong associations with Spain and its guitar tradition. Aside from Turina’s Prayer of the Toreador, originally written for lute quartet but often played by guitars, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet was commissioned by Andrés Segovia, Vivaldi’s Concerto arranged by the distinguished guitarist and guitar teacher Emilio Pujol, and Boccherini’s Quintet written in Madrid for the guitar-playing Marquis de Benavente. And certainly, when a disc ends – as this one does – with a Fandango featuring a part for castanets, it seems ultimately appropriate for it to give Spain top billing.

What the programme really amounts to is an introduction to the – hardly extensive but also not tiny – repertoire for guitar and string quartet. This combination of plucked and bowed strings is hard to balance in a concert hall; it may be why we do not hear that much of it. But this excellently engineered disc shows that it responds well to the recording process. We have here perhaps the two best-known works for these forces, the Vivaldi/Pujol Concerto and Boccherini’s ‘Fandango’ Quintet, alongside one rather less well-known one, and a version of the Turina piece arranged for string quartet only. Allan Kozinn’s notes describes it as a lagniappe. (I confess that the word is new to me. It means “something given beyond what is strictly required”. Glad to have learnt it.)

The concert begins with Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet, not only the longest work but perhaps the weakest. For a piece composed in 1950, its aesthetic is decidedly backward-looking. Indeed, the composer himself described it as Schubertian. I can buy this epithet to some degree, given the quintet’s fluency and sense of underlying melancholy, but as a melodist Castelnuovo-Tedesco was not remotely in the same class as Schubert. The work is accessible, charming, and features some really excellent counterpoint; but, well, while there is much to admire, there is really not a great deal that is memorable. It is also done no favours by being juxtaposed with the minor miracle of musical economy that is Vivaldi’s Concerto RV 93; by comparison, each of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s four movements come across as just a smidgen too long for its material.

The Vivaldi is of course deservedly well known, especially its glorious central Largo, but a word is needed about the arrangement that is used here. The work’s surviving manuscript scores it for two violins, lute and basso continuo – a version that is still quite often heard, as are more ambitious arrangements involving orchestral forces. Pujol, however, reassigns the original lute part to a guitar, one of the violin lines to a viola, and the bass line to a cello. This works fine, and enables Sharon Isbin and her three colleagues to create a genuinely intimate performance: that Largo, for example, can seldom have sounded so heart-easingly sun-drenched as it does here.

The Turina lagniappe does not follow on all that naturally from the Vivaldi, but is always worth hearing. It is a slightly strange piece: you really would not guess from hearing it that it is about either prayer or bullfighting. The point is, as Kozinn says, that it presents “a blend of anxiety and introspection, intended to capture the few moments a bullfighter spends in a small, incense-filled chapel, praying for God’s protection before going out to fight the bull”. The Pacifica Quartet, playing with excellent ensemble, certainly convey that blend of emotions, and a deal of atmosphere into the bargain. They also judge very sagely the many tempo changes demanded by Turina’s alternations between fast and slow passages. Overall, I thought I might miss the orchestral version of the score that I am more familiar with, but in fact I did not at all.

And so to the best-known of the seven or so pieces Boccherini arranged from pre-existent material to present to his music-loving Marquis. Kozinn tells us that this so-called ‘Fandango’ Quintet takes its first two movements from the String Quintet in D, Op. 10/6, and its festive finale from the much later Quintet in D, Op. 40/2. In truth you cannot really see the join; and even if you could, it would be a po-faced critic indeed who did not find himself swiftly disarmed by the sheer invigorating energy of the Fandango finale – castanets, tambourine and all. Earlier in the piece, Isbin and the Pacifica treat us to some delectably gentle rocking phrasing in the opening Pastorale, and to some fine violin and cello playing in the central Allegro maestoso. Patchwork or not, then, the Quintet certainly ensures that the disc leaves its listeners on a high.

The only real issue to consider if you are unsure about buying this recording is whether you want this particular selection of music. If you are sure you do, it is a no-brainer. The disc is not in direct competition with any other issue: the Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Boccherini Quintets appear together in another 2019 release, featuring Jason Vieaux and the Escher Quartet (Azica 71328); but they there keep the not exactly obvious company of Aaron Jay Kernis’s “100 Greatest Dance Hits”. Otherwise (and rather to my surprise) I have not been able to locate a recording on which any two of the four works featured here appear together – not even the Vivaldi and Boccherini. So in that respect Cedille have the field to themselves.

In other ways theirs is also a highly appealing product. Both Sharon Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet are established class acts, and they are on fine form here. Problems of technique and balance are solved with ease; and the performances are very well integrated. Isbin plainly is content to play the role of prima inter pares alongside experienced and respected colleagues. One particularly distinguished feature of their playing is their subtle and assured control of dynamics. It adds constant interest to textures which in lesser hands might come to sound sound a bit samey. Add to this a full, warm recording and a programme note that is as well written, informative (and indeed lengthy) as any I have read for a long time, and you really do have a lot to like.

Nigel Harris

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