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Chris BRUBECK (b.1952)
Affinity, Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (2015) [16:08]
Leo BROUER (b. 1939)
El decamerón negro [14:12]
Antonio LAURO (1917-1986)
Waltz No.3 ‘Natalia’ (arr. Colin Davin) [2:59]
Tan DUN (b. 1947)
Seven Desires for Guitar [10:55]
Richard DANIELPOUR (b. 1956)
Of Love and Longing (2014) [11:01]
Sharon Isbin (guitar)
Maryland Symphony Orchestra / Elizabeth Schultze
Colin Davin (guitar); Isabel Leonard (mezzo-soprano)
rec. 2018/2019, Concert Hall, Music Center, Strathmore, USA; Performing Arts Center Recital Hall, SUNY Purchase College, Purchase, New York.
All first recordings except Brouer.
Sung texts included.
ZOHO ZM202005 [55:11]

Early in her career Sharon Isbin established herself as an outstanding interpreter of the central repertoire of the classical guitar – playing and recording compositions by figures such as Ponce, Sor, Turina. Tarrega, Barrios, Rodrigo, Castelnuevo-Tedesco and others. She also recorded many new works – by, for example, Aaron Jay Kernis, Joan Tower, John Corigliano, Lukas Foss and Christopher Rouse. Increasingly, she chose to record (and give concerts) with unexpected partners and collaborators, such as with fellow guitarists Larry Coryell and Laurindo Almeida. She recorded ‘popular’ Brazilian music (Brazil, with Love, Concord, 1987). In recent years she has cast her net even wider, as with Strings for Peace, where she plays alongside three masters of the classical music of Northern India (review). Comparing Strings for Peace and Affinity, the former is the more unified and substantial album, the very title of which makes explicit things left more or less implicit on Affinity. Strings for Peace, in drawing on a single collaboration – and essentially a single musical idiom – throughout, allows the listener to develop a familiarity with the way the music works; Affinity, on which Isbin plays – with several different colleagues – music from several different traditions is in some ways more challenging for the listener. Affinity is, as it were, a ‘taster menu’, where Strings for Peace is a single substantial dish.

Affinity opens with the work that gives the album its title – Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra by Chris Brubeck, bass, trombone and piano-playing son of Dave Brubeck. The materials and idioms Brubeck draws on in Affinity are, to put it mildly, heterogeneous. Let me quote a few phrases from the composer’s own notes on the piece – lest you think that I am being unfair to him. The first section of this one-movement concerto says Brubeck, deploys “early jazz style with syncopated rhythms that almost harken back to Ragtime. Then the music transforms into a romantic waltz with oceanic qualities”. In the final section we meet “a kind of neo-Renaissance dance in 6/8. A different groove is established with a new section in a fast 5/8 time signature that conveys the energy of a Brazilian samba”. After a guitar cadenza, “percussion emerges from the guitar’s final cadence and we are off into a Middle Eastern fantasy” – leaving this listener, at least, dizzy and gasping for breath. I have, however, another reservation about Brubeck’s Affinity: though I admire much of his writing for the guitar, I find his orchestration rather lightweight and unsubtle. The central section of the work is the part that, for me, works best. It is a kind of andante – built on a tune by Dave Brubeck, recently deceased at the time his son was writing this piece. Isbin had expressed a wish to “honour” Brubeck senior by including some of “his musical spirit” in the work. The melody Chris Brubeck chose is ‘Autumn in Our Town’ and in using it, Brubeck junior settles into one musical idiom long enough to calm things down and create a lovely still centre to the work. Overall, in this opening piece, Brubeck tries to load the work with more diverse materials than can be digested coherently.

The three pieces by the Cuban guitarist-composer Leo Brower have no such problems. These three stories – the title El Decameron Negro, with its allusion to Boccacio’s Decameron, invites one to think of them in such terms – are delightfully evocative and also self-consistent in musical idiom. The “ballads”, as Isbin calls them, are to quote her, “inspired by African love stories collected by the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius (1873-1938). Afro-Cuban rhythmic and melodic elements, as well as programmatic imagery have a colourful presence” in these works. Isbin is utterly at home in Brouwer’s music and she relishes illustrative passages such as that depicting the galloping of horses as the lovers flee through “el Valle de los Ecos” (the valley of the echoes) or the sensuous opening of the ‘Balada de la Doncella Enamorada’ which depicts the beauty and swaying walk of ‘la Doncella Enamorada’ (the Maiden in Love). These three pieces constitute a definite highlight on this disc.

Between the solo works by Brouwer and Tan Dun’s Seven Desires for Guitar (also for solo guitar), we hear a two-guitar arrangement of the Venezuelan Antonio Lauro’s ‘Waltz No.3 ‘Natalia’’, Natalia being the composer’s daughter. Isbin’s note in the CD booklet is worth quoting here: “I had the pleasure of meeting Natalia in Caracas, and played her father’s waltz as she accompanied me on the Venezuelan cuatro [ a variant on the Spanish guitar]. Recalling that beautiful memory, I asked my former student and frequent duet partner Colin Davin in 2017 to compose a second guitar part that would capture the idiomatic folk style and rhythms of the cuatro. I loved what he wrote and invited him to join me on this recording”. I have heard several recordings of this waltz in various arrangements; this is one of the very best of such recordings. It has grace and charm and balances to perfection the perfumed air of the ballroom with the more basic world of Venezuelan folk traditions.

An altogether different sound-world is explored in Tan Dun’s Seven Desires for Guitar. Tan Dun wrote a guitar concerto, Yi2, for Sharon Isbin which she premiered in October 1996, with the Orchestre National de France conducted by Lothar Zagrosek, at the Donaueschingen Festival. Isbin’s recording of the concerto, with the Gulbenkian Symphony Orchestra of Lisbon conducted by Muhai Tang, was issued in 2001 (Warner Classics 8573-81830-2). The concerto explores the relationship between the Spanish guitar and the Chinese pipa, in terms of both similarities and differences. As soloist, Isbin had to ‘imitate’ the distinctive sounds of the pipa on her guitar, through the bending of notes, portamenti and a host of other special techniques. Seven Desires clearly grows out of that concerto. This more recent work was written for Isbin in 2002 and premiered by her. In a booklet note on the work by the musicologist Mary Lou Humphrey, who died in December 2012, the essence of Seven Desires is captured perfectly. Humphrey writes “The guitar […] ‘desires’ to become a pipa. It emulates the pipa’s sound by bending pitches microtonally; and uses a wealth of articulation techniques to sculpt and color individual notes expressively, in a typically Asian manner. Metaphorically, the guitar desires not just to emulate the pipa, but to achieve oneness with it, perhaps even an erotic union”. The result is a work of thoroughly startling and individual beauty. Sharon Isbin’s performance of this piece is one of the most remarkable feats of guitar-playing I have ever heard or expect to hear. This and the reading of Leo Brower’s El Decameron Negro turn a good album into a special one.

The idea of absolute union of which the late Mary Lou Humphrey speaks in her note on Seven Desires for Guitar effectively anticipates some of the central ideas in the last work on this disc. Richard Danielpour’s Of Love and Longing. Danielpour was born in the USA, of Iranian Jewish parents. Danielpour’s music here has no obvious signs of indebtedness to Persian music, but he has certainly turned to his Persian heritage in his choice of the texts he has set, since they are derived from the work of Rumi (1207-1273), a great Persian poet and mystic, currently rather fashionable in the USA. Danielpour sets three texts from Rumi’s voluminous body of work, in English versions made by Raficq Abdulla. The sequence was premiered by Sharon Isbin and Isabel Leonard at Carnegie Hall in 2015. Very aptly, Danielpour conceived the work as being in honour of Mary Lou Humphrey, a friend of both Danielpour and Isbin. Central to Rumi’s vision was the belief that in the love of another human being and, indeed, in the contemplation of that human being’s beauty, God and the Real can be experienced. The world of mere phenomena, viewed with pure love, can be a gate to the Absolute. Such a vision underlies the second and third of the texts set by Danielpour. Ideally, I imagine, the union which is the subject of Rumi’s translated words should be exemplified in a perfect union of voice and instrument, guitar and mezzo-soprano. In this performance, however, the voice comes close to overwhelming the guitar. Isobel Leonard is a deservedly renowned operatic mezzo and here, too, her gorgeous voice sounds thoroughly operatic. It sets up a contrast (rather than a union) between a ‘theatrical’ voice and a seemingly ‘domestic’ guitar. Isbin and Leonard are regular partners – indeed they gave the premiere of Of Love and Longing (and perhaps the composer offered some guidance to them during preparations for that premiere). So, the performance here recorded had, I am sure, been given a good deal of thought. But for me the effect of Ms. Leonard’s operatic manner is to make the words from Rumi sound more like that passion of romantic/erotic love so central to the operatic tradition, rather than the spiritual love of the divine of which Rumi was writing. Though I have long admired the work of Isbin and Leonard – apart and together – I have to say that this is one occasion on which they didn’t quite get things right.

So, I find Affinity something of a mixed bag. At one extreme, Chris Brubeck’s Affinity is a work I have no urgent desire to hear again after the half a dozen times I listened to it for the purposes of this review. At the other extreme, Tan Dun’s fascinating Seven Desires for Guitar, as so brilliantly performed by Sharon Isbin, is a work to which I shall certainly make many returns. I also enjoyed the works by Leo Brouwer and Antonio Lauro, without finding them quite so special. Judged as a whole, I think the CD (like the work which provides its title) is too diverse for its own good. A couple of weeks ago, I happened to read a brief essay ‘High-brow, Low-brow, All-brow: Bernstein, Gershwin, Ellington’ by Michael Barrett (protégé of, and long term assistant to, Leonard Bernstein) in Prelude, Fugue & Riffs: News for Friends of Leonard Bernstein, (Spring/Summer, 2016). I jotted down a passage from it my notebook. It seems apposite here. After discussing the three composers/musicians in his title, Barrett concludes that all three “were able to see America writ large, with its many ethnicities, religions and classes and incorporate that immense vision into their music. They opened the door for audiences, musicians, and composers to embrace a greater musical universe, regardless of genre and style”. Sharon Isbin is certainly one musician who has consistently offered that embrace, but perhaps this CD suggests that it can be dangerous to try to embrace too much of the ‘universe’ at once.

Glyn Pursglove

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