Sharon Isbin’s Spanish And Italian Souvenirs

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

At least since the days of lutes and viols composers and performers recognized and exploited the favorable combination of plucked and bowed strings. And yet we don’t often hear such a lineup these days; if we do it’s usually the same relatively small roster of works, most notably including the Vivaldi concerto heard on this recording, justly popular for its catchy, lively outer movements and beguiling (oft used, and abused) Largo. While the list of most commonly performed pieces may not be extensive, you may be surprised to learn, as I was, that the rather special genre highlighted on this program–guitar and string quartet–boasts more than 300 works, ranging from the 18th century to the present, by composers from Boccherini to Brouwer, Diamond to Dougherty. (I learned this from an article in the Spring 2019 issue of Classical Guitar magazine, which I recommend to anyone interested in this subject.)

The rest of the program assembled here, by an it-doesn’t-get-any-better-than-this group of musicians, constitutes an easy and engaging introduction to this repertoire, beginning with another favorite, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet Op. 143, written in 1950 for Andrés Segovia. Much of its popularity certainly stems from its knowing, skillful writing for this particular combination of instruments that showcases the guitar while also exploiting the textural, melodic, and harmonic possibilities of the string quartet, especially memorable in the affecting second movement, Andante mesto, which the composer declared to be his “favorite”. Nowhere is the guitarist’s voice more articulate or expressive as here, or in the following Scherzo.

Boccherini is another big name, and his D major quintet, like his many other “guitar” quintets, was fashioned from already existing, non-guitar chamber works. It’s a fine piece whose chief attraction is its–very attractive–final movement, appropriately titled “Fandango”, which is definitely a crowd-pleaser, enhanced by castanets and tambourine. While there’s no denying the sheer, easy pleasure of listening to the above-mentioned guitar/strings pieces, I found one of my favorites–next to the Castelnuovo-Tedesco slow movement and Boccherini Fandango–to be Turina’s 1925 work La oración del torero (The bullfighter’s prayer), originally written for a type of Spanish lute quartet, but later arranged by the composer (as heard here) for string quartet. It’s moody and gay and colorful and dramatic and eloquent–the sort of piece you would be grateful to hear in any string quartet recital. Who cares if it doesn’t remind you of a prayer, or a bullfighter: it’s an excellent piece.

Sharon Isbin needs no introduction to any classical guitar fan, or to anyone who’s paid more than casual attention to the classical music and performance scene since the 1980s. One of the world’s greatest advocates for her instrument, award-winner, teacher (founding director of the guitar department at Juilliard), pioneer in new repertoire, Isbin’s appearance here informs the music with an authority–enlivened by her unique ornamentation and occasional improvisatory licks–that elevates the performances far beyond the merely respectable or routine efforts of some of her very competent colleagues. And the Pacifica Quartet, commanding its own list of impressive achievements and honors, is a more than worthy partner. Perhaps we may even look forward to a further exploration of guitar/string quartet repertoire by these musicians? Brouwer? Daugherty? Miguel Bareilles? Gabriela Lena Frank? Thanks for this–and we’ll be watching.

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Recording Details:

MARIO CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO: Quintet for Guitar & String Quartet Op. 143
ANTONIO VIVALDI: Concerto in D major RV 93 (Arr. Emilio Pujol/Ed. Sharon Isbin)
JOAQUÍN TURINA: La oración del torero for string quartet Op. 34
LUIGI BOCCHERINI: Quintet for Guitar & String Quartet in D major G. 448

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