Cambrian News, Ben Ridler

The 2018-19 season got off to a very successful start on Friday 5th October in Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor.

A good turn-out greeted the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet (still vividly remembered from their previous visit to Dolgellau in 2005), and their sparkling performance did not disappoint.

One striking feature of this very accomplished ensemble is the equal prominence of all four members (Michael Baker, Vasilis Bessas, James Jervis and Rory Russell)  –  virtuosity is apparent across the board, and it was pleasurable not knowing which player would have the lead or tune from one piece to the next.

It was a wise choice to open with Rossini’s Sinfonia to l’Italiana in Algeri (skilfully arranged by Richard Safhill, a founder member of the group), given its familiar melodies and wide range of dynamic contrast.  Opals by Philip Houghton (Black Opal, Water Opal, White Opal) evoked vivid images of the gems’ translucence and subtly shifting colours.  The first half concluded in South America with Alfonsina y el Mar by Ariel Ramirez, a haunting piece with an intriguing story behind it.  (Engaging and lucid introductions were given to each piece, shared between the four.)

Full use was made in the second half of the guitar’s potential as a percussion instrument, in dances such as Pajduska (Macedonia) and La Muerte del Angel (from Astor Piazzolla, father of the tango).  More meditative and hypnotic on the other hand was The Swan ‘L243’  by Catriona McKay, a Scottish harpist who created the piece after sailing as crew member/musician on ‘The Swan’ in the 1999 Cutty Sark tall ships race.  James Jervis introduced a new sonority into De Usuahia a la Quiaca, theme tune to the film ‘Motorcycle Diaries’, by playing on a charango  –  this one of wood, not the traditional armadillo shell!

A closing encore was insisted on, and the audience left with a spring in their step to the beguiling rhythms of Django Reinhardt’s Minor Swing (arr. Mike Baker) adopted as theme tune for the 2000 film ‘Chocolat’.

Heartfelt thanks to the Southall Trust for generous support towards this memorable concert.

Audiophile Audition, Daniel Coombs
Aspects

Some really nice guitar playing sure to please all tastes!

I am certainly not an expert on classical guitar playing but I do like listening to it going back to my father’s collection of vinyl examples of Andres Segovia and having my own modest collection of ‘LP’s of solo guitar with or without orchestra. The guitar quartet is a genre that has been around for a while but seems to be experiencing renewed popularity.

I was not familiar with the Aquarelle Quartet until receiving this disc but these guys are very impressive!

The Aquarelle is Michael Baker, Vasilis Bessas, James Jervis and Rory Russell. They have made several recordings featuring everything from guitar ‘standards’ to some very tasteful transcriptions and new works written by the members of the quartet and by other composers for them.

In that latter category, this album features three premiere recordings: Welsh Dance No. 2 by Dalwyn Henshall, Flippen/Soon or Never by Carl Mikael Marin and the “Punch Brothers” and an Elegy by John Brunning.

Like everything on this very pleasant and engaging album, these are all very interesting works.

Henshall’s Welsh Dance No. 2 has some quite complex rhythms and dense but ethereal harmonic structures which reflect a bit on the composer’s studies with Einojuhani Rautavaara. The brief Elegy by Brunning is too brief for me; it is a simply beautiful little work that I wished meandered on for a bit more.

As I said, speaking as someone who admittedly knows not that much about guitar, I enjoyed this album a great deal. The members of the Aquarelle Quartet are very talented and the playing is so tight and so symbiotic it sounds almost as one ‘mega-guitar’ in places. I am sure that everyone would find something to enjoy in this album. Highly recommended!

Fanfare,  Maria Nockin
Aspects Aquarelle Guitar Quartet

Michael Baker, Vasilis Bessas, James Jervis, and Rory Russell met at the Royal Northern College of Music in the United Kingdom in 1999 and formed the Aquarelle Quartet. Since then they have performed throughout Europe and in Asia.

Aspects contains some of the music from around the globe they have been playing and premieres two new pieces, Carl Mikael Marin and Punch Brothers’ Flippen/Soon or Never and John Bruning’s Elegy. With its fast rhythms, American composer Andrew York’s Quiccan demonstrates Aquarelle’s clarity of articulation. The Quartet’s ability to play fast music clearly is also evident in their arrangement of the overture (Sinfonia) to Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri.

I was particularly fascinated by their ability to crescendo with as many fine gradations as an orchestra.

Anglo-Welsh composer Dalwyn Henshall’s liquid sounding Welsh Dance No. 2, written for harp, seems to reflect the sun on the banks of a river when played by the guitar quartet. Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera wrote three Argentine Dances in 1937. The Danza del viejo boyero (Dance of the Old Herdsman) was originally written so that the pianist’s right hand would only play white notes and the left hand only black notes. Aquarelle plays an arrangement by Brazilian guitarist João Luiz Rezende that combines the bitonal herdsman’s dance with the melodies of the Danza de la moza donosa (Dance of the Beautiful Maiden) and the dissonant drama of the Danza del gaucho matrero (Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy). Carlos Rafael Rivera, an American folkloric music essayist who has explored the Afro-Cuban genre, says he derived the title Cumba-Quin from the sounds conga drums make when playing against the claves in Cuban Rumba style. With its catchy rhythms and easy melody, it is one of the most accessible pieces on this disc.

According to the CD booklet, California-based composer David Pritchard’s Stairs is meant to take the listener on an emotional musical journey, one step at a time. Some steps go up and some go down, perhaps to a cool Pacific Ocean shore where the incoming tide invades the beach’s white sands. Australian composer Philip Houghton writes of three type of opals. “Black Opal” is strong, solid, and rhythmic. “Water Opal” is transparent and lets the viewer see bright blues and greens through the stone. Houghton’s piece has clear and firm textures but they are occasionally broken up by rhythmic interjections. “White Opal” has its own sudden flashes of color and they appear whenever a beam of light hits the stone. Much of the land “down under” is still in its natural state and, like the unfettered opals; its natural beauty can suddenly burst forth. Chris Thile’s Bluegrass band, Punch Brothers, originally played Flippen, a piece actually written by Swedish violinist Mikael Marin for his band, Väsen. [Mike Baker] arranged it for guitar quartet using the Punch Brothers song Soon or Never as a middle, slow movement surrounded with the fast tempos and rollicking sounds of Flippen.

Following that song is John Brunning’s Elegy, a mood-changing, modestly complex finale. Its delightful music charms the ear with memories evoking happy times.

Chandos’s sound is impeccable and each of the four guitars has a specific space in front of the listener. Connoisseurs of modern guitar music will want to own Aquarelle’s Aspects.

American Record Guide, Kenneth Keaton

What a purely beautiful performance! This will be my fifth review of the Aquarelle Quartet (J/A 2009, N/D 2010, N/D 2012, MJ 2014), and it again confirms their quality, in the same league as the LAGQ. Their range of expression, beauty of phrasing, and pure virtuosity are a pure delight.

The second plus here is the program, which is varied and immensely satisfying. I had only heard the York before (well, also the Rossini, but not as a guitar quartet), and I’ve got another list of new material to perform with my quartet. York’s ‘Quiccan’ (no mention of the title—a play on Wiccan?) bursts with energy—you need outstanding ensemble coordination for this work, but that’s no problem here. I’ve encountered several transcriptions for guitar ensemble of Rossini (and Mozart) overtures, many from the 19th Century. This one works quite well—I never missed the orchestra. And the transcription of Ginastera’s dances sounds like it was conceived for guitar originally rather than piano.

My greatest enjoyment came from their slow works—Dalwyn Henshall’s ‘Welsh Dance 2’, John Brunning’s ‘Elegy’, and the slow movement of Philip Houghton’s Opals. These all went straight to the heart—so lovely.

And for sheer fun, you can’t help but enjoy the Celtic-inspired medley of ‘Flippen’ and ‘Soon or Never’, taken from a pair of bluegrass ensembles. One was led by mandolinist Chris Thile (he’s just taken over for public radio’s Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion). So get this!

William Yeoman, Gramophone Magazine
Also Editor’s Choice

As the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet point out in their booklet-note: ‘As four individuals with differing musical tastes, we have sought, over the years, to present to one another music from different genres that has inspired us…“Aspects” is therefore essentially a reflection of our career to date – a presentation of different aspects of the music that we love and that we perform in our concerts.’ They add that it is ‘both retrospective and prospective’, with favourites they’ve been performing for years rubbing shoulders with brand new works that will form part of future concert programmes.

You could say that this superb UK guitar quartet’s latest release starts with a bang and ends with a whisper, with former LA Guitar Quartet member Andrew York’s nervy blaze of tone streams and syncopations Quiccan opening the programme and John Brunning’s sweetly lachrymose Elegy for four guitars, commissioned for this album, bringing it to a gentle close. In between are works which together form a stylistically and dynamically rich offering, the perfect microcosm of which is Australian composer Phillip Houghton’s three-movement Opals, which is by turns adamantine, muscular, soft, sparkling, primal and fizzing with showers of aural sparks. There is wit and humour (Rossini); sobriety and reflection (Henshall); rough-hewn sophistication (Ginastera); punchy bluegrass (Marin/Punch Brothers); an explosive percussiveness (Rivera); and much else besides.

All is performed with that same customary blend of high-octane virtuosity, relaxed lyricism, tonal richness and perfection of ensemble which has made the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet not merely one of the world’s leading guitar ensembles but, for sheer imagination and musicality, equal to the finest string quartet going.

Musique pour tous, Quebec – Philippe Adelfang

It is always a pleasure to be able to write about the Aquarelle quartet and its arrangements of pieces for 4 guitars.  In this new album, there are some wonderful surprises, for example a piece by a member of the LAGQ quartet: Quiccan, where one can see the group’s mastery of the technical abilities this piece requires.

The classical virtuosity of the group shows in the arrangement of the famous overture L’italiana in Algeri, a piece which always makes one smile to realise that our Rossini is more current than one thinks; sometimes a change in timbre is all that is needed.

There are equally beautiful interpretations of Danzas Argentinas op.2 by Ginastera, followed by a breathtaking Cumba-Quin by Carlos Rafael Rivera.

To finish, there is a series of American pieces, each one more beautiful than the next: a taste of jazz in Stairs by David Pritchard, the kaleidoscope of colours in Opals by Phillip Houghton and the bluegrass of the Punch Brothers. The recording closes with the sentimental revelation of Elegy, a work by John Brunning composed for the group at the request of one of the musicians: Vasilis Bessas.

A beautiful new CD by Chandos, superbly recorded as ever, and a source of pleasure for all lovers of good music.

Mike Baker, Vasilis Bessas, James Jervis and Rory Russell are four British musicians who showed incredible class. Not only did they present a very rich programme, but also a high level of technical ability. These music college friends have been playing together for sixteen years. Their Aquarelle Guitar Quartet seized the attention of the audience in Gliwice, to the extent that the spectators refused to let the musicians leave the hall.

This year’s 16th edition of the International Gliwice Guitar Festival was, like the ones in previous years, a very successful event. To say that this event is influential across the whole country would not be an understatement. Many world-famous guitarists visited Gliwice (and so Poland as well) for the first time and will definitely remember the warm welcome that they received for a very long time. When Gerard Drozd, the man who came up with the idea for the festival and its Artistic Director, began to build up the first programme for the event 16 years ago, he dreamed for this musical experiment (as he once referred to the festival in an interview) to become a regular event in the cultural life of the city. And his wish came true. The event is now a prestigious guitar festival, which has been rated as outstanding by both performers and critics alike, but most importantly, by the audience itself.

The concert on Sunday deserved similar praise. The heroes of the evening chose a repertoire full of pieces which were melodious and pleasant to listen to. They also included some contemporary music, which was surprisingly easy on the ears, but more on that later. The Aquarelle Guitar Quartet is one of the most famous British chamber groups. It is famous for its own arrangements of music from all over the world, ranging from the Renaissance, to contemporary compositions. They perform enthusiastically and give many concerts, not only organising masterclasses for soloists or chamber groups, but also giving educational recitals to a large audience. In 2009, the group signed with the British record company Chandos Records and have since recorded four albums: “Dances”, “Spirit of Brazil”, “Final Cut” and “Cuatro”. Pieces from, for example, “Final Cut” were included in the programme of the concert in Gliwice.

In the first part of the concert, the group presented three pieces: “Grand Solo” (Fernando Sorr), “La Vega” (Isaac Albeniz) and “Quiccan” (Andrew York). “La Vega” by Albeniz was a particularly surprising, yet interesting piece. This famous and extraordinarily prolific Spanish composer and pianist lived in Paris for many years and was good friends with Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, as well as other French composers. They would often exchange ideas and present their initial sketches for new works to each other in the Parisian parlours, hence why Albeniz is treated as a co-creator of the French Impressionist movement. However it was not long until his compositions were forgotten and it is only recently that works such as “La Vega” or “Cantos de Espana” (or the now famous “Asturias”) are returning to concert hall repertoire. What’s more, Albeniz liked the transcriptions of his pieces for guitar so much, that he would often write that he preferred the guitar versions to the original ones.

The second part of the concert was filled with film music, with arrangements by the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet, like for instance the theme music from the film “Frida”. James Jervis used the charango for [Motorcycle Diaries]. This small Peruvian string instrument resembles a mandolin, but its soundboard was originally made from the shell of an armadillo. Of course the soundboards are now crafted from high quality wood.

The concert ended with a magnificent musical surprise: “Folias” by Ian Krouse, a piece lasting over fifteen minutes focused around the motif of the folia, an old Portuguese dance. This composition was very elaborate, multidimensional but also very difficult technically. The final performance of the group, as could be expected, was rewarded with great applause, of a truly immense scale.

More:
About the festival

American Record Guide, Kenneth Keaton

I’ve reviewed three previous releases of the Aquarelle Quartet—Michael Baker, Vasilis Bessas, James Jervis, and Rory Russell—with enthusiasm (J/A 2009, N/D 2010, N/D 2012). This one is every bit as fine, if not their best yet. Ambitious transcriptions and compositions, realized with total virtuosity, a broad range of sound, and imaginative interpretations— this was a real pleasure.

Sor’s Grand Solo is, in fact a solo, arranged for quartet by David Roe. He has added some extra parts, mostly decorative scales and a few counterlines, to make the transition to a larger ensemble meaningful. It’s all in the right style, other than the fact that there is almost no repertory for guitar quartet before Los Romeros in the 1960s, and it sounds like a lot of fun to play.

Also arranged by Roe is La Vega. This is perhaps Albeniz’s greatest single composition— every bit as fine (and grander in scale) as any one movement of Iberia. I’ve long wanted to arrange the work for guitar quartet, and now I’ll hope that Roe publishes this. This won’t replace Alicia de Larrocha’s magnificent performance of the piano original, but it is a treasure to have it in the repertory.

Capriccio Espagnol? Really? Well, yes, and it works. Arranged by Bill Kanengiser for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, it’s the sort of piece that you wouldn’t even think about doing unless you had an ensemble with the virtuosity and imagination of the LAGQ. There are few such ensembles around, but the Aquarelle is one of them. I loved the performance and never missed the orchestra. That’s high praise.

Ian Krouse’s Folias, his fourth guitar quartet, was also written for, and recorded by, the LAGQ. It’s as ambitious as the Rimsky-Korsakoff, but written for guitar quartet originally. It’s a big, sprawling canvas, with 27 variations and a coda; and styles ranging from minimalist to non-tonal passages to big romantic restatements of the old melody that’s been used for variations for centuries. This is another work that is terribly demanding, but the Aquarelle’s engaged performance makes the journey seem inevitable. As in the Rimsky, their performance is every bit as fine as the LAGQ’s.

Fanfare, Maria Nockin
Cuatro

On this recording, the members of the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet—Michael Baker, Vasilis Bessas, James Jervis, and Rory Russell—play music about Spain and Spanish culture. Some pieces are by Spanish composers such as Fernando Sór (1778–1839) and Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909), others are by composers from other countries who loved native Spanish music and wrote about Spain.

The opening work is Sor’s Grand Solo, and the Quartet plays most skillfully in a delightful arrangement by Brazilian guitarist Sergio Assad that gives an individual part to each player.

The best-known piece on this disc is Capriccio Espagnol or, as originally titled, Capriccio on Spanish Themes, by Rimsky-Korsakov. The composer scored it for strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, so cutting it down to four guitars while maintaining the sound picture heard in the full orchestral setting was a monumental job.

Surprisingly, when we listen to the quartet we hear almost all of the sonorities we would expect to hear in the tonally flamboyant orchestral version. Even the percussion is there, whether it is beaten on the guitar with an open hand or with fingernails that sound like castanets. Aquarelle’s guitars are the perfect medium with which to pay justice to the music of Europe’s most colorful nation.

Beginning with a festive dance from Asturia that celebrates the sunrise, the Capriccio continues with variations before it returns to the original theme. Rimsky-Korsakov called its fourth movement “Scene and Gypsy Song” because it offers a song-like tune before resolving into the sprightly melodies that permeate the Finale, a magnificent fandango from Asturia.

Although he came from the land of the guitar and made use of a great many of his country’s folk idioms, Albéniz wrote for the piano. However, many arrangers have found that his pieces adapt to the guitar very well, and they have made works like his Spanish fantasy, La Vega, available to guitarists worldwide. Folías by Ian Krouse, the Professor of Theory and Composition at UCLA, makes use of one of the oldest musical themes on record, La Folia. The title means crazy or empty-headed, possibly because of its connection to a fast, energetic, seemingly mindless dance. Krouse wrote his piece for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, who premiered it in 1992. Two years later they recorded it on An Evening in Granada for Delos. Their performance is slightly slower and more deliberate than that of the Aquarelle Quartet, and the Chandos recording has clearer, more intimate sound with the ambience of a small, intimate concert setting.

You can hear that there are four guitars because they seem to be sitting in a row across the front of the stage. Their sound is always well balanced. I fully enjoyed this recital of music about Spain from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and think readers will like it as well. 

Fanfare Magazine, Maria Nockin, May-June Issue
More about Cuatro

“On this recording, the members of the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet—Michael Baker, Vasilis Bessas, James Jervis, and Rory Russell—play music about Spain and Spanish culture. Some pieces are by Spanish composers such as Fernando Sór (1778–1839) and Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909), others are by composers from other countries who loved native Spanish music and wrote about Spain. The opening work is Sor’s Grand Solo, and the Quartet plays most skillfully in a delightful arrangement by Brazilian guitarist Sergio Assad that gives an individual part to each player. The best-known piece on this disc is Capriccio Espagnol or, as originally titled, Capriccio on Spanish Themes, by Rimsky-Korsakov. The composer scored it for strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, so cutting it down to four guitars while maintaining the sound picture heard in the full orchestral setting was a monumental job. Surprisingly, when we listen to the quartet we hear almost all of the sonorities we would expect to hear in the tonally flamboyant orchestral version. Even the percussion is there, whether it is beaten on the guitar with an open hand or with fingernails that sound like castanets. Aquarelle’s guitars are the perfect medium with which to pay justice to the music of Europe’s most colorful nation. Beginning with a festive dance from Asturia that celebrates the sunrise, the Capriccio continues with variations before it returns to the original theme. Rimsky-Korsakov called its fourth movement “Scene and Gypsy Song” because it offers a song-like tune before resolving into the sprightly melodies that permeate the Finale, a magnificent fandango from Asturia.

Although he came from the land of the guitar and made use of a great many of his country’s folk idioms, Albéniz wrote for the piano. However, many arrangers have found that his pieces adapt to the guitar very well, and they have made works like his Spanish fantasy, La Vega, available to guitarists worldwide. Folías by Ian Krouse, the Professor of Theory and Composition at UCLA, makes use of one of the oldest musical themes on record, La Folia. The title means crazy or empty-headed, possibly because of its connection to a fast, energetic, seemingly mindless dance. Krouse wrote his piece for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, who premiered it in 1992. Two years later they recorded it on An Evening in Granada for Delos. Their performance is slightly slower and more deliberate than that of the Aquarelle Quartet, and the Chandos recording has clearer, more intimate sound with the ambience of a small, intimate concert setting. You can hear that there are four guitars because they seem to be sitting in a row across the front of the stage. Their sound is always well balanced. I fully enjoyed this recital of music about Spain from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and think readers will like it as well. ..”

International Record Review, Robert Levett
More about Cuatro

‘Cuatro: our fourth album for Chandos comprising four works performed on four guitars by us, the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet’, writes AGQ member Rory Russell in his booklet note for the talented UK-based ensemble’s new recording of the same name. (The earlier releases were reviewed in June 2009, July/ August 2010 and December 2012.)

It comes as no surprise that the AGQ was born in 1999 at the Royal Northern College of Music ‘under the guidance of Craig Ogden and Gordon Crosskey’: both teachers have always emphasized the centrality of chamber music skills in pedagogy and practice, and the AGQ is a perfect example of what a guitar quartet can really accomplish given the right background and talent. ‘Cuatro’ in turn is a veritable showcase of the AGQ’s superlative collective musicianship. It also comprises a programme that’s both highly attractive and hugely enjoyable. This is in part down to not only the quality of the source material but of the arrangements.

Originally for guitar solo, Spanish composer Fernando Sor’s Grand Solo, Op. 14 was written around 1810 during the French occupation of Spain. Sérgio Assad – one of the AGQ’s erstwhile teachers and one half of the famed Assad Brothers duo – has made a brilliant arrangement for four guitars which thickens the texture melodically and harmonically while adding embellishments such as long trills. The result is a lively four way salon conversation in sonata form that the AGQ clearly relishes, judging from the wonderful balance between tension and repose in the Andante introduction and the cheerful exuberance in the Allegro, which satisfyingly moves towards a triumphant recapitulation and a rollicking coda.

William Kanengiser’s highly skilful arrangement for four guitars of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1887 orchestral tour de force, the Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34, is immense fun, from the ‘Alborada’, bursting with life and colour, through the gorgeous barcarolle-like ‘Variazioni’, a reprise of the ‘Alborada’ in a higher key, the dramatic ‘Scena e canto gitano’ and the brilliant ‘Fandango asturiano’. Here Kanengiser provides every opportunity for the AGQ to demonstrate its complete mastery of orchestral effects on the guitar, such as the imitations of percussion and castanets, mandolins and harps, brass and woodwind and, of course, the flamenco guitar itself. However, the highlight of the recording for me is David Roe’s subtle arrangement of Albéniz’s beautiful, impressionistic La vega or Fantasie espagnole. For it is here, amid the composer’s flowing chromatic accompaniments, haunting melodies, bursts of sunshine, cloud-shadow-dappled countryside and idiomatic counterpoint that one finds the AGQ players at their most poetic and introspective, Albeniz’s rich evocations of the Alhambra and its surrounds matched by apposite phrasing and nuanced aggregations of tone colours.

The recording draws to a close with an original composition, the 1992 Guitar Quartet No. 4, ‘Folias’ by lan Krouse (b.1956). This is quite an extraordinary 16-minute piece, building in tension as the variations become progressively shorter and faster. The actual theme is most clearly stated around the middle of the work with a grand rendering of the famous folia in the style of Corelli; and while there are also references to Baroque guitarist Gaspar Sanz’s version and earlier Renaissance versions, the aesthetic here is overwhelmingly modern, leaning towards minimalist repeated notes and patterns. It receives an equally extraordinary performance – confident and characterful. One should also make mention of the crisp, detailed recording and a clear sound picture that allows one to savour the individual qualities of the players and their instruments [Vasilis Bessas plays a Bert Kwakkel, Russell a Greg Smallman and James Jervis and Michael Baker guitars by Paul Sheridan).

‘Cuatro’ is perhaps the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet’s finest recording to date and a worthy tribute not just to the music of Spain but to the true art of the guitar quartet.

Gramophone, William Yoeman
More about Cuatro

Why ‘Cuatro’? Because the four guitarists of the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet are performing, on their fourth recording for Chandos, four works by four different composers who were inspired by the music of Spain and the sound of the Spanish guitar. Although the AGQ present the works chronologically, another order is possible – from intimate to expansive: Fernando Sor’s Grand Solo (solo guitar); Ian Krouse’s Folias (guitar quartet); Albeniz’s La vega (solo piano) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol (orchestra).

But the arranger’s art ensures all’s equal. In the Sor, Sérgio Assad adds some attractive countermelodies and fills out the harmonies. William Kanengiser is concerned less with trying to match Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant scoring than with capturing the work’s Andalusian spirit. David Roe allows Albeniz’s quirky counterpoint to really breathe, while Krouse’s Folias – the only original composition here for four guitars – successfully combines minimalist techniques with traditional Spanish flavours. As with the AGQ’s previous three albums, not only are the playing and overall ensemble razor-sharp but every tone colour available to a guitarist is exploited to the full. The drama inherent in Sor’s Grand Solo is rendered with a lightness redolent of the salon, while the AGQ relish the exuberant writing and arranging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, imitations of castenets and all. The Albéniz benefits most from divvying up the parts, with each player subtly making room for their individual style.Finally, Krouse’s highly inventive Folias makes for a distincitve end to the programme as the players leave the ‘stage’ individually, à la Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. Serious fun.

Clacton Arts and Literature, Jennifer Kersey

Now, this was my type of evening! The programme, in all areas, was outstanding. We were treated to music adapted and chosen to show off the best effect of the guitar quartet.

It was also amazing to see how the instruments can be used to present percussive sounds too. I looked around during one of the quieter pieces and the audience were spellbound-you could have heard a pin drop!

Another fine presentation and a further triumph for our `Arts and Lits` society.

American Record Guide, Ken Keaton

“A Venn diagram that showed the convergence of guitar lovers and film music devotees might be fairly small. If one includes people who love excellent music-making, in whatever form, the potential market for this recording becomes quite large.”

“This British ensemble seems incapable of playing with less than a glorious range of sound, perfect ensemble, and exquisite taste.  This is superb playing, and the music is ravishing”

Hexham Courant, Robert Gibson

THINGS have been going splendidly for the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet. The group, which was formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1999, is recognised as among the finest in British chamber music. Add to that a number of stonkingly-well-reviewed albums and it’s easy to see why Michael Baker, James Jervis, Vasilis Bessas and Rory Russell are in such demand when it comes to live performance.

Thankfully, it was Hexham that was blessed with their presence on Sunday when they put on a concert as part of the Hexham Abbey Festival. Of all the audiences I’ve ever seen there, the one they attracted was by far the most varied, ranging from youngsters, no doubt hoping to pick up a few pointers for their own playing, to the very, very much more mature.

The moment the concert started, however, it was clear that what the quartet was offering would transcend age – or even basic musical preferences. Indeed, throughout the afternoon, they took bits from classical, bits from folk, bits from jazz and bits from rock, stamping their own unique and evocative style on every one of them.

As a guitar player myself, I’d been interested in how the quartet would work together and it turned out to be a good deal more complex than the standard division of rhythm and lead. Instead, layer upon layer of delicate melody, resonant bass and rich chords built into a beautiful wall of sound through the ever-varying interplay of the musicians.

It takes talent to pull that off and these guitarist have it by the bucket load – tight, precise and emotionally– charged, even when playing at blistering speeds.

For me, the highlights of the afternoon included The Swan, a folk song by Catriona McKay which was executed with a delicacy that told of great respect for the composer. Andrew York’s Quiccan was also a delight, highlighting the versatility of the quartet, while Django Rheinhdart’s Minor Swing proved something of a crowd pleaser. The latter, readers may be aware, was featured in the film Chocolat, in which Johnny Depp’s character performs it, and was also included in the quartet’s hit recording Final Cut, which brings together some of the great themes from cinema during the past century.

Also on the Sunday’s track list was music from the biopic Frida, Il Postino and the Motorcycle Diaries, on which the musicians were able to show off a charming little instrument called the charango. Indeed, all four proved themselves multi-talented to say the least, creating astonishing percussion effects through well-placed slaps on the wood of their guitars, perfectly timed claps and string muting.

It’s also notable that music doesn’t generally come arranged for such quartets, so there’s a lot more than just the playing that goes into putting on a concert like this.The final factor for making it a resounding success, though, was the venue itself, which was perfectly suited to the style of music. Hexham Abbey has great acoustics and hopefully the quartet will take advantage of them again.

 International Record Review, Robert Levett

In their booklet note, Aquarelle Guitar Quartet members Michael Baker and Rory Russell write about how the quartet was ‘confronted by a vast array of fabulous soundtracks that made it extraordinarily hard to know which could be represented on the CD to best effect’ and, more importantly, how to decide which works four guitars could do justice to and would therefore make the ‘final cut’. It’s a credit to the UK·based quartet’s taste and discrimination that there’s not a dud track on this, its third release for Chandos, after the superb ‘Spirit of Brazil’ and ‘Dances’ (reviewed in June 2009 and July/ August 2010 respectively).

As with those previous two releases, variety is also one of the chief determining factors of what to include. So along with more lively numbers such as Django Reinhardt’s ‘Minor Swing’ from the soundtrack of Chocolat, Anton Karas’s ‘Was It Rain’ from The Third Man and the arrangement of Theodorakis’s ‘Cretan Dance’ from Zorba the Greek we have more subtly passionate works like Michael Nyman’s ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ from The Piano and the classic Carlos Gardel tango ‘Por una cabeza’ from Scent of a Woman. There are also frankly sentimental favourites such as Stanley Myers’s ‘Cavatina’ from The Deer Hunter, Francis Lai’s ‘Where Do I Begin’ from Love Story and the main theme from John Wlliams’s moving soundtrack for Schindler’s List.

All four guitarists have shared the arranging between them; the results are uniformly excellent, with the parts well distributed and all the coloristic resources of the guitar exploited. This latter is especially evident in the opening ‘Minor Swing’, which also features some of the most exciting playing on the disc, and in a fine arrangement by Vasilis Bessas of Gustavo Santaolalla ‘s ‘De usuahia a la Quiaca’ from The Motorcycle Diaries. By contrast, sweetness of tone and legato playing along with some impressive cantabile phrasings come to the fore not only in numbers like ‘Cavatina’, where they are obviously expected, but in the simple, folk-like melodies of ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure’ and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Even the Bryan Adams/Michael Arnold Kamen/Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange song ‘Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?’ from Don Juan DeMarco comes close to sounding like a masterpiece of Latin pastiche.

The recording is both spacious and intimate; in addition the four guitars (three of which are by Australian luthiers Greg Smallman and Paul Sheridan) are clearly separated in the sound picture without sounding artificial. All in all, a highly enjoyable release, with the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet yet again proving that sometimes four guitars really are better than one.

Sinfini, John Evans
Every so often a CD lands on your desk, travels to the player and stays there, going round and round and round…
So I’ll just hit the pause button to read the name on that shiny piece of plastic – Final Cut by the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet. Right, press play again…

What’s the appeal? Well, it’s guitar music and who doesn’t like the guitar? Mellifluous, musical, magical – especially so in the fingers of the Aquarelle four who formed in 1998 at the Royal Northern College of Music and have been performing ever since.
Final Cut is a compilation of tasteful film music arrangements and pieces used in film. No Star Wars here; we’re talking Django Reinhardt’s Minor Swing from Chocolat, Michael Nyman’s The Heart Asks Pleasure First from The Piano, even Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells from the Exorcist. In all, 19 pieces exquisitely and memorably played. They’ll be going round and round in your head long after you’ve turned off the CD player.

Time Out, Colin Anderson

Imagine – classic film scores arranged for four guitars! A cynical wag might suggest that that’s four guitars too many. However, if hardly the epitome of orchestral opulence, these skilled transcriptions and renditions are as good as they get in their chosen medium. We start in 1949 with ‘The Third Man’: Anton Karas’s laconic theme for zither is transcribed faithfully for a guitar foursome, as is ‘Zorba the Greek’. Other hits include music from ‘Titanic’, ‘The Deer Hunter’ (the tender ‘Cavatina’), ‘Schindler’s List’ (haunting), ‘A Summer Place’ (wistful), ‘Scent of a Woman’ and ‘The Exorcist’ (Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’). Whatever the cynics might think, this could well become something of a hit – music for all the family.

International Record Review, Robert Levett

I have to admit I never used to be a great fan of guitar quartets. One problem I had was the lethal combination of identical baritone range and lack of sustain; another was the less than inspiring musicianship often demonstrated by the players themselves. Then along came the superb Aquarelle Guitar Quartet (AGQ) to change all that.

The AGQ was formed while its members were studying at the Royal Northern College of Music with guitar tutors Craig Ogden and Gordon Crosskey. They had subsequently received instruction from Sérgio Assad, Oscar Ghiglia and the LA Guitar Quartet’s Scott Tennant. Of the initial line-up Michael Baker and Vasilis Bessas remain, now joined by James Jervis and Rory Russell. I note that Jervis and Baker play Sheridan guitars: Paul Sheridan is a West Australian luthier who lives in the state’s capital of Perth – as does Craig Ogden, who was born and raised in WA.

Ogden it is who provides an introductory note to this superb recital disc by the AGQ, their first for Chandos, and I have to agree with him when he writes ‘This disc reveals [the AGQ’s] capacity to feel and shape music as one, and it is a fantastic showcase for their incredible virtuosity.’

‘Spirit of Brazil’ features music by Brazilian composers as well as those who are inspired by its music while moving easily through multiple styles. Sérgio Assad, one half of that great guitar duo the Assad Brothers, is at the heart of the disc with his brilliant Uarekena, which is named after an Amazonian tribe. The music shimmers with varying moods and colours, all of which are captured to perfection by the AGQ. Assad Senior is a wonderful composer for guitar, and his daughter here shows herself to be a chip off the old block with her first work for guitar quartet, Bluezilian, which opens the disc, and the more substantial Danças Nativas, written for the present performers. In the former, the AGQ seize on the funkiness and wild energy of the music with relish, while the latter’s dreamy ‘Canção’ gives the performers a chance to show off its lyrical side. Energy aplenty, as well as a dazzling array of percussive and other effects, is to be found in Tunisian/French composer and guitarist Roland Dyen’s six-movement portrait of Brazil, Brésil. From the sounds of the Amazonian rainforest in ‘Da Natureza’ through the rousing, festive Celestial March of ‘Marchinha do Céu’ to the vibrant ‘Xaxare’, this is a real tour de force which nevertheless maintains a certain lightness of touch that the AGQ tap into with a smiling, good-natured virtuosity.

Heitor Villa-Lobos was no mean guitarist himself, and former AGQ member Richard Safhill’s arrangement of Villa-Lobo’s Bachianas brasileiras no 5, originally for eight cellos and voice, is a fitting tribute to a man who wrote some of the finest classical guitar music in the repertoire. It’s also a tribute to the AGQ’s ability to energize a line despite the fast decay of the guitar’s sound that the original vocal part made so ravishing. Villa-Lobos’s busy, Debussian ‘Brincadeira’, from his string Quartet No. 1, as arranged by Jervis, provides an ideal foil.

Two works by Brazilian jazz legend Egberto Gismonti bring a delicate, improvisatory touch to proceedings with Palhaço and Memória e Fado, the latter arranged and sensitively played by Baker and Bessas to end the disc, but not before the AGQ flare up in one last blaze of colour with Brazilian composer Paulo Bellinati’s A Furiosa, a tribute to the Brazilian street musicians known as ‘The Furious Ones’.

If one guitar quartet can give a traditional string quartet a run for its money in terms of abundant technique and breath-taking artistry, it is the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet.

The York Press, Matt Clark
Harrogate International Summer Festival, Wesley Chapel, Harrogate

WHILE Harrogate’s feral youths were making a nuisance of themselves outside the Wesley Chapel, inside three of the town’s young lads restored the audience’s faith in teenagers.

They had been chosen to open last Saturday’s concert by members of Manchester’s Aquarelle Guitar Quartet from a master-class held earlier in the day.

All were fine musicians and they will cherish this fleeting moment in the limelight – until it is their turn to headline the stage.

Then the main act came on and showed just how great the rift between budding guitarists and these gifted musicians is.

Hailed as the next big thing to hit the classical music scene, Aquarelle Guitar Quartet was faultless in every aspect. Technically all four are superb but crucially that doesn’t get in the way of warmth, dynamism and emotion in the performance.

The quartet isn’t afraid to take on a challenge either. [Luigi Boccherini’s (arr. Jeremy Sparks) Introduction & Fandango] was astonishing.

Then the interpretation of jazz guitarist David Pritchard’s eclectic Stairs and one of the Brandenburg concertos were both sublime.

The Aquarelle musicians are artists in residence for the festival and return on Saturday, when they play St Wilfrid’s Church with friends Craig Ogden, guitar, Andy Scott, saxophone, David Hassell, percussion, Sally Johnson, soprano, and Louise Thompson, harp.

To sample their work ahead of the 8pm concert, their new album Dances is a fine, mesmerising introduction.

BBC Music Magazine, Rob Ainsley

The language of the guitar – huge, sometimes weird, vocabulary, and asymmetric, anti-pianistic grammar – is one that precious few big-name composers have remotely understood. Most good repertoire is by composer-guitarists. The burgeoning quartet genre offers great possibilities, but needs experienced writing and sharp ensemble to avoid sounding like jailer’s keys. So hooray: we get both in this instantly likeable tribute to the Brazilian sound.

The highlight is Roland Dyen’s Brésils, which comprises of six attractive pieces that expertly utilise guitar colours while paying homage to rainforest birds, Chôros-playing buskers, and the seductive sway of João Gilberto thrumming Jobim’s Girl from Ipanema.
Villa-Lobos’s familiar floating ‘Aria’ may not sustain on even four guitars convincingly enough for everyone; but from composing father and daughter Sérgio and Clarice Assad come vibrant, sometimes rock-explosive, album-tracks that mix carnival with cool. More well-textured popular appeal comes from Egberto Gismonti (hear the wistfully lovely duet Memória e Fado) and Paulo Bellinati.
With outstanding playing and infectious spirit, this is no mere nice guitar CD, but a luscious and lively general-appeal winner.
(Performance: 5 stars, Recording: 5 stars)

 

Classical Guitar Magazine, William Yeoman

I’ve elsewhere written of my undoubtedly irrational aversion to any classical guitar combination exceeding two – but with Spirit of Brazil, its first disc for the UK independent label Chandos, the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet has got me thinking differently. This is a very fine album indeed, with an attractive programme of music of genuine artistic merit (all too uncommon) played with flair, intelligence and an overall ensemble that both unifies and differentiates just where and when you want it to.

In addition to commentaries on each work, the booklet contains a well-deserved endorsement written by Craig Odgen, from whom the quartet received instruction along with Gordon Crosskey at the Royal Northern College of Music. The quartet has also benefited from the wisdom of Sérgio Assad, Oscar Ghiglia and the LA Guitar Quartet’s Scott Tennant, indeed that latter quartet’s LAGQ Brazil, released last year, may well have inspired AGQ’s foray into this exciting and colourful territory (there are only two overlaps: Clarice Assad’s Bluezilian and Bellianti’s well-known A Furiosa).

Bluezilian opens Spirit of Brazil in fine style, with Assad’s skilful blend of jazz, blues and Latin styles, giving the boys of AGQ an opportunity to show they can swing with the best of them while showing off a beautiful corporate tone – which quality becomes even more apparent in former AGQ member Richard Safhill’s fine arrangement of the aria from Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.5. James Jervis’s arrangement of the composer’s ‘Brincadeira’ from the String Quartet No. 1 is equally happy, the AGQ bring a crisp, tense energy to this quirky little piece.

A more extended work then follows with Clarice Assad’s three-movement Danças Nativas, written for the AGQ and here receiving its premiere recording. From the jazzy samba to the Jobim-inspired “Twisted Samba” through the tender simplicity of the ‘Reflective Canção’ to the busy flamboyance of ‘Mad Baiáo’, the AGQ relishes every vibrant, pulsating detail of this finely-crafted suite. Not even Egberto Gismonti’s beautiful Palhaço as transcribed by James Jervis can upstage it.

Assad père’s superb Uarekena provides an ideal prelude to Roland Dyen’s sprawling, colourful evocation of Brazil, Brésils. This six movement work is a real tour-de-force, with dances such as the modinha, the bossa nova and the xaxado as beautifull utilised as the full resources of the guitar in movements like ‘Da Natureza’, in which the sounds of the Amazonian jungle are imitated, and the ‘Marchinha do Céu’, in which a marching band in the Carnival de Rio is likewise imitated. The AGQ has a lot of fun with this nevertheless seizing on the underlying melancholy in ;Chôro Legal’ and ‘Modinhazul’.

The infectious maxixe of Bellinati’s A Furiosa provides a final explosion of energy before Michael Baker and Vasilis Bessas, the two remaining members of the original AGQ, bring this supremely enjoyable disc to a wistful close with a duet arrangement for another Gismonti piece, Memória e Fado.

Acoustic, Kate Lewis

This young quartet, formed at the Royal Northern College of Music, presents a broad collection of Brazilian pieces. The precision of playing is outstanding and covers a range of styles and moods, from string quartet pieces transferred to the guitar to ‘A Furiosa’, a piece written to celebrate Brazilian street music. This is a varied and extremely enjoyable piece of work encompassing elements of jazz and blues and incorporating interesting, and at times unpredictable, rhythms.

Classical Guitar Magazine, Colin Cooper

“One of the most interesting and professional debuts in Britain during the last few years”

Muso

The Aquarelle Guitar Quartet (AGQ) formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1999 and comprises Michael Baker, Vasilis Bessas, Rory Russell and James Jervis.
Described as the ‘next big thing in the classical guitar world’, the Manchester-based chamber group has performed at Wigmore Hall, St Martin-in-the-Fields and the Bridgewater Hall, and on BBC Radio 3.

Spirit of Brazil is the quartet’s third release and its first on Chandos. It includes pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Clarice Assad, a young Brazilian composer who AGQ commissioned. The CD also includes personable sleeve notes written by Baker and Russell themselves.

American Record Guide, Kenneth Keaton

When I reviewed the Aquarelle’s last release, Spirit of Brazil (J/A 2009) my praise was high, and it is even more so for this performance.

This is fine music making. The quartet— Michael Baker, Vasilis Bessas, Jame Jervis, and Rory Russell—has it all: gorgeous tone, a wide range of sounds and dynamics, rock solid time, absolute precision, inventive arrangements, expressive phrasing. The only sound they seem incapable of making is ugliness.

As you’d expect, a release called Dances is made up of dance music, but with such variety! We have music from Brazil, Macedonia, Italy, Cuba, Argentina, Chile, France, the UK, and the US. The longest work is Andy Scott’s Seven Dances and Not Looking Back, written for the quartet. The influences are jazz, Latin music, and film music; but the work somehow manages to avoid the obvious cliches. The final section, ‘Not Looking Back’, in fact looks back, with cyclic recall of the earlier movements and cadenzas for each of the players.

Catriona McKay was a fellow student at the Royal College of Music in Manchester. She is from Scotland, a harpist, and her gentle piece ‘The Swan’ has a lovely Celtic lyricism. Cuban Eduardo Martin wrote ‘Hasta Alicia Baila’ to persuade his friend Alicia to dance. One wonders how she could have remained still, hearing the infectious music. Two of the traditional works are from Macedonia, with lots of exotic sounds, harmonic treats, and percussive effects. The other two are based on music of the Chilean traditional ensemble Inti-Illimani Historico, again arranged by quartet members.

This is the real thing, folks—one of the finest guitar quartet recordings I’ve ever heard.

Gramophone, William Yeoman

Four become one is a sequence of dances with a Latin American tinge.
A fine follow-up to the equally dance-orientated “Spirit of Brazil” (5/09), “Dances” sees young UK ensemble the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet exploring the dance in a slightly wider context – though the flavour is still very much of the Latin variety.

Egberto Gismonti is again represented, this time by Baiáo Malandro, arranged by AGQ member James Jervis for four guitars, and while the original version’s synthesiser has been dropped the playing here is positively electric, as it is in the following rumba, Hasta Alicia Baila by Eduardo Martin. Andy Scott’s Seven Dances and “No Looking Back”, here receiving its premiere recording, leaps about like a (jazz) cat on a hot tin roof (in a good way) while allowing moments of respite such as the Ennio Marricone-inspired “Film”.
The AGQ can undoubtedly swing with the best of them – Biréli Lagrène’s Django tribute Made in France – yet in other works such as the Boccherini’s ubiquitous Fandango from the D major Guitar Quintet, the playing feels curiously score-bound despite the superlative ensemble and, for lack of a better term, instrumental prestidigitation.
So it is the boys can bring off a sparkling Tarantella (the one made famous by Inti-Illimani) while favouring perfection over a necessary calculated looseness in the traditional Malagueña Salerosa (in AGQ member Rory Russell’s superb arrangements).
Other highlights, and there are many, include a crisp yet expressive account of Piazolla’s la Muerte del ángel  and a sweetly simple rendition of Catriona McKay’s The Swan ’LK 243’ arranged by the AGQ’s Michael Baker.
International Record Review, Therese W Saba

This is the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet’s second recording for Chandos and in some respects it is almost a continuation of their first, “Spirit of Brazil”, reviewed in June 2009. Despite the apparent popular nature of this release, they are all trained classical guitarists who studied at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. Having said that, there is none of the rigidity which sometimes occurs when classical musicians play more popular repertoire. Their performances are meticulously prepared with excellent tone-quality and balance between the four instruments. Many of the arrangements, which use the resources of the guitars so well, have been made by members of the quartet.

‘Dances’ begins with James Jervis’s arrangement of Egberto Gismonti’s Baiáo Malandro. The dynamic range and tonal colours employed in the interpretation of this piece give a sense of a sonic third dimension, which one doesn’t expect from four guitars. Gismonti is a Brazilian jazz musician and composer, who, like Astor Piazolla, studied composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Piazolla’s Muerte del ángel , as with all his works, is in a tango rhythm, in an arrangement by Michael Baker. It is not so balanced as the other arrangements here, however, but if the others were not so outstanding, one would hardly have noticed. The strong rhythmic drive continues in Eduardo Martin’s Hasta Alicia Baila, written in a Cuban rhythm called a guaguancó. Effective percussion is provided by tapping on the wood of the guitar.

Andy Scott’s Seven Dances, its premiere recording, maintains the rhythmic spirit of the Gismonti and Martin. Each of the seven dances draws its inspiration from jazz elements and composers such as John Scofield, Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. Scott’s pieces display the expressive range of the Quartet, from dramatically contrasting movements such as the mellow Ennio Morricone-inspired ‘Film’ to the aggressively vibrant final dance, appropriately names ‘Big!’. Scott’s Seven Dances are each very short, but in his longer No looking Back one hears him developing his musical ideas. He uses particular guitar techniques, such as harmonics and delicate rapid arpeggios, to build an atmosphere of unpredictable anticipation.

The sole purely classical piece is Boccherini’s Introduction and Fandango, originally written for guitar and string quartet. The Fandango, which fits in with the’ dance’ theme of the recording, is one of the most popular works in the classical guitar repertoire, and deservedly so. The Aquarelles convey the rhythmic excitement of this beautifully written work with precisely executed ornamentation; indeed, their interpretation has a regal spirit.

The two Macedonian dances transport us into a completely different world. One of the guitars has the role of percussion instrument, to tap out the slow, non-Western rhythm, which creates the basis for the mesmerizing oriental melodic line of Ajde Dali Anaes Pametis Milice. That atmosphere is broken by the faster and more declamatory Pajduska . The dream-like quality of Catriona McKay’s The Swan is well conveyed by the four guitarists until one is awoken rather rudely from the Gaelic dream by the Spanish Malagueña Salerosa which follows; it is played with full Spanish gusto and the essential high volumne. That spirit continues with an arrangement of the Tarantella, originally performed by the Latin American group Inti-Illimani Historico. After the wild Tarantella, where they demonstrate virtuosic playing speeds, the Aquarells bring the disc to a close with a very satisfying Made in France by the gypsy jazz guitarist Biréli Lagrène.

After a first hearing, I felt as if I had musically travelled all over the world and was more than ready to get back on the plane for another round-trip. The recording has a warm presence, rich tone and a real sense of depth; one feels surrounded by the sound.

American Record Guide, Kenneth Keaton

The Aquarelle was formed by students of Craig Ogden at the Royal Northern College of Music at Manchester. The prospect of four Brits in a program of Brazilian music was not immediately appealing, but I must say these young players have thoroughly assimilated the Brazilian style. This recording is a delight.

I’ve reviewed several all-Brazilian programs (N/D 2008, for example), and most fall short by having no clear difference between the cultivated and the vernacular. If one wants to hear Brazilian popular music, there are plenty of Brazilian artists who can supply just that. This program does well in the higher level of the compositions. While still clearly nationalist music (or, in the case of Frenchman Dyens, exotic), the sophistication and expressiveness are higher, and the performance rises to that challenge.

What’s this, yet another Assad? Clarice Assad is Sergio’s daughter, and has become a fine composer as well. Her music is perhaps the most “popular” of the program, with infectious, boiling rhythms; but listen to the exquisite ‘Reflective Cançao’ in the Danças Nativas if you want to bear beautiful delicacy incarnate. Sergio Assad is represented in Uarakena, named for an Amazon tribe. It is an intense, fascinating work, with Assad’s expected invention and craftsmanship. The Gismonti compositions are soft, gentle, exquisite songs, performed to perfection. Dyens’s suite Bresilis is alternately wild and intimate, filled with special effects (including singing!). It’s wonderfully
entertaining.

Villa-Lobos is represented by a movement from his first string quartet called ‘Brincadeira’, and the haunting Bacarianas Brasileiras 5. The latter is adapted from the original for eight cellos and soprano, and has much more in common with that than with the composer’s own transcription for solo guitar and voice. But, please, don’t even try to play those long, gorgeous held tones for the soprano on guitar, where they just die. Good to get that one complaint aside. Otherwise, this is the best Brazilian program I’ve heard in quite a while.

Gramophone, William Yeoman

Chandos: Spirit of Brazil, CHAN 10512

If, like me, you usually find anything more than two classical guitars a transgression of good taste and a guitar orchestra a complete abomination, this surprising new release from the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet will force you to revise your opinions.

Formed while its original members (of which two remain) were students at the Royal Northern College of Music, the AGQ is an award-winning ensemble that can easily stand alongside the likes of the excellent LA Guitar Quartet, whose 2007 release “LAGQ Brazil” (Telarc) perhaps inspired the younger quartet’s own “Spirit of Brazil” (it’s worth noting that the AGQ has received instruction from LA Guitar Quartet member Scott Tennant).

Whereas the LAGQ’s “Brazil” also features the talents of São Paulo-born jazz vocalist and composer Luciana Souza, Flautist Katisse Buckingham and percussionist Kevin Ricard to bring some extra colour and variety to the mix, the AGQ goes it alone, imitating percussion instruments such as the quica where necessary and generally having a ball. Listen to the compelling groove in the vibrant opening Bluezilian by Clarice Assad, daughter of Sergio of Assad Brothers fame (who is also represented here with his evocative Uarekena), or the sensitive, improvisatory phrasing in the moving Gismonti duet Memória e Fado which ends the disc.

Then there are gems such as the successful arrangements of Villa-Lobos’s Bacbianas Brasileiras No 5 by former Aquarelle member Richard Safhill, and the incredible six-movement Brésils by Roland Dyens, in which the AGQ manage convincingly to sound like an Amazonian rainforest and a marching band at the Carnival de Rio. Guitarquartetphobes – your cure has arrived!