Abundant Technique and Breath-taking Artistry

Abundant Technique and Breath-taking Artistry

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.