The AGQ’s Superlative Collective Musicianship

The AGQ’s Superlative Collective Musicianship

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.