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Don't Fret for the Guitar

New albums, including a fine effort from the L.A. Guitar Quartet, show there's plenty of life in this old instrument.

*** L.A.G.Q. The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. Tim Timmermans, percussion. Leo Chelyapov, clarinet. Masakazu Yoshizawa, shakuhachi. Jim Walker, flute. Ara Tokatlian, pan flutes. (Sony Classical)

*** THE GUITARIST. John Williams, guitar. Chamber orchestra conducted by William Goodchild. (Sony Classical)

*** BACH: Complete sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin. Paul Galbraith, guitar. (Delos, two CDs)

*** 1/2 NEWDANCE David Starobin, guitar. (Bridge)

September 13, 1998|John Henken | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The guitar--the original multicultural, crossover instrument--does not have a family tree so much as a whole family forest, with repertory to match. Some of the most interesting and flat-out enjoyable music and playing in any style today can be heard on the instrument, as a significant crop of new releases demonstrates.

World music fusions and classical-vernacular crossovers of various denominations are inspiring many composers and performers now and are getting the kind of audience, in numbers and demographics, that the commercial side of the field covets. Sony Classical President Peter Gelb is leading his label that way dramatically, making the signing of the stylistically omnivorous Los Angeles Guitar Quartet a logical move.

The ensemble's Sony debut, after a four-disc tenure on the Delos label, is oddly self-effacing, somewhat insubstantial, but ultimately thoroughly engaging. Despite the title, the guitar quartet on its own is what you hear least of in this world music anthology's 16 groove-oriented tracks, most of which include one of five guest artists. There are three klezmer dances with hot, soulful solos from clarinetist Leo Chelyapov, a pair of Inti Illimani tunes with the chortling pan flutes of Ara Tokatlian, a two-part African suite goosed by Tim Timmermans' drums, Rentaro Taki's "Kojo-No-Tsuki" coolly floating on Masakazu Yoshizawa's haunted shakuhachi, and Chick Corea's "Spain" taking flight with Jim Walker's articulate flute.

Two of the quartet members also take solo turns, John Dearman playing Dusan Bogdanovic's "Mysterious Habitats" with quiet warmth and Andrew York ambling reflectively through his own "Muir Woods."

The other performances are lively miracles of ensemble grace. The guests are all more than capable and the sound well balanced, but it is L.A.G.Q. puro that proves most memorable, particularly in the flamboyant lilt of Paulo Bellinati's "A Furiosa" and the deep resonances of Peter Maxwell-Davies' "Farewell to Stromness."

Sony's established stars, such as guitarist John Williams, are coming in with similar concepts. The music of Williams' new disc centers on the eastern Mediterranean, past and present. The solo pieces include three big-boned, virtuosic suites: Carlo Domeniconi's fiery Turkish-inspired "Koyunbaba," and two Grecian reflections, Mikis Theodorakis' lyrical "Three Epitafios" and the more sharply pointed "Stele" by Phillip Houghton.

"Koyunbaba," with the thrum of its nonstandard tuning and powerful rhythmic engine, has become something of a favorite among technically well-endowed guitarists, and Williams plays it and the others with a cool, plangent tone and effortless control.

Closely related to the current fascination with music of other cultures is the exotification and repopularizing of the old modal music at the roots of European art music, manifest in phenomena such as chant mania. Williams plays three of his own solo arrangements of medieval songs and dances, and composed an "Aeolian Suite" for guitar and orchestra in four well-contrasted movements based on similar as well as original material. Some of these tunes were popularized by British guitarist John Renburn in the 1970s and have since reentered the folk repertory, adding another layer of cultural cross-references.

Rounding out the disc are three of Satie's delicately perfumed evocations of ancient Greece, the first two "Gnossiennes" and the third "Gymnopedie," the latter in a gorgeous Williams arrangement for guitar and small orchestra.

That albums with a world music bent run heavily to song and dance material is not surprising, considering the relative rarity of abstract concert music in non-Western traditions. David Starobin doesn't seem to have set out to build a world music or crossover collection with his "Newdance" disc of recent commissions, but that is largely what he got, and an eminently attractive and fascinating one at that.

Though busy in recent seasons playing 19th century music on period instruments, Starobin has long been a repertory-building hero, notably with his multivolume New Music with Guitar series from the 1980s. Many composers from those recordings have pieces on "Newdance," ranging from John Anthony Lennon's flamboyant tango "Gigolo" and William Bland's lyrically elegant "Rag Nouveau" to Elliott Carter's brilliantly glittering "Shard" and Milton Babbitt's maniacally sprung "Danci."

There are also Sufi and Yemenite interpretations from Jonathan Harvey and Richard Wernick, respectively, and a Jimi Hendrix impersonation from Bryan Johanson. Old forms are revisited in John Duarte's "Valse en Rondeau," Poul Ruders' Chaconne and Paul Lansky's "Crooked Courante." Eight other stylistically diverse pieces round out a disc that is sure to provide encore favorites for years to come.

Starobin's good work does not end with soliciting new material; he also plays it handsomely. He keeps all this music, whether graceful or brusque, in motion and dancing in our ears long after the recording is over.

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