Monday, January 28, 2013

Stefan Barcsay's Nocturnes

Here, a bit late, is my review of  Stefan Barcsay's excellent CD Nocturnes.

As Martin Wilkening states in his illuminating long liner-note essay, all of the pieces on Stefan Barcsay's Nocturnes relate in some way to the 19th century character pieces written for piano: by Chopin, Schumann, Debussy and others. The character piece in this tradition needs to do only one thing, but it's a very, very hard thing to do right. It must paint for the audience a picture. Writing music like this for guitar has advantages, for the five strings can evoke nearly as wide a range as the piano, and the guitar tradition brings with it built-in connections to the landscapes of Iberia and South America.

This disc of character pieces for guitar juxtaposes a series of works written in the late 20th century with the (arguably) greatest series of character pieces in the entire guitar repertoire, the five Villa-Lobos Preludes. The Villa-Lobos Preludes were written in 1940, and judging by their popularity in recital, in the recording studio and on YouTube, nearly every classical guitarist feels the need to master this 20 minutes of music.

Part of the appeal of this music is, I believe, the strikingly real pictures that Villa-Lobos paints in each prelude: a home-spun farmer from the poor, dry north-east of Brazil; a colourful small-time urban gangster; the abstract beauty of Bach; the mystical, eternal Amazonian Indian; and a street musician of Rio (a self-portrait, perhaps, from Villa's time as a teenage guitarist playing with the choros bands). It requires musical imagination as well as technical mastery to make this music come alive, and German guitarist Stefan Barcsay has both. This is a very satisfying series of Preludes which holds its own among the bewildering variety on disc.

What of the works by the four composers who were all born after Villa-Lobos wrote his preludes, but before Villa-Lobos died in 1959? Enjott Schneider who wrote his three Nocturnes for Barcsay, Dusan Bogdanovic, Richard Heller and Ross Edwards all provide a focus on the mysterious, with shifting harmonies that evoke landscapes lit or obscured by clouds passing in front of the moon. The most interesting of the pieces, Ross Edwards' second Blackwattle Caprice, Richard Heller's second Impromptu and Schneider's second Nocturne, add interest through insistent folk music rhythms. Each of these works perhaps owe as much to Villa's Etudes, which transform technical exercises into abstractly beautiful music, as they do to the pure story-telling of the Preludes. All are interesting and colourful, if not quite the works of towering genius that finish this marvellous CD.

This is very highly recommended.

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