Though this album was actually released a few months before the Sharon Isbin recording containing, purely by chance, two of the same guitar quintets is perhaps an indicator that these quintets are making their way into the active performing repertoire. I’m not really interested in the differences between the two recordings but I am interested in hearing two of the finest guitarists working today finding the two works on their respective radars at more or less the same time.
The present disc with Jason Vieaux (whose fine work has been reviewed elsewhere in this blog) and the Escher Quartet begins (as Isbin’s does) with the inconceivably little known masterpiece, the Guitar Quintet Op. 148 (1950) of Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968). The composer’s style sounds pretty much mid-century post romantic with a wealth of Spanish references. The high romanticism of the quintet format (compare Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Brahms and Schumann’s Piano Quintets) is well served here in an incredibly engaging work which makes significant demands on the musicians but is musically very transparent to the listener. It is a wonder that this piece is not better known and, for that matter, that the rest of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s output is not being explored in a big way.
The second work here also deserves more hearings. Aaron Jay Kernis’ (1960- ) 100 Greatest Dance Hits is another piece which can be described as post romantic and audience friendly. Kernis uses some extended techniques like using the instruments percussively at times but its basically a consonant melodic experience. It’s scoring for guitar and string quartet keep the listener in basically the same sound world and, except for Kernis’ curious titlings, this is a guitar quintet in all but name. And the use of dance forms is a tradition that goes back at least the baroque era. Like the opening work, it is cast in four movements.
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) is a prolific Italian composer who spent a great deal of creative life in Spain and, as a result, has incorporated Spanish rhythms and idioms into his work. This contemporary of Mozart and Haydn shares a similar late classical style. The last work here is another four movement Guitar Quintet (1793), the fourth of nine he wrote and probably the best known. The only difference between this rendition and the one by Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet is the absence of castanets in the fandango last movement. In fact that may be one of the hooks for completists who want to hear what it sounds like in its original version (both work very well).
The performances are all full of enthusiasm and seemingly easy virtuosity that one expects from musicians of this caliber. If you are stumped as to which one of these to get I think the only reasonable answer is, of course, both.