For Guitar, A New Golden Age Of Craft And Pluck

By Ken Keaton
It’s an exciting time for the classical guitar. Not only has the number of magnificent players grown in recent years, but the repertoire also has expanded far beyond the charming miniatures that once formed the stock in trade for great masters like Andrés Segovia.
From the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition.


The plethora of gifted young guitarists coming onto the scene is reflected in Stars of the Guitar, a double-CD set released in December 2015. The recording features past winners of the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition organized and hosted by Falletta and the guitar duo Joanne Castellani and Michael Andriaccio. Included are all the major concertos and a couple of new ones. Each soloist plays with the Buffalo Philharmonic, conducted by Falletta. And each performance is just as fine as anything you can hear from more established artists.

This set offers a fine chance to assess the state of the current guitar world. That state is excellent.

Each of these young players – names to note include Marcin Dylla, Chad Ibison, Ekachai Jearakul, Petrit Çeku, Celil Refik KayaMarko Topchii, and Benjamin Beirs – not only has a fully developed technique, but also a mature musicality and an individual personality.

Even as late as the 1970s, apart from a few major figures like Julian Bream and John Williams, there were few really major talents. Players began to emerge during that decade, figures such as Manuel Barrueco, David Russell, and Sharon Isbin. Those artists then began teaching, and every year there were not only more qualified teachers, but also more successful students.

I’ve reviewed guitar for American Record Guide for just over ten years. Every two months I get a box of at least a dozen, often more, new releases. To be sure, many of the players I hear are not ready for prime time, but with each issue, I invariably find major artistic achievement, often from young players barely into their twenties.

Adam Levin is recording contemporary Spanish works for Naxos.

Take, for instance, Boston-based Adam Levin. Whether as soloist or with violinist William Knuth in Duo Sonidos, Levin always performs with excitement and artistry. He is currently engaged in a Fulbright-supported project, 21st Century Spanish Guitar. He has traveled to Spain and found composers who either had written for guitar or who were interested in doing so. He contracted with Naxos to record four volumes, 50 new works in total. Volume 1 was on my Critic’s Choice for American Record Guide in 2013. Volume 2 was just released, and Levin is currently recording Volume 3. These substantive compositions will enrich the literature for generations.

Franz Halász often plays in a duo with his wife Débora, an excellent pianist. That combination is nearly impossible to balance properly, but they manage, in part because he is an unusually strong guitarist with a huge dynamic and timbral range. His recordings also demonstrate a broad spectrum of stylistic sensitivity, from Carulli and Regino Sáinz de la Maza to Hans Werner Henze. Halász’s virtuosity is always tempered with taste. He has twice been on my Critic’s Choice list, and he has a new disc coming out in March from BIS, the music of Astor Piazzolla and Carlos Gardel.

The Australian Guitar Duo pairs two brilliant talents, Jacob Cordover and Rupert Boyd. Both are on this year’s Critic’s Choice list for solo discs, Cordover for Expresivo, Boyd for Fantasias. Both play with real artistry and discernment, and both can play the classical repertoire and make you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time.

Rupert Boyd and Laura Metcalf perform as the duo Boyd Meets Girl.

Boyd is currently performing in a cello-guitar duo with Laura Metcalf, as Boyd Meets Girl. Cordover has been performing Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s miraculous suite Platero y Yo with his brother Gideon, an actor, narrating in English. I really love this music, an extended set of 28 pieces for narrator and guitar. Though Segovia performed the pieces without a narrator, the poetry really makes Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s wonderfully lyric and pictorial music come alive, and the Cordovers’ performances are the finest I’ve encountered. Both duos can be seen on YouTube, and one hopes negotiations are going on for CD releases.

Adam Holzman’s DMA program at the University of Texas, Austin, has produced some remarkable artists. Two – Celik Refik Kaya and Chad Ibison – were on the Stars of the Guitar set: Ibison performs the Brouwer Concierto Elegiaco, and Refik Kaya plays Roberto Sierra’s Folias, both with complete, mature mastery. Refik Kaya has just released, on Naxos, a disc of Jorge Morel, with a new CD of Carlo Domeniconi to come in the spring.

Impressive debut: Meng Su’s first solo CD released on Tonar.

Another elder statesman, Manuel Barrueco, has recently been mentor to the Beijing Guitar Duo. The younger of these two musicians, Meng Su, just started her solo career with her eponymous CD released on Tonar. It was the most impressive debut I’ve heard in a long time. Not only was her program – the Walton Bagatelles, the Bach E major Suite, and the Castelnuovo-Tedesco Sonata – enough to exhaust the strongest player, but it was played with precise attention to the sound quality of every single note. She even interspersed a few bonbons among the masterworks, and she could make Tarrega’s tacky little Gran Vals into great music.

No discussion would be complete without including some of the remarkable compositions that are entering the repertoire. Nikita Koshkin’s Megaron Concerto (released on BIS, performed by Elena Papandreou) is a 40-minute tour-de-force with the emotional wallop of Shostakovich, if not his utter hopelessness.

Cristiano Porqueddu plays Angelo Gilardino’s ‘Transcendentia.’

Angelo Gilardino’s five sets of 12 Transcendental Etudes are not new music, but they were only recently recorded. When they were written, Gilardino realized that no one had the technique to play them all. No longer. They were recorded on Brilliant by his student Cristiano Porqueddu, who plays them with no struggles at all, and with deep understanding. Each of the 60 pieces is programmatic, inspired by a composer, a painter, a poet, a place, and Porqueddu conveys their essence perfectly. His latest release, due this month, is of 20th-century guitar etudes.

Last fall, guitarist and composer Giorgio Mirto released his Norwegian Memories for guitar and strings on Brilliant. It is some of the most achingly beautiful music I’ve ever heard, and it immediately went to the top of my Critic’s Choice list. Indeed, I’m so excited by his music that I just performed a movement from that work, and the U.S. premiere of his massive, wildly inventive quartet The Four Seasons.

Johannes Moller and Laura Fraticelli perform guitar duets.

Another important composer and performer that I’ve just discovered is Johannes Möller. He and his partner, Laura Fraticelli, often perform together, and their Mertz disc for Naxos was some of the most exquisite playing I’ve ever heard (yes, another Critic’s Choice).

But the most interesting aspect of Möller’s artistry is his composition. It has extraordinary range, and some of his music is the most effective synthesis of West and East I’ve encountered. He has spent considerable time in India and China, and has works that incorporate those classical traditions. Möller has the technique, and the imagination, to realize this. In his Indian music, he has developed new cross-string techniques to imitate extended sitar arpeggios, and his Chinese suite uses harmonics and other special devices to sound like Chinese percussion.

Ken Keaton is Professor of Music for Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches historical musicology, music in general studies, and classical guitar. He is the author of the textbook The Mystery of Music, and reviews concerts for the Palm Beach Daily News and recordings for American Record Guide, in addition to his contributions to Classical Voice North America.