Where other young performers either smile sweetly or sultrily for the camera or affect an air of debonair nonchalance or studied seriousness, Ian Watt looks almost disdainful on the front and back covers of his second Nimbus Alliance recital (see warm review
of debut). Let none be deterred, however, from enjoying his programme, which is a varied and interesting one, if not self-evidently coherent: short four-century-old pieces by John Dowland separating four longer 20th-century works, two well known, two world premieres.
Despite the differences, everything is pretty relaxed and tuneful, passages of reflective nostalgia - inevitably sometimes Mediterranean - rubbing shoulders with edgier-soulful virtuosity. Neither of the first recordings are missed masterpieces, it must be said - though the accompanying notes would clearly have the reader believe otherwise - but credit to Watt for including works by relatively neglected Scottish composers, with one of whom, John McLeod, he shares his Aberdeenshire birthplace. Watt actually commissioned McLeod's piece, one of a cluster of guitar works from the composer in the last year or two after a lifetime of ignoring the instrument.
A pat on the back for the album producers, incidentally, for not titling this disc 'Lachrimae', almost unheard-of restraint where John Dowland's music is featured! There is nothing doleful, as it happens, about Watt's account of Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens - rather, this is elegance and prettiness, with a hint of wistfulness. Deliberately or not, it serves as a reminder that the popular image of Dowland needs reviewing - he was certainly no sentimental wallower with a surname that rhymes with 'cow land'!
As for Watt, he sounds completely at home whatever century or style he is playing in. He is technically assured, thoughtful, unpretentious. It is fair to say he does not have the panache of Miloš Karadaglic, but his phrasings, colours and characterisations are a match for anyone. John McLeod and Thomas Wilson could hope for no better champion.
Watt's notes on the featured composers and music are detailed and intelligent, although he is sometimes provocative. For example, he writes that "the 19th century did not produce a masterpiece for the instrument; nor did it attract – with only the occasional and rather insignificant exception – the attention of any great composers" and "It was however only in the 1950s that the guitar began to attract composers of real stature". Is Watt too young then to remember Paganini, Giuliani, Boccherini, Diabelli, Carulli, Sor and Tárrega, all of whom dabbled in composition and were occasionally known to write the odd guitar piece? Watt even dates the "rise of guitar virtuosos" to the advent of modernism in the early twentieth century, citing Andrés Segovia as "the first guitarist to achieve world-wide fame through his constant touring, recording and commissioning of a remarkable number of new works." If Segovia were alive today, he would surely castigate Watt for such apparent ignorance of music history.
Nonetheless, with a reasonably generous running time, there is little to fault this disc. Sound quality is excellent - up close and intimate, almost like having Watt playing on your knee. A minor downside is that his breathing sometimes intrudes.
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