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Thrum
Daniel Bernard ROUMAIN
Ghetto Strings [23:58]
David Evan THOMAS
Thrum [17:27]
Van STIEFEL (b. 1965)
Cinema Castaneda [14:49]
Gao HONG
Guangxi Impression [11:24]*
Gao Hong (pipa)*
Minneapolis Guitar Quartet
rec. 2011-2012, Wild Sound, Minneapolis MN
INNOVA 858 [67:27]

Any well performed homogenous instrumental combination can have its attractions, but the combination of the mellifluous and nail-hard, of resonance and striking impact a guitar quartet can have is something a bit special. The Minneapolis Guitar Quartet has been around since1986 and is exactly the kind of crack ensemble you want performing contemporary repertoire, though their repertoire ranges from the Renaissance to the Romantic via those essential Spanish and Latin composers.
 
Written as a musical description of cities the composer has lived or known, Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Ghetto Strings is sharp and unsentimental, with groovy jazz/rock accents in the opening Harlem, some gorgeously nuanced quasi-minimalist dreaming in a movement called Motor City, and some hints at folk music in a final movement called Haiti. Programmatic descriptive works are sometimes a little hard to digest, but this is a highly enjoyable masterpiece.
 
The piece Thrum by David Evan Thomas is another accessible work, though entirely different in nature. Its three movements have something of the quality of a ‘concerto for guitars’ and the material is thrown between the instruments, keeping us on our toes and providing each player with plenty to do. More importantly this often provides a challenge of continuity, and the Minneapolis players cope admirably. The composer describes the middle movement as “part philosophy lesson, part stroll in a garden of little bells”, and this verdant path leads us into a final movement which has a fugue written into it, but one with a very light and un-academic touch. This is music with great appeal and a high fun-factor.
 
Van Stiefel trained as a classical guitarist, and his Cinema Castaneda had its starting point from a collection of cowboy songs, the imagination of the composer wandering through frontier imagery, ballads and rancheros as well as a variety of contemporary and not-so contemporary pop influences. This description barely hints at the serious qualities in this piece, which takes us deeper into the sonic variety of the ensemble than any of the others, layering dynamics and playing with effects in ways which alter our perspectives and genuinely create a valuable and cinematic journey. The players are asked to sing as well at certain points, which is a further surprisingly effective additional nuance. There are ten movements, though the music runs continuously. This is the kind of piece which points out the vitality and character of genres and idioms rarely considered in serious musical contexts, and I’m an instant convert.
 
Talking of extending nuances, Gao Hong plays pipa along with the quartet in his Guangxi Impression. We’ve come across Hong before in a disc not much loved by David Wright, but the effect here is remarkable. The pipa is part of the guitar family, but its entirely different sonority makes it distinct from the other instruments, and Hong’s skill in joining and contrasting solo with ensemble creates a fascinating work. Guangxi is a province in southern China, and this piece represents some of the diversity of cultures to be found there, finishing with a festive ‘Celebrating the Harvest’ with percussive effects and final shouts.
 
This is a super disc, very finely recorded in a close but not tiring studio environment. All of the pieces here have a great deal to offer and the album is well worth having. It seems a bit mean to cherry-pick, but if you are only downloading I would urge you to hear Van Stiefel’s Cinema Castaneda, and I shall certainly be looking out for more from the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet in future.
 
Dominy Clements