Memphis-based Lily Afshar could never be accused of flooding the CD market. If I’ve done my sums correctly, this is only her sixth release over a period of two decades. But in terms of quality control, Afshar maintains the highest standards, always generating upmarket fare and often with a sizeable dose of original thought. So it is with what’s billed as her first chamber music offering, in which a world premiere is fielded alongside high octane revivals of familiar Paganini and what was once too familiar Piazzolla.
Composed in 1990 but reportedly unrecorded until now, Vladislav Upensky’s eight movements for guitar and chamber ensemble could work well as the incidental music for a stage adaptation of Pushkin’s tale of lost love. Using an octet comprising guitar, clarinet, stings and percussion, the combined factors of the instrumentation and thematic material that apparently recalls the popular theatre of the day give the proceedings something of a Threepenny Opera quality. This presumably wasn’t part of the plan, but no harm done.
All’s well on the performance front, although it has to be noted that the sound capture of Afshar’s guitar has a distinctly ‘amplified’ feel. This is most noticeable in Uspensky’s third movement, which is an unaccompanied solo. In the work as a whole, it has the benefit of bringing the guitar further forward in the mix but also diminishes the warmth of tone I know Afshar to be capable of achieving on stage.
According to Afshar’s notes, Op.61 is a one-off among Paganini’s works for guitar and violin in that ‘both parts are equally balanced technically and musically’. That’s certainly how it comes across in the elegant account presented here, in which Afshar is joined by violinist Tim Shiu, who is also part of the team for the Uspensky.
And so to Astor Piazzolla, whose legacy I’ve often given short shrift in the past. With hindsight, the problem wasn’t so much the music as the absurdly elevated status it enjoyed among guitarists, especially during the 1990s. Now that sanity has been restored. It’s easier to recognize the positive qualities that, despite the composer’s often narrow formula, were always present. So it is with the dynamic interpretation Afshar delivers in the company of Joy Wiener, a live recording that fits in well with all that goes before.
A first-class addition to the Afshar catalogue that was, as always, well worth the wait.
by Paul Fowles, Classical Guitar Magazine
– March 2014