Lily Afshar

From the opening quarter-tonal string bends of “Kara Toprak” by Turkish composer Asik Veysel, classical guitarist Lily Afshar strikes the best balance yet between heritage and innovation on this new album. An Iranian artist with one ear on Near and Middle Eastern culture and one on strong, distinctive new works for the classical guitar, Afshar has built a career out of interesting sideways and detours for her instrument’s literature that now feel like important corridors.

Her 1994 recorded debut was an impressive performance of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “24 Caprichos de Goya,” not the most recorded guitar work by the cheery Italian neo-classicist but in her hands probably one of the best. Her second album (1999-also on the Summit label), “A Jug of Wine and Thou,” is worth seeking for her rousing rendition of Domeniconi’s Turkish-inspired guitar suite “Koyunbaba.”

Archer Records is based in Memphis, where she heads the University of Memphis guitar department. Her debut for Archer, “Possession” (2002), mixed a number of commissions and arrangements into a heady contemporary package that remains her most adventurous outing. This follow-up continues to explore modern guitar repertoire but in a much more lyrical frame. Among the premiers (and high points) are Persian composer Reza Vali’s “Gozaar” (Calligraphy No. 5), a sonorous, contemplative work based on an ancient Persian modal system and written for Afshar, who had special “fretlets” installed on her guitar to accommodate the piece’s microtonal nuances. The heart of the record is the double serving of “Fantasia on a Traditional Persian Song,” written by Garry Eister for Afshar, followed by the song it was based on, “Morgh-eh-Sahar” (Bird of Dawn) which she strums convincingly on the traditional Persian setar, a breath of fresh folk-like air that joyfully breaks the contemporary spell for a few minutes yet lends itself wonderfully to the rest of the program’s exotic flavor.

Afshar’s technical facility gets better all the time and matches her passion note for note; on “Hemispheres,” she is at her most confident, nuanced, and powerful. In fact, she has become as important to the development and execution of modern guitar literature as John Schneider, who dedicates two works to her here, a tender prelude and motive fugato, each built from expressive yet experimental lyricism, which is quickly becoming Afshar’s defining trait as well.

Ellis, American Record Guide