David Russell chose to open his May 6th recital for the Boston Classical Guitar Society at Boston’s First Lutheran Church, with a whisper. The subdued tremolo melody of Eduardo Sainz de la Maza’s Companas del Alba (Companions of the Dawn) made an unusual concert starter, but it made for an apt a harbinger of what would follow. The five-minute work’s impressionistic introduction serendipitously continued the mood previously set by the NEC Guitar Ensemble’s warmup rendition of the second movement of Debussy’s String Quartet no. 1, op. 10 in a guitar quartet transcription by Jéróme Mouffe. Russell negotiated the contours of Sainz de la Maza’s themes and harmonies thoughtfully, shaping each phrase with care and masterly control of the tremolo, slowing and then returning to tempo in transitions between sections.
Russell then informed us that his program would feature works seldom heard. Indeed, Russell surprised the crowd of guitar aficionados by spotlighting music of composers whose renown faded after their eras, and skipped over familiar titans. In lieu of Scarlatti sonatas or a suite by J.S. Bach, Russell presented a Baroque sonata by Benedetto Marcello, who, Russell informed, labored in the shadow of his contemporary: fellow Venetian, Antonio Vivaldi. Its four movements, Adagio, Allegro, Largo, and Allegro, exhibit the joy of Vivaldi and the motoric, contrapuntal momentum of Bach. Russell shared that he considers this work the best transcription he completed during the pandemic. While he did not say for which instrument it was originally penned, a good guess would be that it was one of Marcello’s many harpsichord sonatas.
Russell dusted off Vincente Asencio’s Suite Valenciana, which he stated he has played for years and considers to be the composer’s best guitar piece. It celebrates the cultural heritage of Asencio’s native city, Valencia, Spain. A non-guitarist, Asencio (1908-1979) became known to the guitar world after Narcisco Yepes and other Spanish players embraced his few but very worthy guitar offerings. This suite’s three movements, Preludi, Cançonet, and Dansa (titles in Basque), reveal the composer’s solid understanding of the instrument’s idiomatic resources, which he exploited to great effect in the resonant tonality of D minor. (Notably, the first two movements conclude unexpectedly on D major chords). Asencio supports the Preludi’s probing melody with delicate dissonances appearing in arpeggios and chordal jabs. The longer and slower-paced Cançonet becomes more introspective, the dissonances more piquant and the melody more prominent above the accompaniment. Dotted rhythms in the bass propel the graceful lilt of the Dansa. The most virtuosic movement of the suite, it demands rapid scalar bursts from the performer, which Russell handled easily.
Russell then undraped another lesser-known gem, Variations Brillantes by Bernard Lackenbacher (1793-1858). For Russell, the composer is a recent discovery and he shared that he doesn’t know many details of his life except that he was from Vienna and a contemporary of Mauro Giuliani and Gioachino Rossini. Lackenbacher is another whose name was lost to history, Russell declared. This dazzling nine-minute gambol is an exposition of the range of approaches to variations that are hallmarks of 19th-century guitar repertoire. After stating its ornate theme, Lackenbacher’s transformations begin with passages in octaves, bariolage, chromatic rises and falls between melody notes, arpeggios of multitudinous rhythmic varieties, and more. Each challenges the player and Russell executed all with the effortless mastery for which he is known.
Post intermission, Russell played The Blue Madeleine, a suite in four brief movements dedicated to him by the young Italian guitarist-composer Giacomo Susani. In the evocative Familiar Dreams, the composer found inspiration in the milieu of French novelist Marcel Proust. Russell captured its essence, skillfully mining a range of guitaristic devices that included chiming harmonics and ringing campanella scalar passages that simulate the effect of the piano’s sustain pedal. The contemplative Aria, is notable for its jazz-inflected harmonic language with lush minor- and major-seventh chords and structures with the added ninths and other extensions. Russell played Cypresses, the largely textural final movement, with bravura. He rendered the sextuplet arpeggios and skittering scalar melodies crisply throughout before landing on a peppery, yet satisfying final major-seventh chord voiced in harmonics.
Sonata (Al Fin Solos) and Waltzes (Pienso en Ti) came from Spanish-born Romantic-era composer Carlos García Tolsa (1856-1905), whom Russell characterized as another man overshadowed by a contemporary luminary. Tolsa, whose birth and death dates are bookended by those of Francisco Tárrega, ended up emigrating to South America and earning laurels in Uruguay and Argentina. Russell gave these two selections appropriately romantic treatments in line with their subtitles (Al Fin Solos translates to Finally Alone and Pienso en Ti to I Think of You). The rippling arpeggios and harmonies in Sonata and swaying groove of “Waltzes” presage the music of Agustín Barrios Mangoré, who became a student of Tolsa’s student, Gustavo Sosa Escalada.
Before the final three pieces, Russell declared that while he has lived in Spain for most of his life, he was born in Scotland. He then launched into a trio of traditional Celtic tunes that he arranged: “Bolt the Door,” “Morag,” and “Gurty’s Frolic.” The first is a lazy gigue, the second a lament, its mournful melody receiving a poignant contrapuntal treatment in its last appearance. “Gurty’s Frolic,” true to its title provided pure fun, rollicking in 3/4 time toward a strummed climax.
The Boston audience had waited three years for this acclaimed virtuoso’s return and was not quite ready to let him go. Russell happily obliged with two encores. Barrios’s Un Sueño en la Floresta opens with a dreamy melody which flows into to a longer theme played in tremolo style. The multi-sectional fantasy moves through a range of moods, and includes another tremolo section, ultimately reaching the guitar’s highest note before concluding serenely on a soft chord. He identified his second encore, Ay Ondas que eu Vin Veer (The Waves I Came to See) as a Spanish troubadour song in a setting by contemporary composer Stephen Goss. Its tender tune and accompaniment underpinned with campanella, ended the concert tranquilly.
With an extraordinarily appealing program of music reaching from this century back to the 18th, Russell reminded us that there is yet much to say in the tonal language and that treasures by forgotten figures await discovery.