by James Flood

Russell-DavidThe Cleveland Classical Guitar Society (CCGS) concluded its 2013-2014 season on Saturday evening, March 29 at Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights with a performance by the celebrated guitarist, David Russell. Within the span of just four years, under the direction of Erik Mann, the CCGS has gone from offering a handful of small local events per year to presenting high-profile international performers like Grammy-award winning David Russell, arguably the best classical guitarist in the world.

David Russell was born in Scotland and now resides in Spain. He has a unique connection to Cleveland in that for the last 20 years he’s been recording with the Cleveland-based Telarc International. And one extra piece of trivia: Russell is a devoted and accomplished golfer, having won amateur tournaments.

Despite adverse weather conditions, the audience was nonetheless sizable, and judging by its enthusiasm when Russell took the stage it was apparent that he enjoys a base of devoted fans.

The affable Russell launched into a bravura work by early 19th century guitarist and composer, Mauro Giuliani, Rossiniana No. 3, a series of themes and variations on various Rossini arias. In Russell’s usual form, with his quick-silver hands, the Giuliani was eminently pristine in its articulation, with a nuanced use of dynamics, and finely shaped melodic lines.

Russell then performed two transcriptions of harpsichord Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, K. 490 and K. 491. In the K. 491 fandango, a work rich in imitation and rhythmic panache, Russell demonstrated his unfailingly clean articulation, his delightful sense of melodic-shaping, uncanny rhythm and prodigious sense and ease with producing subtle colorations. Russell’s right hand habitually moves up and down the strings to produce just the right tone color for a given phrase or, in some cases, a single note, all done with such naturalness it’s as if his fingers instinctively know just where to go.

The Scarlatti was followed by a transcription of Spanish composer Enrique Granados’ piano work Valses Poeitcos. The piece is made up of eight movements mostly slower and pensive in character, with a reprise at the end of the irresistibly charming second movement. Russell’s mastery enabled him to gently grab hold of the images, the moods, and musical ideas of a work in such a way that he easily captivated the audience and carried them with him on his journey.

Russell”s own transcription of the Violin Partita I by J.S. Bach opened the second half. His mastery was awe-inspiring. Each of the four dance movements is followed with a “double,” that is, a more rhythmically active variation (generally perpetual 16th notes) achieving a more exciting effect, but sometimes at the price of technical mastery on the part of the performer. Russell played the Allemande with a generous portion of ornaments inserted throughout, expertly executed. Its double seemed to rise mysteriously out of the mist of the first half of the movement, as he played the entire fast section counterintuitively at a pianississimo to mezzo-piano dynamic level to marvelous effect.

Written for solo violin, the Partitia relies heavily on writing that implies different voicings. Russell handled this in exacting detail, even at fast tempos. This was particularly evident in the Corrente, whose double was breathless in its tempo, brilliant in its fast turns, in its melodic figures, its control of dynamics, and implied voicing. It’s as if Russell’s hands are fully obedient to his musical bidding.

Transcriptions of three movements of Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz’s pieces for piano, Capricho Catalan, Granada, and Asturias followed. Albeniz’s piano works are guitar influenced, making them almost sound more natural on guitar than piano, hence the seeming takeover of the guitar world of this composer’s work. The lovely, reflective Granada is a beloved staple of guitar repertoire.

As Russell concluded the more improvised middle section and returned to the A section you could hear a pin drop. The ever-familiar Asturias closed the program. But instead of the somewhat over-the-top performances you usually hear of the work, Russell played it in a more disciplined manner. While his tempo was slightly slower tempo than one would expect and his rasgueados (strums) not as aggressive as what one typically hears, his precision and imagination generated an excitement all its own. The entire crowd was quickly on its feet at its conclusion.

Russell returned with an encore of Augustin Barrios Mangore’s Una Limonsa por el Amor de Dios, which he dedicated to members of his Cleveland Telarc team: producer Elaine Martone, co-founder Bob Woods, and recording engineer Tom Knab. The Barrios was followed by another standing ovation and another encore, this one dedicated to Telarc co-founder Paul Blakemore for whom Russell played two short arrangements of traditional Irish melodies, My Gentle Harp, arranged by Gerald Garcia, and a rollicking arrangement of Russell’s own The Bucks of Ornamore. That led to yet another standing ovation, but alas, no more encores.

Published on April 1, 2014

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