Thanos MITSALAS: Tribute – Clear Note 

Thanos MITSALAS: Tribute – Clear Note 75681, 65:07 (9/12/17) ****:

Outstanding guitar artistry in a presentation of several first-rate contemporary works—Assad, York, Piazzolla—as well as a stupendous Alexandre Tansman “Scriabin Variations.”

(Thanos Mitsalas; guitar)

In the liner notes to this 2017 release by the Greek guitarist Thanos Mitsalas, we are told that the artist is “steadily achieving recognition as one of the leading virtuosos of his generation.”  The first half of the CD at hand, Tribute, earnestly substantiates those claims, emphasizing finger-wiggling velocity on a technically daunting polyphonic piece by Alexandre Tansman called 3 Variations on a theme of Scriabin. This is a impressive piece, and at 10:16, the longest on the record. The enigmatic Scriabin theme leads the guitar far away from the typical guitaristic ambience, into the realm of heady Modernism that is nicely fit to the demands of the guitar.

The first track Tiento Antiguo, an inward looking lyrical piece with a minor mode brooding but few Iberian gestures, is by Rodrigo. The same composer is featured on track four, Un Tiempo Fue Italica Famoso, a dark piece that alternates between Iberian castanet-accented strumming with florid passages of excessive virtuosic self-consciousness. The sound engineer has achieved a big close-up sound; the instrument (made by Thomas Humphrey) is vivid, with much timbral nuance between strings and registers.

The second track features Llobet’s variations on a theme of folias de Espana. The first subject is a stately utterance and, on this instrument, sounds ravishing in its presentation. However, the descending bass line, immediately recognized as the ‘Folias’ chord progression promises that there will be 77 reiterations of this harmonic pattern. The hectic divisions (as they are called in pre-Baroque practice) are a catalog of guitar cliches, but the progression itself feels like the oppressive straight-jacket the guitar has been trying to escape for centuries. A nearly eight minutes, it is a mix of technical display and aural flogging.

Two of Astor Piazzolla’s season Portenos come next, Primavera and Invierno. The first contains puckish harmony with some fancy counterpoint. Technically beyond reach of all but the most skilled hands, the piece is carried off with dazzle by the Greek guitar virtuoso. Both pieces have sweet passages which are played with rapt concentration. Invierno wafts lyrical with intricate sonic effects and harmonic detail but little discernable design. If it is aiming for an evocation of snow, it arrives merely at fog.

The title track Tribute is dedicated to Keith Jarrett and continues the trend towards moody sweetness. I don’t know how many of Keith Jarrett’s musical personae could be conjured up from this ambitious piece, but it is very effective. It begins with some of the relentless, trance-induced drive of that sui generis improviser and sweeps along breathlessly with gushing lyricism. The composer, Simone Iannerelli, has achieved  a great success with this recording and must be thrilled at the mastery displayed by Mr. Mitsalas.

Sergio Assad’s Sandy’s Portrait follows. One is reminded that the legendary guitarist is a substantial composer, for it is a piece of depth and refinement. The Prelude has so much unexpected harmony supporting an exquisite lyric, while the  Passacaglia has a more agreeable use of a chord cycle and ends on an unadorned major chord. The Toccata again demonstrates the guitarist superb articulation on both a bustling and thoughtful couple of themes.

The recital ends with the heartfelt By Candlelight, a affecting but simple theme with a repeated plangent melodic notion over simple minor chords. Andrew York has one foot in New Age music, but is a capable composer of pastoral sensibility. It is a curious choice to end the recital so modestly rather than with one of the big pieces. Perhaps it can be taken as a show of confidence by this outstanding guitarist, who has much more than just virtuosic prowess on demonstration in this outstanding release. Altogether an impressive concert by a first-rate musician.

—Fritz Balwit

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