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David Russell brings another personable guitar recital to SFP

Classical guitarist David Russell
Classical guitarist David Russell
courtesy of San Francisco Performances

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Scottish-born David Russell gave his tenth recital for San Francisco Performances (SFP) as part of the Guitar Series presented in association with the Dynamite Guitars series of the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. Russell is grounded in a solid foundation of performance technique and an inventive capacity for transcription. (Only three of last night’s selections were not transcriptions, a fantasia by Fernando Sor and two short pieces by Juan Sorroche, one of which was inspired by one of Russell’s performances and dedicated to him.)

Beyond these cerebral matters, however, there is a quiet intimacy through which Russell engages the listener’s attention. The acoustics of St. Mark’s, frequently used by small ensembles performing early music, were well suited to that intimacy. While the size of the sanctuary may distance the listener from the performer, one can sense an immediate presence of the sounds from just about any available seat.

That intimacy served Russell particularly well in his transcriptions of nineteenth-century piano music. This was readily apparent in his approach to Enrique Granados’ “Valses Poéticos.” The program notes by Scott Cmiel quoted Julian Bream finding parallels to Granados’ approach to waltzes in Richard Strauss (Der Rosenkavalier) and Maurice Ravel (“Valses Nobles et Sentimentales”). Much as I admire Bream’s own work, I feel he was looking in the wrong direction. Each waltz has its own brief individuality, but the sequence unfolds with an almost narrative logic that one also encounters in the sixteen short waltzes that Johannes Brahms collected as his Opus 39. Whether or not Granados was inspired by Brahms, one can appreciate their shared mindset, rendered with quiet clarity through Russell’s transcription and performance.

The three pieces by Isaac Albéniz (“Capricho Catalán,” “Granada,” and “Asturias”) were livelier but no less intimate. (Russell talked about playing “Granada” at the Alhambra in Granada and the suitability of the setting.) There was a bit of a house-of-mirrors effect to these pieces. They were transcriptions for guitar of music composed for piano, which, in turn, had been significantly inspired by guitar music.

The one difficulty with the recital was that, while Russell was always faithful to the score in both performance and transcription, he did not always explore the inventive side of performance technique. Thus, both the Sor fantasia and two Scarlatti sonatas (added to the program as memorials for friends in San Francisco who had died since Russell’s last visit) abound with repeated motifs that need to be more than just repeated. (I have always felt that Scarlatti, in particular, like to be playful with his repetitions, encouraging the performer to do the same.) Russell’s approach often led to a here-we-go-again approach when a motif would return, which did not serve either Sor or Scarlatti very well.

More problematic was his reading of Johann Sebastian Bach’s B minor partita for solo violin (BWV 1002). In this case there are the repeated sections in each of the four dance movements; and then there is the repetition of the entire movement as an embellished “Double.” As I have previously written, there is a good chance that Bach composed this music for pedagogical purposes, addressing not only the performer’s technical skills in execution but also his/her capacity for in-the-moment invention while playing. Russell’s approach gave less of a sense of in-the-moment immediacy and more one of the “reproduction” of a “well wrought urn,” conceived in perfection and presented as such.

Each of these aesthetics clearly has its own validity; but I have to confess that my own bias tends to the “spontaneous Bach” side.