Album Review: Odyssey by Frederic Hand – a vibrant and colourful masterwork

I have been seriously super privileged enough to be invited to review the latest recording from guitarist and composer extraordinaire, Frederic Hand. Being a huge fan of Hand’s this review was one I was really relishing even more than normal! And I wasn’t disappointed.

For those who are not familiar with Frederic Hand (you really should be!) he was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1947. He is a graduate of th e High Sch ool of Music and Art in New York City and the Mannes College of Music. He was a Fulbright Scholar to England and a student of Julian Bream. His solo performances in North and South America and Europe have received the highest critical acclaim. The New York Times wrote: “He played unerringly, with all the verve and spirit that one could ask.

Appointed the Metropolitan Opera’s guitarist and lutenist in 1984, he has performed with Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Renee Fleming and many other renowned singers .

His scores for television earned him an Emmy Award, and his arrangement and performance of the theme for the film “Kramer vs. Kramer” led to his own best selling recording for Sony, “Baroque and On the Street.”

He is the creator of Jazzantiqua, a group the New York Time described as “scintillating and brilliant,”and has also recorded for BMG and the Music Heritage Society. He has been an Affiliate Artist with the State Arts Councils of New Yorks, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Washington.

Hand’s guest appearances include the New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Mostly Mozart Festival, Marlboro Music Festival and the Caramoor Festival with the Orchestra of St Lukes. For his recording and performances with flutist Paul Robison, he won the Classical Recording Foundation’s Samuel Sanders Award.

So not too shabby at all really. You can say he’s done a thing or two and knows his way reasonably around a guitar!

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Nicole’s Verdict on Odyssey

Well. Where to begin?! This recording is as varied in its styles as it is stunning in its execution. The recording is primarily a set of Hand’s original compositions (with the addition of one of his boyhood favourites – more on that below), with influences from jazz, medieval music, Spain, contemporary classical, Bach and myriad other influences including his wee granddaughter.

It’s clear that Hand is as equally a talented a guitarist as he is composer (in case you were in any doubt with such a biography as that above!). There is some seriously accomplished playing on Odyssey. Hand’s tone quality is absolutely fantastic, and his range of tonal colours throughout the various pieces is actually really refreshing. It’s so good to be able to hear very clearly differing colours so vividly and clearly defined. If you’re looking for examples of tonal variation and what it could and should sound like this recording should be on the list.

His dolce tones are rich and fat and full-bodied. Check out his rendition of Gluck’s Ballet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits (the only non-original composition on the recording, and a boyhood favourite apparently). Aside from the beautifully lyrical playing I nearly wept with the sheer beauty of the tone Hand milks from his instrument in this piece. Oh my goodness, you simply have to listen to it. Divine stuff.

And it’s not all about the voluptuous, rich, fat tones either. Hand produces some fantastic ponticello highlights; in some spots you can almost sympathetically feel the hard tension in your right hand of that playing up right next to the bridge (Four Sephardic Songs: Ah, El Novio No Quere Dinero for example). I love the quality the more ponti style of playing brings to the medieval Cantiga de Santa Maria. Clear, bell-like playing supporting a drone bass, with a wonderful dancing melody that conjures up images of fair maidens dancing at some medieval courtly feast.

There are so many fantastic pieces on this recording it’s really quite difficult to pick a favourite. Prayer would have to be up there though. Beautiful. Just beautiful. Lyrical melody, lush harmonies delivered by Hand’s gorgeous playing.

Prayer was written for guitar duo and first performed by Hand with Benjamin Verdery. According to Hand it was one of those pieces that seemed to pop out fully formed, written in one sitting. The piece was deeply influenced and inspired by the music of J.S. Bach, to whom the piece is dedicated. It was apparently a performance of a Vivaldi/ Bach keyboard concerto by John Williams on a single guitar that inspired Hand to create a solo version of Prayer that we hear on this recording.

Another particular highlight for me are the Four Sephardic Songs, the first two of which (Introduction/ Una Pastora Yo Ami and Ah, El Novio No Quere Dinero) particularly struck me – Spanish-inflected, melancholic elegance in the first and slightly off-kilter, make-you-sit-up-and-listen harmonies and so well placed molto ponticello colour highlights in the second.

I listen to a lot of recordings, as anyone who follows my blog regularly will probably understand. My advice is this: If you only buy one classical guitar album this year make sure it’s this one.

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