Album Review – Ascension by Yuri Liberzon

Another album review for you this week folks, and another fantastic recording. The debut offering from US-based guitarist Yuri Liberzon, an incredibly talented young man.

So who is Yuri Liberzon?

Russian-born and Israeli-raised classical guitarist Yuri Liberzon has been recognized for his impressive technical ability and musicality (in fact gaining US permanent residency because of it – not too shabby!)

Liberzon’s most in influential teacher at a young age was Maestro Yaron Hasson with whom he studied for 6 years in Israel before moving to the United States. He has been a frequent recipient of scholarships from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation.

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Motivated by a desire to realize his potential, Yuri was privileged to come to the United States as a student to study at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University. He was awarded full scholarships to study with two of the world’s leading guitar masters: Manuel Barrueco and Benjamin Verdery. Yuri received his Bachelor’s degree and Graduate Performance Diploma from Peabody Conservatory as well as Master’s degree from Yale University.

In addition to his arrangements and transcriptions, his expertise has been called on to judge competitions in the United States, such as the Beatty Music Competition for the Classical Guitar in Washington D.C and San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

His arrangements of Domenico Scarlatti and J. S. Bach have been published in SoundBoard magazine, the official quarterly magazine of the Guitar Foundation of America.

Ascension – My Thoughts…

I have four words for you – this recording is exceptional.

OK, I have some more words for you than those, but to want to emphasise the point that this recording is stellar stuff.

The recording is top-and-tailed by two Lennon and McCartney pieces, Michelle and Yesterday. I’ll admit I’m always a little nervous about listening to classical guitar interpretations of Beatles music – the potential cheese factor is always high! However, not so with these two offerings. Michelle is beautifully played, without getting overly schmaltzy, and played in quite an idiomatic fashion. Yesterday is not one of my favourite Lennon and McCartney songs, but Yuri presents and plays the piece in a jazz-inflected manner with no hint of any cheese factor whatsoever!

Following Michelle, we’re presented with Lecuona’s Danza Lucumí, a lovely, whimsical little piece presented by Yuri with an alluringly subtle and delicate approach. A lovely little jewel of a piece. This is followed by Rudnev’s The Old Lime Tree, a delightfully bittersweet piece with some deliciously plush playing.

We then begin an ascension (to coin the name of the album) into the stuff where Yuri really shines with a couple of Scarlatti pieces – Sonata K.1/ L336 and Sonata K. 27/L449. The former of these two pieces I actually said to myself (and no word of a lie) “flipping heck, this is great stuff!” This is the first time a recording of Scarlatti has made me sit up and really pay attention (and again, no word of a lie). Technical brilliance, paired with musical understanding, maturity, subtly and letting the music speak for itself is a powerful thing.

And then that brings us onto the Bach – the full kit and caboodle of Partita No.2 in D Minor for Solo Violin in its entirety. On listening to this a whole lot more “flipping heck” ensued. My goodness. This. Is. Awesome. This version I think is going to have to be up there with one of my top renditions of this mammoth work. The Chaconne is off the charts!  Virtuosic and technically brilliant. Beautifully clear lines, subtle phrasing and clear and direct playing. It is the musical equivalent of building an impressively large, multi-faceted and beautifully coloured edifice. Ascension indeed.

Head to Yuri’s website to order your own digital download or CD of Ascension https://www.yuriguitar.com/recordings-and-publications/

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Album Review – Enchanted Guitar Forest by Alex Lubet & Maja Radovanlija

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Once again I have been highly privileged to sit and listen to some wonderful original music – this time with a bit of an Eastern European flavour – presented by some equally wonderful guitarists.

But before I leap in to the review, some info for you on who these wonderful guitarists are

Alex Lubet

A native of Chicago, composer, multi-instrumentalist, author, and educator Alex Lubet has lived in Minnesota since 1979.  While having written works in many idioms, he has long devoted himself principally to performing his own music, as a solo acoustic guitarist and in collaboration with artists including Maja Radovanlija, Swiss free jazz pianist Guerino Mazzola, and his wife, taiko and fue (Japanese drums and horizontal flute) player Iris Shiraishi.  In addition to guitars and ukuleles, Alex plays electric and double bass and mountain dulcimer. Alex has received hundreds of performances of his works on six continents.  His album Spectral Blues:  New Music for Acoustic Guitar (Ravello) received unanimously excellent reviews in the US, Italy, and Brazil.  Well known critic and author Ted Gioia named it a “Best Album of 2013.”  Alex joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota in 1979.

Alex plays a Taylor guitar, a National Steel Guitar, and a Kamaka ukulele.

Maja Radovanlija

A native of Belgrade, Serbia, Maja Radovanlija received her initial training at the University of Belgrade, with graduate studies at Indiana University.  She was won several awards and competitions, including second prize at the Petar Konjevic International Competition in Belgrade.  A student of early music, Latin American music, and jazz, Maja began composing and performing her own works in graduate school.  She is distinguished by her passion for improvisation, rare among classical guitarists.  Having performed widely in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and throughout the US, Maja is a member of the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet and often performs in the US with (among many) ImprovIsAn’Do and Improvised Ecosystems; in Belgrade with the ImprovE Collective, and with Hungarian violist/composer Szilard Mezei.  Maja has taught guitar at the University of Minnesota since 2011.

Maja plays a double top guitar, made in West Branch, Iowa by luthier John H. Dick.

The Review – What Did I Think?

The title of the recording Enchanted Guitar Forest is a pretty spot-on one actually. The whole recording really does have a light, ethereal, and slightly musical quality to it. Not that I normally like to compare artists with one another as all are different and uniquely special in their own ways, but this reminds me somewhat of a Johannes Möller recording (albeit with a lot of steel string guitar, which incidentally really lends itself to this music and is quite colourful in a way that I’ve not heard too much from our steel string cousins) in that mystical, lyrical and thought-provoking manner.

So what about the pieces on the recording? Shallow go with my favourite track? Always a good one to start with. Let’s just say I bloody love Los Bibilicos – all melancholic, sultry, Spanish-inflected minor pentatonics, and the most wonderfully expressive tremolo playing, sensitive little tambour touches and etouffé muted playing, and the sweetest, dolce harmonics. A delicious piece most definitely worth tasting. An utterly mesmerising piece of music that I’ve listened to several times over, on repeat.

Up there next for me would have to be Ein Keilheinu, a fantastic piece (the opening passage of which comes from a synagogue hymn) with the steel guitar to the fore, a lulling Eastern melody, and wonderful nylon string arpeggios supporting in the background. This piece is beautifully enchanting; a colourful guitar forest I’d be happy to wander in and around for a while.

Also worth a mention is the nostalgic Ma Yafeh hayom  – a gentle and pretty pathway out of the Enchanted Guitar Forest and back out into the light, with a wistful melody and that delightful tremolo playing in spots again.

This is a truly delightful recording, displaying the many wonderful characteristics of the broader guitar family through sensitive idiomatic writing and arranging, and equally sensitive and wonderfully expressive guitar playing. A beautiful recording, and a must listen for those who enjoy the best of new contemporary guitar music.

Enchanted Guitar Forest is available for download on iTunes and Alex Lubet is on Spotify with this recording and his excellent 2013 Spectral Blues.