Lily Afshar, the celebrated American-Iranian guitarist, has always been somewhat adventurous with her recordings. Her sixth and latest effort, Musica da Camera (Archer Records) is no exception, programmed with three substantial works.
The programme kicks off with with the previously unrecorded Musical Sketches on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin by Vladislav Uspensky. This eight movement work, says Afshar “is based on Pushkin’s novel, and the unique instrumentation for eight musicians – drums, bass, clarinet and strings with guitar – intrigued me. Knowing the story and listening to the programmatic piece clearly explains the character of the hero and heroines created by both Pushkin and Uspensky while blending 19th Century with the 20th”.
My favourite track in this work is the cheeky and spirited Theatre. In terms of Afshar’s playing it almost goes without saying that her playing is of the highest order; her adventurous style and confident delivery brings out the vivacious nature of the piece. It is also clear that Afshar has assembled around her a quality group of musicians to assist in presenting this work for the first time, all clearly able to match Afshar’s stunning playing.
The Uspensky piece is followed by the no less spirited Sonata Concertata, Op. 61 for guitar and violin by Niccolo Paganini, with Tim Shiu on violin. I’ll admit that I’m not a massive fan personally of Paganini’s music in general, but I did rather like this work and its presentation by Afshar and Shiu. I particularly like the dark, broodiness of the Adagio assai espressivo with a delightfully balanced interplay between the guitar and violin.
The album is rounded out by a well-worn favourite in Astor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango for guitar and violin with Joy Wiener on violin. Not another Piazolla rendition, I hear you say! Well, dear readers, for this presentation, Afshar decided to capture a live recording of the work at Buckman Performing Arts Center in Memphis. The live aspect of this recording gives it an exciting, vibrant feel, keeping the theme of adventurousness well and truly alive.
Throughout the recording the sound production is pretty bloody good too, really bringing out the best in Afshar’s playing with a direct, unfussy quality, allowing it to speak for itself.
My rating: 8/10
Lily took time out of her schedule to answer a few questions for Classical Guitar n Stuff
Musica da Camera sounds great. Well done, definitely an album to be proud of. The playing, of course, is exemplary. It’s a great inspiration to have recordings like this as a female guitarist. I love the sound production on the recording too; it really does your playing a great service. What was the inspiration for the album?
There were several. I had done a lot of chamber music but never produced a CD of it. One day I was showing the video of my concert playing Piazzolla in class and one student said “this should be out.” So her enthusiasm and encouragement gave me the idea of putting it on a CD.
Then, I had the music of Uspensky sitting in my music cabinet for many years. I was interested in the fact that it was related to Pushkin whose novels I had read as a child in Iran (and I love Russian Literature), and I knew about Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and had seen the opera, moreover the combination of instruments (strings, clarinet, drums, guitar) intrigued me, the piece had never been recorded before and I thought, we have a great faculty here at the University of Memphis Music School so I will show them the music and we will decipher it and figure it out, so I put together the group to perform it and it turned out to be such a great piece and such a great story, a mix of literature and music that I decided to also record it. In our rehearsals the piece unraveled and started to make sense. It was like a painting being drawn and you watch it get finished and completed.
I was always in love with the Paganini Sonata Concertata and had played it many times over the years with different violinists, so I wanted to make sure I put that on the CD as well, it’s the only piece that equally showcases both instruments and their virtuosity. So I knew a great and sensitive violinist at the music school and she agreed to play it with me in concert and then record it.
What was the process for coming up with the album? How do you know when it’s ready to record a particular work?
I really decide the pieces based on what I love, sometimes they turn out to be world premieres, sometimes they are pieces that have been played before but I have new ideas and play them differently, it’s always the idea of wanting to do something new and innovative and presenting a great piece and great paling to the listeners. I always work very hard on my CDs, because I want to be pleased with them all my life. Once you get them out, you can’t take them back.
What is your favourite track on the album and why?
Track 7- Lensky of the Uspensky. It’s a duet between clarinet and guitar. When I played it I was thinking of the character of Lensky himself who was a poet, a romantic, who died tragically in a duel with Eugene. I thought it was a nice give and take between the clarinet and guitar in that movement.
Can you tell us a bit about the recording process? Did you enjoy it? What were you favourite parts of the process? And the least favorite? How long did it take you all up?
The recording of Uspensky was particularly interesting since it required eight musicians to be placed in the studio. When I arrived in the studio everything was set up, the double bass, percussion and clarinet were in separate rooms with their own mics, I was with the strings together with separate mics, and we were set up so we could have eye contact. I think we were in the studio for four hours to record the eight movements. The Piazzolla was a live recording, and the Paganini was fun to do in the studio.
That it is really hard to get a group together and you have to be really determined to do such a task and follow-up. But the work was easier overall because I had first-rate musicians working with me.
What music (both to play and to listen to) excites you the most and why?
I listen to different genres all the time, especially blues, but of course classical is my first love. Sometimes I learn a lot by watching a singer sing a pop tune. I love opera and because I speak Italian, I especially enjoy it.
Which guitarists (or other musicians) do you find the most inspiring or exciting?
Segovia always inspires me.
When you’re not practicing and playing, what do you get up to? Activities with minimal nail damage potential I presume?!
I swim, jog, walk, do aerobics, read and watch movies.
What would your key advice be for someone currently learning or thinking of learning the guitar?
Learn it correctly from the beginning, study with the best teacher, and practice hard.
What can we expect to see and hear from Lily Afshar next? Can we hope to see you over in Australia anytime soon?!
A new Bach recording with new fingerings which I published with Mel Bay. I once playe d in Australia at the Darwin Festival, Sydney, Canberra and enjoyed it. I think it was 2000. I guess it would be time to come back now.
Musica da Camera was released in the USA on September 24th in physical and digital formats, so head on over to Amazon.com to get your mitts on a copy now: http://www.amazon.com/Musica-Camera-Lily-Afshar/dp/B00EZV1R52 And launches in the UK on Monday 21st October in physical copy too.
Check out Lily’s website and find out what else she’s been up to: http://lilyafshar.com