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Recital Review Print

Natural Resonance: Paul Galbraith at Elon University

March 14, 2003 - Elon, NC:

Schedule conflicts precluded CVNC's guitarist-critics from attending Paul Galbraith's dazzling March 14 recital, given in the ideal acoustical environment of Whitley Auditorium on the Elon University Campus; I 'fess up front that such events tend not to appeal to me, in part because almost all guitar recitals that I have attended have been miked. Amplified performances of any kind are an anathema to me, and the coarse, exaggerated sounds I've heard previously have been so repellant that they have discouraged my patronage. In addition, I am not all that fond of transcriptions, a form at the heart of most guitar programs.

A number of dramatic instrumental innovations that Galbraith and his late English luthier, David Rubio, brought to completion in their "Brahms" series of specially-built guitars could greatly expand the audience among us who are "amplifier-shy." The name "Brahms Guitar" derives from Galbraith's own transcription for the six-string guitar of the composer's Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21a.

Quoting liberally from several websites ( [ inactive 5/03 ]) and Newsletters/2002/September/ [ inactive 6/03 ]) and from notes that accompany his CD set of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas, it is possible to piece together an account of Galbraith's innovations. "Worried both by a certain incompleteness in the bass and by the fact that his left hand was stretched to its limits for much of the piece, he thought about increasing the range of the guitar." Even 19th-century guitarists had played and written for a seven -string guitar that had an extra bass string strung below the E string. After consulting with the Italian guitarist Stefano Grondona, "it was suggested that in order to increase the available range within one position, and therefore also reduce the stretching, an eighth string could be placed above the high E string, tuned a fourth above to a high A." For the extended bass, "an extra string, tuned to a low A (a fifth below the low E string) yet also flexible enough to stand tuning up to a low C, was strung below the traditional six strings." To prevent loss of balance in the tonal quality, Rubio's brilliant solution was to adapt aspects of the Renaissance "'Orphereon,' which was unique amongst fretted instruments in that it gave a staggered, rather than uniform, length to the strings... by using a slanting bridge and nut, opening up in length towards the bass, with the frets 'fanning out' over the length of the fingerboard." To this Galbraith has added a bent spike that is inserted into the top of an acoustical box that has two "f" holes as well as an elaborate rosette like a lute. He plays his guitar rather like a cello but with the neck resting upon his shoulder, freeing both hands to an extraordinary degree. The sound box helps amplify the sound and produces a rich, warm bass tone.

The first half of the program lasted an hour but Galbraith's musicianship and virtuosity made it seem to fly by rapidly. J.S. Bach's French Suite No. 2, in C Minor (transcribed to E Minor), S.813, received a fleet and elegant interpretation not far removed from the world of the harpsichord. The work benefited from the much wider dynamic range that Galbraith's Brahms Model III guitar afforded. Tempos were ideal and clearly related to the original dances. He even evoked a sound similar to a lute stop (of which I am particularly fond). The only work on the program originally composed for guitar was Lennox Berkeley's Sonatina, Op. 51 (1958), written for Julian Bream. While sometimes recalling the English pastoral composers, it exploits quite a wide dynamic range. In this and much of the program, Galbraith's full use of both hands allowed an independence of action that made it seem as if there were two guitars being played - complex and fully independent fingerings were frequent, in both the treble and bass ranges. The Berkeley work had writing for some very high registers, indeed. The first half of the program ended with a stylish and effective transcription of Debussy's Children's Corner .

After intermission, Galbraith reversed the order of the printed program, playing the Spanish-flavored Valses Poéticos (1887) of Enrique Granados first. These works, originally composed for piano, with their contrasting dance styles as well as the pulsing sounds and rhythms unique to flamenco, are ideal for the guitar. The formal part of the concert ended with a transcription of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite . The "Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas" was a jewel, and "The Enchanted Garden" ended with a bravura flourish. The enthusiastic audience was moderate only in actual count. As an encore, Galbraith played a welcome chestnut, Francisco Tárrega's famous tremolo study, "Recuerdos de la Alhambra."