Billed as a “Special Pops Concert,” the Brazilian Guitar Quartet’s Eastern Music Festival performance on July 21 in Dana Auditorium managed to be both more serious and more playful than this inappropriate subtitle would imply. This group, led by Paul Galbraith, a Scottish guitarist now resident in Brazil, is one of the more prominent of the many guitar quartets springing up in the musical world.

Galbraith, well-known for his uniquely constructed eight-string guitar and a playing technique based on holding the instrument like a cello, has pursued a solo repertoire built on transcriptions of music not originally written for the guitar. This idiosyncratic artistic vision has in turn resulted in an ensemble whose repertoire consists entirely of transcriptions of music by Bach and numerous Brazilian composers. The other members, Brazilians all, are Tadeu do Amaral and the Gloeden brothers, Edelton and Everton. Everton Gloeden has adopted Galbraith’s novel approach to the guitar, playing a specially built eight-string instrument held like a cello. The presence of two of these eight-string instruments along with two standard six-string guitars lends the Brazilian Guitar Quartet its unique instrumentation.

This program began with the Second Orchestral Suite (Ouverture No. 2), S.1067, of J.S. Bach, the most ambitious and least convincing transcription played by the group. Basing a repertoire on transcriptions is a risky business dependent on the transcriber’s sensitivity to the original work and ability to translate it to a new medium in a convincing and natural manner. Unlike another staple of the guitar quartet literature, the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, this Suite’s fuller orchestration and greater instrumental color defies a convincing musical realization when stripped down to accommodate a guitar quartet.

Next came the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 1 of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), a modern composition influenced by Bach. Written for eight cellos, a favorite ensemble of Villa-Lobos’, this work was presented in an intelligent transcription by the Brazilian guitarist and luthier Sérgio Abreu. The improvisational nature of the opening Introducão, subtitled Embolada (a type of sectional, improvised poetry from Northeast Brazil) worked particularly well by first pitting the main theme against strummed chords, then proceeding to cadenzas passed from instrument to instrument and, after several other rhapsodic sections, concluding with a restatement of the opening theme. The slower second movement, Prelúdio (Modinha), utilized a sectional structure to a far different expressive effect by developing its more melancholy melodic material, imitative of the Modinha, a genre of Brazilian romantic song, in increasingly elaborate melodic complexes. The concluding Fuga (Conversa) presented a syncopated subject reflective of Bach’s fugues and the conversational nature of the complex and challenging music played by the chôro musicians of Rio. Villa-Lobos noted that “It conveys, first, a Bachian spirituality, and then a conversation between four chorões whose instruments vie for thematic supremacy.” From the first notes of this composition, the quartet played with greater flair and freedom than in the Bach suite.

After intermission, the ensemble returned to play Rondeña and Eritaña from Iberia, a cycle of twelve compositions for piano by Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909). Of staggering technical and musical difficulty, these compositions became suddenly delicate and light of texture in this uncredited transcription. The two-against-three rhythms of the Rondeña came across clearly and the surprise pianissimo scale that ends the piece sounded magical. Eritaña was also effective and well-played. However, exchanging the musical weight and drama of the original, as well as the spectacle of hearing and seeing one pianist play these challenging pieces, for the gossamer textures and delicate articulations of the guitar quartet version does not result in any significant insights; the original is more effective, more dramatic and truer to Albéniz’s musical thought.

Works by two modern Brazilian composers of different generations, Ronaldo Miranda (b.1948) and Francisco Mignone (1897-1996), brought the recital to a close. Miranda’s “Variações Sérias” (“Serious Variations”), originally for wind quintet, was a somewhat monochromatic work based on the famous schottisch “Yara” of Anacleto de Medeiros (1866-1907), one of many gifted late 19th- and early 20th-century Brazilian composers writing elegant salon music that mixed Brazilian popular styles and European dance genres. The variations exploited the basic tonal and melodic structure of the original while maintaining an easy charm. A group of three pieces by Mignone (“Lundu,” “Lenda Sertaneja No. 8” and “Congada”) displayed this composer’s trademark melodic gifts and rhythmic elegance to great effect, closing the recital with music that displayed the true nature of Brazilian music at its best, the mixing of African and European elements to produce an original and distinctive style.

The audience called the quartet back for two encores, first Camargo Guarnieri’s (1907-93) evergreen “Dança Brasiliera” and then a witty piece of musical humor, “Burrico de Pau” (“Little Wooden Donkey”) by Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836-96), a Portuguese émigré composer notable as the first Brazilian to have an opera premiered in Europe (Il Guarany, 1870). In this setting, Gomes’ music sounded astoundingly modern and seemed a clear predecessor of the two “Prole do Bebê” (“Baby’s Family”) suites for piano of Villa-Lobos that respectively depict different types of dolls and toy animals. An appreciative audience summoned the group for a final curtain call, bringing this enjoyable, ambitious yet musically uneven performance to an end. (For more information on the ensemble, see [inactie 7/04].)