Favorites, David Leisner, guitar; Alexander Ivanov-Kramskoi, five pieces; Benjamin Britten, Nocturnal, after John Dowland; J. S. Bach, Chaconne, S. 1004, and Niccolo Paganini, Grand Sonata, MS 3; Azica Records, 1645 Eddy Road, Cleveland, OH 55112, #ACD71268 © 2011; 10 tracks, TT 66:25; available through Azica and Amazon.

The enduring and artistically mature David Leisner has produced a highly personal recording of his favorite works for guitar. After a lifetime of playing, studying, listening and honing each to his personal perfect aural image, the result is a program that may well be one of the top guitar discs for an Earth Time Capsule. The program is a bone crushing excursion through major repertoire for guitar, and represents something of a personal triumph. There are two huge sets of variations by Britten and Bach, a three movement Paganini Grand Sonata, and tasty morsels by Russian guitarist/composer Alexander Ivanov-Kramskoi.

To go Big at the beginning it is safe to say Britten’s Nocturnal is simply very big art. It is for only the very hungry and familiar and any sit-down experience with this piece – on either side of the instrument – is only for the big dogs. This reading is one of the most well defined and balanced I have heard live or recorded, including the debut by its dedicatee Julian Bream who Leisner credits as a major influence. It is clear each component part has been studied for its relationship to John Dowland’s dark and brooding “Come, Heavy Sleep,” the main theme which appears at the end rather than beginning.

Leisner’s Bach is circumspect and often sneaky while deeply respectful of the period, style and origin of this monument to musical intellect. This arrangement (original was for violin) has echoes of the historic setting by Andres Segovia (note we’ve come to the point where we give both names instead of the iconic single moniker “Segovia.”), particularly in the bass line, and this is relevant because we hear that version less often now. The “arrangement” pendulum has swung, now resting comfortably in restraint; CW suggests we’re better off trusting the composer’s score instead of adding notes or doublings in support. But Leisner has his own additions, omissions and twists that refresh the ear and work to stamp this reading as his own. The experience is still spiritually fulfilling, and should rank among preferred recordings.

The three-movement Paganini Grand Sonata is a guitar-solo setting of the original scored for guitar and violin, and is a typical classic/romantic work given great definition with well articulated accompaniment and clear, singing melody lines. Polyphony in this period thrives on restraint requiring a deft hand on the throttle. Harmonic tension and release is the primary device, and all the right touches are in place for a fairly predictable, straight forward and balanced model of the era. Themes are abundant and tuneful. The middle movement Romanza includes a fertile approach-to-second-theme cadenza; and the third movement variations include all the fireworks we expect from the great violin virtuoso.

The Russian guitarist/composer Ivanov-Kramskoi (1912-73) shows command of harmony and structure, but is clearly most at home in creation of bel canto melody; no doubt a reflection of his long association with singers. Obviously a romantic at heart his works lay on the guitar in a way that suggests no other instrument would be a fitting voice. The vigorous repeated-chord Gust, a stylistically punctuated Waltz, and a Chopin-esque Prelude are elegant works from the five on this disc. All display great poise and stature while surrounded by the guitar’s more imposing repertoire.

I first heard Leisner in 1975 when he was a young competitor and finalist in the Guitar 75 International Competition in Toronto. At that time he was clearly an individualistic programmer pointed in a slightly oblique direction from most other guitarists, but a fine performing career was clearly in the offing. Then, he was surprised by a case of focal dystonia at mid career. It has been talked about, and he has talked about it. His solution was to conquer and continue, which he has done, and while it remains a part of his life that part of the story is past. I last heard Leisner perform at La Guitarra California Festival in 2009 where a less than optimum hall could not mask his current full bloom. Now, this landmark recording is testimony to not only his remarkable and thoughtful artistry but his persistence and patient rehabilitation and recovery techniques as well. He is a survivor on the American music scene, listeners are the beneficiaries, and his legacy is still unfolding.