Paul Galbraith Performs Mozart, Bach & Britten: Mozart: Sonata in F, K.280; Britten: Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op. 70; J. S. Bach: Suite No. 4 in E-flat, S.1010; Albéniz: Bajo la Palmera; Ravel: Mother Goose Suite: Le Jardin féerique; & Bach: Chorale Organ Prelude on “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.” Paul Galbraith, 8 string “Brahms” guitar. Mashulka Productions 2009, recorded at Capitol Records, Los Angeles, CA, 21 tracks, TT 70:00;

This is an often provocative recording inspired by the loving efforts of an enthusiast, produced seemingly without regard for budget while using the finest facilities and personnel, and featuring unconventional playing by a tremendous musician. The essence of the project was to capture Paul Galbraith’s unique playing manner and his unusual instrument and to document the artistry of a typical Galbraith recital, including encores, using a high a standard of audio and video.

The program core is works by Bach, Mozart and Britten. Additional pieces by Albéniz, Ravel, and an organ chorale of Bach are presented as “encores.” Though the recording bears a copyright stamp of 2009, the official launch date for the CD is April 29, 2011, at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, CA. Galbraith performed March 29 at the same venue. The actual product range is an audio CD, a video/audio DVD, and/or Blu-ray disc, all available separately. All this is brought about through the efforts of Executive Producer Kevin Keating, using Capitol Record’s Studio A in Los Angeles with Al Schmitt as Recording Engineer.

Did I mention this is not a conventional guitar recording? I mean, there is only one original guitar piece on the whole thing!

First let’s talk about the instrument; it has eight strings (guitars normally have six): one string each has been added to the standard upper and lower extremes of the range, and Galbraith plays it like a cello. The instrument is built by David Rubio, and it is based on the Renaissance model of the “Orphereon.” It features non-parallel frets at the outer ends of the fingerboard scale and a sharply angled bridge and nut to accommodate the widely varying string tension and new intonation issues. With the addition of one more fret at the high end, the instrument’s voice increases from three octaves and a fifth to four octaves and a sixth. Finally, the instrument has an end-pin, like a cello, that rests on a custom fabricated “resonator” platform. The resonator substantially alters the instrument’s dynamic envelope. The “Brahms guitar” is so named because Galbraith was arranging Brahms’ Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21a (piano), for solo guitar when he faced the kind of problems this extended range instrument could solve. In some circles all this is considered groundbreaking quantum developments in guitar history, increasing its range and all, but on the other hand I don’t know of any collegiate curriculum adjustments, see or hear legions of cello-like guitar players coming up through the ranks, nor a new action figure on the market, so . . . . .

We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Galbraith has been around a while and is a smart guy. He’s played for all the big shots, won stuff, enjoyed excellent notices from the major media – when that sort of thing was in fashion – played with orchestra, given master classes, etc., and travels the world performing. For a long time he was a member of the Brazilian Guitar Quartet, an innovative ensemble that played only “really, really serious” music and featured a staggering variety of playing styles among just four musicians. They worked quite a bit during the formative period, and in addition to fine ensemble were known for performances of whole Bach Sinfonia and complete Villa-Lobos Choros, among other large and serious things.

So back to the program: we’ve got this big guitar that’s played like a cello, and the only guitar piece is the famous set of backward variations by Britten (Nocturnal, Op. 70) which, in and of itself, is really large and serious and important, but it is hardly the kind of tune that first comes to mind when you think of guitar music – large or small. Then comes a keyboard sonata by Mozart, then the fifth cello suite of Bach…, and pretty soon I’m thinking we’re not in guitar-land at all and we’re probably not going to get there. In that respect, the Albéniz hints and flirts but doesn’t pay off. The Ravel’s plodding walk in the enchanted garden is most busy toward the end, with large and full orchestral chords. The Bach Chorale is hard to distinguish.

One particular characteristic of the guitar is its ability to play the same pitch in many different places on different strings and achieve a wonderful variety of tone color. The high E on the top space of the treble clef can be played in five different ways. But when you put piano (keyboard and/or non-idiomatic) music on this instrument there will be times when you must sacrifice some of that color for the convenience of executing the full sonority of the moment – and in the process you might wind up with a mishmash of closed and open strings – or tiny and big round strings – that throw the whole out of balance. This happens all the time even if you don’t have an extended range, and as to its effect on interpretive gestures, well, it’s like getting shoved into a corner.

So now I’m wondering, what’s the point, really?

Once you’ve picked apart all the variables, I guess it is the fundamental artistry that is worth celebrating. Galbraith is a very serious guy – though I actually have seen him smile – and he takes his music choices very seriously, he plays seriously, and he is serious about guitar playing – such as it is. These are large works on a large program played on a large instrument by a large personality, and the result is certainly worth the modest fee for such a premium effort all around.