Daniel Lippel’s Unusual Guitar Journey

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…through which the past shines… / VIGELAND: Two Variations. …through which the past shines…1,2 La Folia Variants. Quodlibet.2 FÜTING: wand-uhr: infinite shadows. Red Wall. TRAD., arr. FÜTING: Hine ma Tov. TRAD., arr. VIGELAND-SMARASON-LIPPEL: Hine ma Tov / Daniel Lippel, gtr; 1Nils Vigeland, pn; 2John Popham, cello / New Focus Recordings FCR-204

This unusual album of modern guitar music features the work of American composer Nils Vigeland and German composer Reiko Füting, both of whom were faculty members at the Manhattan School of Music at the time when guitarist Daniel Lippel also studied there. As the notes point out, both composers like to quote and integrate themes from older music into their work, which are then mutated into their own work. Füting also liked using an alternate tuning for the guitar, made around the overtone series of low D, going up to A-C-F#-B-E, working around the pitch discrepancies between the fretted notes on the guitar and its natural harmonics. Vigeland uses a similar approach in the La Folia Variants.

Normally, I shy away from reviewing guitar discs because I am not a fan of the soft, wimpy, uninflected playing of most classical guitarists, but Lippel, who also played jazz even while he was studying classical guitar (he told me he was a big fan of Wes Montgomery), plays with more vigor than normal and uses a wide range of dynamics, which give his music plenty of color. We start our journey with Vigeland’s Two Variations, which are essentially tonal although the tonality used mostly avoids the home key (to my ears, Ab). The score is very well attuned to the guitar’s natural sound, exploring its themes with an progression of eighth-note figures which are interspersed with soft, half-note chords. Interestingly, the two variations are split up in sequence on this CD, the first of them opening the disc and the second coming in the 12th track, near the end. The first Vigeland variant is followed by the quirky, atonal trio for piano, guitar and cello, …through which the past shines…, tuned and played in such a way that the cello almost sounds like an electronic instrument! Yet after the almost shocking introductory passage, the music relaxes into a lyrical section, and in this the cello is freed at one point to play lyrically while the other two instruments plink and plunk around it. This leads into a fairly rhythmic section in which all three instruments play in counterpoint to each other, creating an interesting web of sound. Although the music is not at all jazz-based, I can see why it appealed to former jazzman Lippel, as it is reminiscent of some of the crossover musical experiments of the 1960s such as the classical-influenced works of Ornette Coleman. Oddly, a bit of tonal grounding seems to pop up here and there in the music, particularly in the cello part, although the music seldom stays there.

Next we hear Füting’s wand-uhr: infinite shadows, which despite the tuning described above “sounds” to the naked ear like a standard guitar piece with unusual “slides” and pitches tossed in here and there. It is a softer piece than the previous two works, comprised mostly of short, rapid figures played in an almost perpetuum mobile fashion. Towards the end, he also slaps the body of the guitar, sometimes playing notes (and whispering) at the same time.

The odd tuning of the guitar is much more noticeable in Red Wall (after the arrangement of the folk song Hine ma Tov), where Lippel plays with extraordinary facility and, again, a light touch. To my ears, however, the music in this piece meanders a bit too much and says very little.

Vigeland’s La Folia Variants are also quiet pieces in a similar vein, but for me much more interesting music. The second movement, “Sonata,” is particularly interesting, and here Lippel plays with the kind of rhythmic verve and excellent use of dynamics that one heard from Julian Bream (my all-time favorite classical guitarist-lutenist). In the third movement (“Dances”), Lippel plays quirky rhythmic figures in bitonal harmony. As the movement progresses, the rhythm straightens out and becomes a bit livelier, with Lippel alternating single-note and chorded figures with deft precision (and a good beat). Towards the end, as the tempo slows down, he hits the body of his guitar with what sounds like the heel of his hand.

Quodlibet is an unusual duo for guitar and cello, the latter playing initially very deep in its range, almost like a bowed bass while Lippel picks soft figures around him. A bit later, in the second movement, cellist John Popham plays a few notes very high up in his range, then moves down to the middle as the music eventually becomes faster and more complex. The third movement is rather dark and sinister-sounding, the music more out-of-tonality than previously, as Popham sustains a very high F# for some time as Lippel continues on his merry way. Eventually, they set up a neat chorus in counterpoint to each other, followed by Popham playing lyrically while Lippel plays rapid downward pizzicato figures on the guitar. Neat stuff!

The second Vigeland variation is a nice little piece, rather lyrical, with a few out-of-tonality passages. Lippel also displays some very nice picking in certain passages. The CD ends with a triple arrangement of Hine ma Tov by Vigeland, Halldor Smarason and Lippel himself, which I found to be not only more complex but more varied and interesting than Füting’s (sorry about that). All in all, however, this is an excellent disc of new guitar music, nice conceived and stunningly played.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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