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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Oregon Guitar Quartet

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new releases featuring new recordings by the Oregon Guitar Quartet.


J.S. BACH: Concerto for Two Keyboards, Strings and Continuo in C, BWV 1061.  GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL: Concerto Grosso in D, op. 3/6 (HWV 317).  VIVALDI: Concerto for 2 Violins, 2 ‘Celli, Strings and Continuo in D, RV. 564.  DOMENICO SCARLATTI: Two Keyboard Sonatas, K. 87 and K. 46.  ALESSANDRO PICCININI: Ciacona.  All arrangements by Bryan Johanson, played by the Oregon Guitar Quartet.  Cubesquared C2R-602, titled Realizations.

The arresting linear clarity that makes the listener sit up and take notice in the Bach transcription portends several things: the emergence of a new, major force in the world of guitar playing, defined (among many other things) by a close ensemble precision and a collective instrumental mastery; the judicious mix of homophonic and contrapuntal textures and the end result (which seems, somehow, guaranteed from the start) that every strand of sound, every musical line worth hearing, comes into bold relief every step of the way. And, especially in Bach, every musical line is worth hearing.  The Oregon Guitar Quartet is not the first group of its kind to essay Baroque music, but it does it much better than most.  Bryan Johanson, one of this group’s members, is also a composer — perhaps that has something to do with the end result.  Each of the four artists—Johanson, John Mery, David Franzen and Jesse McCann— is a master of his instrument and a conscientious musician.

It was John Mery who very graciously put this and the OGQ’s other recent album (see below) in this reviewer’s hands. He also revealed that the group was playing (in camera) Johanson’s arrangements of some of The Art of Fugue, and it is hoped that these will eventually find their way into their concerts and onto records.  The Handel transcription is a brilliant, idiomatic tour de force and, like the Bach, provides a new way of listening to this music and a different way of enjoying it.  In the Vivaldi, the group’s strong sense of ensemble and precision give a bold flavor to the unison passages in the outer movements; their sense of color is strongly apparent here as well.  The Scarlatti sonatas—the more introspective K. 87 and the concerto-like K. 46—show similar values and provide fresh insight into the clarifying of a keyboard texture by four plucked string instruments. Alessandro Piccinini’s lively Chaconne, in some ways more chordal than linear, provides a wonderful opportunity for a great variety of instrumental color, texture and dynamics. It is played with great élan and wit.

The Oregon Guitar Quartet is currently working on a project involving the Mozart Symphony No. 14 in A, William Boyce’s Symphony No. 5 in D and a symphony in g minor by Georg Christoph Wagenseil (which they are playing a whole step up, in a minor), among other things.  It is eagerly anticipated.


TRADITIONAL: Brethren, We Have Met (also called Holy Manna); Whistling Molly; Black is the Color. THELONIOUS MONK: Well, You Needn’t. All arranged by Bryan Johanson. BRYAN JOHANSON: Prelude, Fugue and Toccata on Stephen Foster’s Hard Times. TRADITIONAL: The Saint James Infirmary; Rye Whiskey; Shenandoah; Pick a Bale of CottonAll arranged by Bryan Johanson.  The Oregon Guitar Quartet.  Cubesquared C2R-601, titled Something Wondrous Fair.

The title of this album may well be a characterization of the Oregonians, who give a new dimension to the familiar — framing the pentatonic Southern Harmony tune Holy Manna with elaborate fanfares before treating the tune, in the fashion of those shaped-note hymnbooks of the early 19th century, in the tenor range, then semplice e dolce (for want of a better and less succinct description) before returning to a more “contemporary” bookend for the finish.  Johanson cleverly conceals the tune Old Hundredth in the middle of Whistling Molly (which he treats in true pizzicato fashion), before winding up with a brilliant coda.   Black is the Color is swathed in delicious harmonic and filigree-work arabesques. 

The transcription of Monk’s Well, You Needn’t is a major addition to the guitar repertory.  Here we have yet another application of this extraordinary ensemble’s musical and technical prowess.  Any attempt to describe or to enumerate the colors and subtleties heard here would be futile.  This is, like the Scarlatti pieces described above, keyboard music greatly clarified and in a new dimension — obviously a different style and harmonic language, but one that Johanson and his colleagues adroitly succeed in bringing across.  The piece sounds made for plucked strings!

Johanson’s triptych on Foster’s Hard Times — the fugue being a seemingly “simple” antidote to the elaborate introduction, and wonderfully made (both as a structure and as a piece of music), giving the tune in a more or less unadorned form as it passes through the various voices — is a marvelous union of the chaste and the intricate.  The development of the fugue is exquisite, not obscuring the melody at all but giving it new twists and turns.  One is almost tempted to say to Mr. Johanson what Johann Adam Reinken allegedly said to J.S. Bach circa 1720: “I thought this art was dead, but I see it lives in you”.  The Toccata grows directly out of the Fugue, a wondrously symphonic moto perpetuo piece.

All of the other arrangements of the traditional songs are miniature tone poems, paraphrases more than they are literal renderings (though there is never any mistaking the melodies!).  The Oregon Guitar Quartet is actively setting new standards in the art of plucked string ensemble playing.  This reviewer is much indebted to John Mery — who not only provided copies of these recordings, but generously shared his insight into, and feeling for, all of this music.  Both albums are highly recommended.

For more information on these exceptional recordings, go to


SCHOENBERG: Variations for Orchestra, op. 31.  TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in b minor, op. 74, Pathétique. Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (recorded in concert 13 August 2007at the Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria).  London/Decca B0015607.

Some years ago, I heard a broadcast tape of Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony doing the Tchaikovsky Pathétique—and, just before the coda of the third (march) movement, Barenboim added some of his own dynamics.  It was electrifying!  Not long after this, the same conductor and orchestra appeared on a recording (done under controlled conditions, presumably on the day after one of the performances) of the same work on Erato.  It was quite tame by comparison.  This in-concert recording, with his unique multi-national orchestra of mostly younger players, includes those same added dynamics, plus many other instances of letting go and being creative (including some places in the final Adagio lamentoso) and I for one am grateful for that.  Tchaikovsky’s last symphony is one of the most frequently recorded orchestral pieces, and it is always refreshing to find someone who has “different” ideas about a piece without disfiguring the score or straying away from the composer’s message.  This is especially true of a composition that always seems to be done the same way, and especially over the last half-century or more we have been subjected to what seems to be largely a myth of “objectivity”.  Listening to music and performing it are intensely subjective experiences, and there are many ways of approaching a piece of music: each rendition leaves it recognizable as being by a given composer and, in the hands of any conscientious musician or group of musicians, the composer is always in the forefront but the composer’s medium—sometimes, in the case of a public performance, the audience is just as significant in the matter of re-creation of music as is, or are, the person or persons onstage.  As there are many different ways of looking at a canvas, so there are many different ways of hearing and experiencing music.

In the first movement, Barenboim does not seem to be too afraid of indulging his string players in an occasional portamento or glissando—not as (to present-day tastes) “egregious”, for instance, as in Felix Weingartner’s 1913 recording of this work…at a time when a “slide” at the penultimate note or notes of a phrase was the accepted way of doing things.  The dynamic extremes in the first movement are well brought out.  Barenboim, who turns seventy next year, has not by any measure lost his justly lauded focus on the “big picture” of a musical work (great or small), and that virtue is more than abundantly evident here; however, he is not shy about lingering on a phrase.  The orchestra is consistently cohesive and responsive; but, especially in the opening pages of the first movement, the wind players stand out as exceptional.  The strings, just as much so, are capable of infinite varieties of nuance and tone.  But that is true of this remarkable ensemble as a whole. 

The strings take the lead in the 5/4 Allegro con grazia, which is allowed to flow naturally.  The finale — something of an innovation at the time Tchaikovsky was finishing the score, having an adagio as the last movement — is like a great ball of energy, suspended in midair, which ebbs away almost unnoticed at the end.  It is a magical and indescribable effect. 

Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone Variations of 1928 makes enormous demands on sections and individual players.  It is not an easy work to grasp; Schoenberg himself viewed the work as not terribly difficult from the standpoint of ensemble balance (which may have been an underestimation), but very demanding in terms of each player knowing his or her part.  Essentially this is classically-oriented music with a very un-classical tonal scheme—”Brahms with all the notes wrong”, as music historian Donald Jay Grout once put it—and with an infinite variety of orchestral color and texture, much in line with Schoenberg’s sometimes overblown (but never dull) renderings of other composers’ music for large orchestra.  The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra plays this music as though it were a “classical” composition, and there is no lacking of musical enjoyment at any time during the progression of this remarkable and committed performance.  

This recording was made during the Salzburg Festival of August 2007.  In my estimation, it is easily one of the best, if not the best, orchestral recording for at least the first half of 2011.  It very well may be a candidate for the best orchestral recording of the entire year.  The fantastic energy present at that concert nearly four years ago is there for you to hear.