Is it possible, in the long term, for the guitar quartet to be a viable tool of the serious composer or is it destined to be a musical oddity breed from a dearth of over trained guitarists shunned by music school ensemble programs?
Probably the latter. The guitar quartet springs from the ghettoization of the guitar in most academic settings, especially with regards to chamber music, which forces countless well trained and ensemble minded guitarists to band together. Naturally, they imitate the forms of their supposed betters, and thus, the quartet. But it is somehow not the same. For those who don't agree, tell me why we don't have serious minded violin quartets or oboe quartets? Because the concept is as sensible as fielding a football team that has only quarterbacks or a basketball team with only point guards, it may seem an interesting idea, but one which breakdowns in the context of execution.
That aside, the work of these quartets is often interesting (because their decision to band together is more out of necessity than choice and offers no commentary on their abilities), as is the case with Over Land and Sea by the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet. The group is at their best playing their own transcriptions, which often highlight a wry sense of humor. Stravinsky's Five Easy Pieces are brilliant examples of the transcriber's art. Stravinsky's pointilistic melodic and variable rhythmic patterns translate well to the guitar and Alan Johnston arranges these tiny pieces to perfection.
Joseph Hagedorn's arrangements of Maria Kalaniemi's Two Finnish Folksongs show the quartet in a different light. Unlike the distilled musical ideas of Stravinsky, the Kalaniemi pieces spin out ideas, which are mutated with natural, folk like ease. One feels like having a good shot of vodka and a dance while listening to them. The Finnish folksongs and the Stravinsky pieces are back-to-back and the highlight of the disc, as they offer contrasting and complimentary flavors, which highlight the seemless ensemble and a welcome bit of musical whimsy.
But, the disc hits a musical wall with the fourteen minutes of Torroba's Estampas. Torroba, the master of banal genteel, is not on a level with Stravinsky. One gets more from the 43 seconds of Stravinsky's Balalaika than the whole of Torroba. His music desperately needs the musical excesses of a Segovia because Torroba's pieces are merely pedestals on which the musician poses. The quartet is not given to such things (and rightly so). If played without absurd tenutos and soupy vibrato, though, the pieces become the musical equivalent of Ted Nugent compositions heard Muzak-style in the grocery store. The quartets talents are better spent elsewhere.
The disc is an excellent listen and contains compositions for quartet by Assad, Crittendon and Pearson: all of which benefit from the considerable talents of the quartet. So, have a nice shot of vodka (Finlandia, of course) and enjoy.