David Leisner (guitar)
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Eileen Joyce Studio
American classical guitarist David Leisner had a career rich in promise both as recitalist and concerto soloist until an arm, disabled by illness, put paid to his concert-giving for more than a decade. But sheer grit and literally years of concentrated effort to re-learn and re-master the guitar have paid off in the most substantial way.
Leisner’s renewed command of the instrument was glowingly evident at his recital for the Classical Guitar Society of W.A.. In this sense, Leisner is yet another in a succession of remarkable musicians who have triumphed over seemingly insurmountable disability. (Another guitarist, Django Reinhardt, for instance, had his left hand badly burnt but, deformed fingers notwithstanding, evolved into a superb interpreter in the jazz idiom.)
Leisner’s program was no easy ride. No soft option for this guitarist. No. This was one of the toughest assignments imaginable for even the most impressively equipped of musicians. And Leisner came through with pennants proudly flying.
An account of Bach’s famous Chaconne in D minor was peak of the evening. Originally conceived for unaccompanied violin, it is one of western music’s most glorious achievements, an epic that has been transcribed for a number of different instruments. Larry Adler, for instance, played it on the harmonica – and Brahms made a piano arrangement of it to be played by the left hand only. Leisner has made his own transcription for the guitar – and what an awesome offering it was, with a command of the instrument so complete and seemingly effortless that the instrument seemed more an extension of Leisner’s being than an inanimate construction of wood, varnish, glue and metal strings.
Certainly, his clarity of exposition, an ability to focus on the Chaconne’s myriad intricacies without losing sight of the work’s grand design – and the range of tonal colourings drawn upon – made this one of the most uplifting guitar offerings I’ve experienced in years. It’s a lengthy work, one of Bach’s noblest offerings, and the audience paid Leisner the honour of listening to him in absolute
Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s Sonata for guitar occupies a very different mood and sound world. Here, Leisner could barely be faulted, adapting to the work’s stylistic subtleties as if to the manner born, expounding its often villainously demanding musical argument with an irrefutable logic and often-blazing virtuosity. Here, as throughout, Leisner played from memory.
There was also a guitar sonata of uncertain provenance. It is believed to be by one Stephen Pratten (1799 – 1845) but music historians are doubtless yet to spill oceans of ink debating its exact origins. Whoever wrote it, it’s an appealing, charm-laden work, often sounding uncannily like the guitar equivalent of some piano sonatina by Diabelli or Dussek. It deserves a permanent place in the repertoire.
A fascinating program included arrangements of two Schubert lieder from Schwanengesang, the ubiquitous Standchen and Die Post, the haunting, bittersweet strains of the former a pleasing curtain raiser. The galloping, six-in-a-bar measures of Die Post, though, were less consistently convincing; not all the repeated notes ‘spoke’.
And of a suite of four pieces by Leisner himself, Ritual was particularly pleasing, coming across as a slowly unfolding extemporisation which gradually grew in intensity. Episode, too, made interesting listening, with its nervy quality, its syncopated rhythms and intricate work high on the fingerboard.
All in all, this was one of the most satisfying recitals so far this year, presented in near-peerless fashion by a grandee of the guitar.
Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn