Guitarist, alone presents all of Jürg Frey’s solo guitar music, performed by the Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear and spread across two CDs from the marvellous Another Timbre label. This is, to be honest, a bit of a dream ticket. In Alvear, Frey has found the perfect channel for his gorgeous, meditative pieces that seem to mix lyricism with a hidden toughness, like icicles formed from honey. The absolute focus of Alvear’s concentration backed up the rigour of his technique, honed from nearly a decade studying the classical repertoire in the National Conservatory of the Universidad de Chile, as well as in collaborations with contemporary Wandelweiser-associated composers such as Antoine Beuger and Radu Malfatti. Alvear’s performance of Malfatti’s shizuka ni furu ame is perhaps the starkest illustration of that strand of his approach, the plucked dyads of Malfatti’s score emerging out of the surrounding silence like huge rocks materialising on tundra. It’s monkishly austere and, in its restraint and self-containedness, transformative.
Cursory listens to Guitarist, alone suggest that we’re in similar territory. In particular, much has been made in reviews about the co-existence of the sounds and the silence in these works. Tracks like Relikt see Alvear’s notes appear without warning, materialising from what often seems like a vast emptiness, before fading back from whence they came, leaving little trace. Intervals are irregular, with short, crystalline phrases succeeded by long, lagoon-like, sections of silence. The jewel-like quality of each individual note and phrase is a result of Alvear honing his already-impressive technique to excise any extraneous noise – of his fingers moving along the frets, and so on – from his performance, while prolonging the decay of the notes to create the distinctive, almost languorous fade that’s one of the defining features of this set. The effect is both disconcerting and tranquil, the plucked clusters gesturing towards an unfettered lyricism before falling away. This deliberate lack of resolution wrong foots us, adding a submerged layer of tension that prevents any of these pieces drifting into cosiness. In wen 23, the extended period of silence that follows the early section of brittle, plucked harmonics had me checking my Wi-Fi connection hadn’t dropped, before being taken by surprise by a terse dyad that almost had my cuppa tea sprayed across my laptop keyboard. Even then, another long hiatus had my questioning whether those notes had actually existed at all. Where they, perhaps, aural hallucinations, willed into being by impatient ego?
Yet there’s always more going on here. The 33-minute title piece seems almost florid in comparison to that Malfatti composition, its stately procession of delicate figures providing an unhurried yet unstoppable momentum. The calm rhythmic pulse underpins an series of melodic arcs that are almost liturgical, like some nocturnal, chanting procession through the cloisters. Even more interesting are the 50 shorter works, collectively titled 50 Sächelchen, that make up the second disc. With the exception of the 7 minutes 45 seconds of ACUD, these all clock in at around one or two minutes, but their brevity in no way diminishes the profundity of the sound-worlds they create. This is a set of great variety, with dissonance (Pierrot) rubbing up against beauty (Flushing local) and mellow calmness (Zaubersprauch) contrasted by tense fragility (Bogen und coda). Yet Alvear’s playing keeps all of these opposing forces in check, bringing a consistency and strength to what, in other hands, could well have turned into a bit of a ragbag. The result is a Goldberg Variations for the Wandelweiser heads, in which each piece is a gateway to new universe.