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CD Review

Shapes of Sleep

James Boyd, guitar
James Boyd JB2006

Here's a CD which at first glance looks as though it's failed to avoid the curse of 'crossover' status: all puff and packaging, no substance. But no – well, not quite. It's sensitive, gentle and atmospheric guitar playing by James Boyd of works by Dowland, Tippett and Britten. Though most lovers of the music of those three composers would probably buy fuller recordings – O'Dette for Dowland (Harmonia Mundi HMU2907160/64); then Tippett, Ogden (Nimbus NI1759) and perhaps Pears and Bream for the Britten (RCA Gold Seal 61601), if you do see a point to having two Dowland 'Fantasia's, The Blue Guitar, Britten's Nocturnal Op. 70 and Boyd's own transcription of Flow My Tears all in the same place, then you won't be disappointed. The playing itself is first class.

Boyd writes, "The landscape of East Anglia has informed everything I have done. The world between the tides, which belongs to no-one, is like the place of sleep." It's the evocation of such a "… place of sleep… place of withdrawal, of disturbing images, of solitude" as can perhaps be said of Britten's East Anglian coast, that carries this CD, if it is carried. Again, if your need is to have that beautiful and indeed evocative region of England conjured up for you by expertly-played solo guitar music (perhaps as an entrée to two twentieth century composers' attitudes to an Elizabethan giant), this might fit the bill. Or if you simply want to hear how one accomplished performer describes what's really not sleep, but appropriately relaxed lassitude before retiring – without either maudlin or gimmicky effect, well then its cumulative presence (the acoustic is superb: well-recorded in the Snape Maltings) might work well in your living room.

So perhaps think of this disc as a short (an hour and two minutes), focused concert, or rather recital with a theme. It opens with the Dowland (DP.72) 'Fantasia' in which it is just possible to hear strains of Flow My Tears. This sets the scene; Boyd's playing does draw one into the drowsy mood which presumably the collection is designed to evoke. And without any hint of lethargic playing. Next The Blue Guitar, Tippett's response to Wallace Stevens reaction to Picasso's 'Old Guitarist' (from his blue period). Its three movements, which together last nearly 23 minutes, are the centerpiece of the CD. In his attractively-produced booklet Boyd explains how the work conveys (ambiguous) transformation, energy and dreaming. Next comes Dowland's 'Fantasia' (DP.7). Its beautiful, lyrical writing is enough to wake anyone back up again. Which is all well and good since there's still the transcription Boyd made after hearing Alfred Deller's singing and wish to capture something of his voice. Finally we have Britten's Nocturnal, after John Dowland (Op 70); this is the single longest piece on the disc at 21 ½ minutes and one of several compositions by the East Anglian composer inspired by the night. It's based on Dowland's Come, heavy Sleep, which is really an allegory for death. By now Boyd's playing is making its strongest impact. Again, with no morbid tones, the music does more to rock than to shock.

Students of the guitar will be inspired by Boyd's playing. It's informed by the human voice and more lyrical than it is either 'fruity' or skeletal. Other critics have (rightly) praised Boyd's command of ebb and flow; his command of tempi in general. Yes; if the, honestly somewhat fragmented, choice of material is to your taste, you'll want to return to the playing for its undoubted depth and interpretive sureness. Lovers of the muted, vast East Anglian landscape reminded of its understated beauty and those interested in the remoter corners of the plucked string repertoire will be happy to find such accomplished performances. This CD – currently only available privately – has been attractively-produced and well packaged and marketed. The playing is persuasive and brings out the best in the varied program. Really to get the most from the concept (and this is a 'concept') you'll probably want to have a CD with which to set a (perhaps seductive?!) atmosphere or to inspire thoughts of winter sleep after vigorous summer activity, say. Or perhaps have reason to follow the admittedly at times rather purple prose of Boyd's descriptions. If you want demonstrably up-to-date guitar playing, too, you should have a listen to Shapes of Sleep.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey