Three years as a Delphian artist have seen Sean Shibe record music from seventeenth-century Scottish lute manuscripts to twenty-first-century works for electric guitar, picking up multiple editor’s choices and award nominations for each release, as well as the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious ‘Young Artist of the Year’ accolade.
Now he turns to the music of J. S. Bach, with three works whose obscure early performance history belies their status as repertoire staples for modern guitarists.
The musicological questions that have arisen over what instrument Bach intended for these works – questions encapsulated for Shibe by the phrase ‘pour la luth ò cembal’, which appears in the composer’s hand at the head of the manuscript of the Prelude to BWV998 – are here answered by the unshakeable assurance of Shibe’s performances.
Presto Classical (CD): https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8775836–bach-pour-la-luth-o-cembal
1 – 6: Lute Suite no. 1 in E minor, BWV996
7 – 11: Lute Suite no. 2 in C minor, BWV997
12 – 14: Prelude, Fugue & Allegro in E flat major, BWV998
Can you ever speak in elevated, grandiose terms about a classical guitarist? You want to avoid weight, to find instead phrases of lightness and simplicity. Yet after listening to Sean Shibe’s magnificent new Bach recital, when I reach for comparisons I don’t go to other guitarists. Or even lutenists. I go to a musician like the violinist Rachel Podger, or the pianist Angela Hewitt. Because, as with Shibe, and to paraphrase Schweitzer, their Bach so clearly sounds like it must be a summation of everything that has gone before. Except of course we’re talking about their own musical knowledge and experience. Not the music of those hapless composers unlucky enough to exist solely to make a Bach possible. So, ideally, you ought to listen first to Shibe’s previous two recordings to get the most out of this one.
Somewhat perversely, I’m reminded of that formidable doyenne of the harpsichord Wanda Landowska saying to cellist Pablo Casals: ‘You play Bach your way and I’ll play Bach his way.’ In reality, like Shibe, they both played Bach both ways. And with conviction. And love.
How do you feel about Bach on guitar…? Whatever your possible reservations, you should feel a lot better about it after this … The tone is warm and rich, the playing astonishingly clean, the ornamentation delicately and imaginatively applied and Shibe’s ability to voice Bach’s separate lines borders on the astonishing … I couldn’t stop playing this recording – in fact it’s some of the classiest and most compelling Bach playing I’ve heard on guitar. It goes beyond the technique and that’s astonishing in places… I’m learning things about the music I hadn’t noticed before because of the way Shibe voices and inflects it with such intimate understanding. PLEASE let there be more. I enjoyed the resonant hangover captured around the guitar sound: Intimate but still satisfyingly spacious.
BBC Radio 3 Record Review (Andrew McGregor)
Few have recorded [these works] with such a thrilling combination of technical flair, finesse and blazingly evident musical sympathy. It’s almost as if this music was waiting for Shibe to come along, the results are that breathtaking. Throughout this phenomenal disc, Shibe demonstrates a musical maturity far beyond his 28 years, allied to a flawless technique that makes listening to it one of the greatest pleasures we’ve had so far this year. Certainly it’s one of the finest Bach discs to come our way in a long time, and another huge achievement for this uniquely compelling young artist.
There’s nothing more soothing than the sweet sound of unaccompanied classical guitar coupled with the logical weave of Bach harmony and counterpoint. Throw guitarist Sean Shibe into the mix and you have a divine threesome worth more than the sum of its parts. Shibe’s nuanced precision explores music considered to be central to Bach’s lute repertoire, though which instruments these pieces were originally intended for remains a matter for debate. Regardless, the playing is exceptional, the E minor Suite and C minor Partita filled with a delicate sensuality suggestive of their stylistic dance origins. Shibe ends with the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat, its extended central Fugue a towering highlight from a performer of rare sensibility.
The Scotsman (Ken Walton), ★★★★★