Sharon Isbin presented “The Spanish Hour” on Sunday afternoon at the Barns at Wolf Trap, offering a collection of Spanish and Latin American pieces that showed that Isbin can play the guitar like few others can.
Fulfilling the dual purpose of pandemic safety and cool presentation, Isbin wore a striking red leather mask that matched her outfit perfectly. However, from the first notes of his opening piece, Spanish Dance No. 5 by Enrique Granados, it was his technique that shone the most.
The sharpness of his sound immediately jumped out: precise intonation, resonant sustained notes, delicately graduated dynamics, with little or no error even in the most delicate note thickets. Francisco Tarrega’s triplets Recuerdos of the Alhambra flowed with absolute smoothness, reminiscent of the waterfall they represent. She can also convey the instrumental color she needs, making the guitar sound fiercely intimate or as grand as an orchestra. It’s a pleasure just to hear him scratch.
Chez Leo Brouwer El Decameron Negro, written for Isbin, brought the most musical weight to Sunday’s concert. Cast in three movements, Brouwer’s suite tells the story of a warrior who falls out of favor with his village when he discovers he loves the harp. (Isn’t that always the case?) Brouwer distinctly characterizes the warrior with a steep, rising theme which Isbin declaimed imposingly, and the following events – battle, love, etc. – were cast in equally lively music that Isbin helped shape into a compelling narrative. At a gig full of flair and fireworks, it was nice to have some meatier work to dig into as well.
Isbin generally formulated melodies freely, hesitating at crucial moments as a singer would to pull the drama. The hottest blood flowed in the two chestnuts that closed the first half of the program, that of Tárrega Arabian Whim and Andres Segovia’s transcription of Isaac Albeniz Asturiasthe last of which featured shimmering flamenco strumming interspersed with vivid evocations of the song from Isbin’s guitar.
The dances made up most of the second half of the program, and they had a light but seductive swing. These pieces also allowed Isbin to tell impressive anecdotes, such as the way she interpreted Agustín Barrios Mangoré Julia Florida for Segovia (and got scolded by the great guitarist, who disliked the composer), and how she had been joined to play Antonio Lauro’s Waltz No. 3, “Natalia”, by the composer’s daughter , after whom the waltz was named.
The stories made Isbin’s elegant performances of these works more personal. They also likely helped attract potential classical or guitar newcomers to this program, which was recorded for Wolf Trap’s Center Stage – a fitting showcase for a good musician.