Album Title: Fernando Sor Early Works
Performer: William Carter
Label: Linn Records CKD 343 SACD (also available as 24/192 and lower resolution downloads and MP3)
Run time: 61 minutes
Recorded: St Martin's Church, East Woodhay, UK on the 12th - 13th January 2009.

Is it possible to give the same disc three awards? One for a too rarely played yet phenomenal repertoire; one for flawless execution; and one for innovation and risk taking? If any one recording ever deserved such recognition, it is William Carter's of early guitar works by Spaniard Fernando Sor. Let me explain.

Fernando Sor is one of those composers once famous across Europe but forgotten today who sorely deserves to be resurrected to the forefront of classical music attention. Why history has relegated him to oblivion is beyond my ken. Sor (1778-1839) was born into an upper middle-class family and destined for the military as was common in those days. Thankfully for him and us it was a time of peace. His musical talents in the army brought him admiration and promotions rather than mockery.

The works recorded here are from this period of blissful comfort. The later war in Iberia forced Sor to exile in France where his talent for vocal music and ballet brought him fame and the opportunity to share concert programs with a young and promising pianist named Frederik Chopin. The little of Sor's music still played today is for the guitar and was popularized by Segovia or Bream. The guitar was Sor's favored solo instrument. He was renowned as a true guitar virtuoso and genius composer for it.

That last point may have been contested at the time. Sor's insistence on writing in the correct pitch and very unusual keys enforced constant fights with his editors who took liberties with his partitions and released some relaxed 'transcriptions' of his works.

Full credit now must go to William Carter for unearthing a full hour of original and magnificent guitar compositions and bringing them back to life a century and a half later. Alas, that's just the tip of the iceberg. The second surprise is that unlike many recent releases of baroque guitar, this is not a work of flamboyant virtuosity (though in a way it is but more on that anon). It is more a work of deep emotional intensity, nuances and subtleties. If you are not a guitar player (I am not) but familiar with current period guitar recordings, you'll instinctively recognize that something deep and unusual is going on - yet you won't know what, exactly.

Listening to this disc two or three times, I was impressed with its palette of tonal nuances, its lyricism and almost vocal qualities, none of which I associate with the typically acidic and exuberant—and sometimes systematic—sound of period guitar. I was transported into reverie and contemplation but at that point still ignorant over just what had been required to achieve this very unique sound and ambiance.

Reading the material supplied with the SACD later, I discovered that Carter who was classically trained in Florida used his fingertips instead of nails. This probably would be instantly obvious to guitar players who'd also realize just what a challenge it was but to me it initially did not mean much. I'll let you read through the very well written booklet by Carter but in a nutshell, recreating this playing technique so highly favored by Sor required recreating a lighter and more delicate instrument based on the very few of the kind that have survived; and learn how to play the guitar all over again.

To say I am impressed and conquered by the resultant sound is an understatement. The guitar under Carter's fingers becomes a far more colorful and polymorphic instrument, at times sounding more like a lute, at times reaching towards a harp and in all cases capable of a timbral range and dynamic gradations I simply had not heard before. Don't expect one of those extravaganzas of complexity and virtuosity though. The pieces Carter chose showcase the fingertip playing technique and how it gains in expressivity. Although some pieces are paced faster, the overall feeling is one of subtlety and emotion. Sometimes virtuosity is not about speed and how many notes you can cram into a second. Sometimes it is about extracting more potential of an instrument than anybody has in a long time. By that definition, William Carter reached a pedestal of his own and this perfectly recorded resurrection gets a Blue Moon award. Now I sincerely hope for more of Sor's compositions to be discovered. This glimpse into his genius left me wanting for more.