John Doan

The Lost Music of Fernando Sor

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On Tapestry Productions' CD The Lost Music of Fernando Sor, historical guitarist John Doan -- whose conquests include the unwieldy but impressive harp guitar long ago manufactured by Gibson -- takes on what has to be one of the strangest instruments ever conceived: the harpolyre. Built very briefly in Paris around 1830 by inventor J.F. Salomon, the harpolyre has three necks, one more than even the hottest, heavy metal hotshot usually requires. The sound of the instrument, undeniably louder than a standard, Spanish acoustic guitar even though it doesn't have much in the way of a body, is close to that of a standard guitar except that it has much deeper resonance and bass notes ring out with a depth comparable to the low notes of a fortepiano; these are notes taken from the lower neck. It also has the capability to create fleecy, harp-like chords that have an almost unearthly quality of diaphanousness; these notes come from the higher one. The main voice of the harpolyre emanates from the center neck, and most of the music is played from there; this is in keeping with Salomon's intentions, as he sought to improve the technology of the standard guitar, not to introduce a wholly new instrument.

In his compositions for the instrument, never before recorded and probably not even played since his lifetime, Fernando Sor took note of these qualities and tailored his music to fit. Sor's small output of pieces for the hypolyre include a solid Marche Funébre that effectively alternates somber and sentimental elements, a charming Andante Largo pungent with the aroma of the opera house and amply utilizing the harp-like effects, and a Cantabile movement that makes ominous use of the harpolyre's deep bass notes. These pieces are among Sor's best compositions and they well deserve revival and would not sound nearly as effective played on a standard six-string instrument, indeed if you could play them that way at all, even with two guitars. Doan handles these works with sensitivity and transmits a palpable sense of excitement of discovery that radiates through the excellent recording quality. One wishes the superb liner notes, which fully explain the genesis of the instrument and touch upon Doan's 30-year-long pursuit if it, were reproduced in a somewhat higher typeface; on the back cover of the booklet, the print is exceptionally fine and difficult to make out. While John Doan's The Lost Music of Fernando Sor may cause you to get out the magnifying glass, the fine musicianship, uniqueness of this project, and its fulfillment of Doan's wish to render these rare Sor works into the realm of the playable is more than sufficient recompense for the fineness of the typesize.

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