Frederic Hand: Odyssey
Panoramic Recordings

How do I love Odyssey? Let me count the ways. There's, first, the eclectic breadth of the material on this splendid recording, with classical, folk, jazz, early music, and Irish music among the styles featured. I also love it for the captivating sound of Frederic Hand's classical (nylon-stringed) guitar playing, the seeming effortlessness with which the Brooklyn-born guitarist executes the album's pieces, almost all of them originals. His sensitivity of touch, sense of time, and technical command are consistently evident, and one comes away from Odyssey feeling as if one has spent an hour in the company of an extraordinarily gifted musician. Adding to the release's appeal is its handsome packaging, itself enhanced by in-depth notes by Hand on the compositions performed.

His CV is extensive and impressive, but for simplicity's sake, a brief overview of his accomplishments should suffice. The one-time Fulbright Scholar and student of Julian Bream (in fact, Odyssey includes “For Julian,” Hand's 2007 tribute to his former teacher) was appointed the Metropolitan Opera's guitarist and lutenist in 1984 (a position he still holds), has created original scores for television (Sesame Street, As the World Turns, The Guiding Light), and has been heard on the scores to numerous films (This Boy's Life, Kramer vs Kramer). In addition, Hand has also shared his expertise as a mentor and teacher with countless other guitarists.

Hand's focus on Odyssey isn't soloing, though soloing does appear, perhaps most conspicuously on “Sophia's Journey,” dedicated to his granddaughter and inspired by her strong personality and movements as a six-month-old. What's primarily on display is musicianship and craft, of which there are plenty. The recording's timeless quality is highlighted at the outset by “Cantiga de Santa Maria,” a medieval-sounding setting Hand originally wrote for his Jazzantiqua ensemble and that's based on songs from the 13th century. One can't help but be captivated by the clarity of the playing and the precision with which Hand executes the layered patterns, even when it's easy to be swept away by the stately dancing figures spiraling before one's ears. In similar manner, he based his Four Sephardic Songs on material originating from the Iberian Peninsula, and a strong Spanish character is audible in the guitarist's articulation of the songs' melodies. Here too it's impossible not to be dazzled by the effortlessness of the technical command, how he's able to switch from rapid fingerpicking to aggressive strums in an instant. The sensitivity of his touch also comes through in his rendering of the gentle “Prayer,” for which Bach provided inspiration; Hand's expert handling of tempo is also evident in the graceful unfolding of the lyrical setting's touching melodies. “The Water is Wide” might be a familiar piece to many, but the haunting 17th-century Scottish folksong feels refreshed when treated to such a stirring reading by Hand; also included is a lovely treatment by the guitarist of Gluck's “Ballet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits” to close this superb collection in gorgeous manner.

Though Odyssey is essentially a solo affair, Hand's joined by guests on two pieces, on the title track by fellow guitarist David Leisner and on “A Psalm of Thanksgiving” by flutist Jayna Nelson. The former sees the players undertaking a winding, twelve-minute journey of varying scenic character replete with dazzling unison passages and lush, contemplative moments. Though the presence of flute on this otherwise fully guitar-based recording might seem anomalous, the delightful charm of “A Psalm of Thanksgiving” trumps any reservations one might have over its inclusion, especially when Nelson's jubilant dance melodies align so sweetly to Hand's equally lively contributions (the entrance of the flute, incidentally, is designed to reflect the opening words of the psalm in question, Psalm 100 from the Old Testament: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”). In sum, no better introduction to Hand's artistry could be imagined than Odyssey, a triumphant recording of which its creator has every reason to be proud. It lifts one's spirits to know that music of such considerable quality exists in the world.

September 2016