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ECHO Rising Stars: Sean Shibe

Sean Shibe sitting in front of a dark grey background, holding his guitar upright

Popular plucked-string instruments such as the guitar and lute are arguably better placed than other classical instruments to move across and behind nationalist, stylistic and historical lines. This is a notion with which Sean Shibe himself would surely agree – as witness today’s beautifully curated programme.

Here we find a spirit of the dance evident in music old and new, but also in evidence are the benign ghosts of those fellow classical guitar trailblazers Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream – Shibe’s erstwhile mentor.

The recital opens with music from Lady Margaret Wemyss’s Lute Book, this contains a group of pieces transcribed into French lute tablature collected in Scotland by the young noblewoman from her 12th year until her death at just 19 in around 1649. Among the treasures within them are a sarabande of the earlier, brisker type: Mervell’s Sarabande by the French composer Jacques Gaultier (c1600–52), who was by all accounts a somewhat dubious character. His piece sounds surprisingly modern in a selection that also features traditional Scottish dances and tunes and even a sprightly Canaries, a dance whose origins, as the name suggests, lay in the Canary Islands.

The Catalan composer Federico Mompou (1893–1987) is a composer whom you can only wish had written much more for the guitar. The solo piano miniatures for which he is best-known draw on traditional folk material and Impressionist harmonies to create a subtle and distinctive musical language; these are exquisitely demonstrated in the Cancion y Danza X (1953), a piece that was originally known in its piano incarnation. Yet, as recently as 2001, an alternative was unearthed, in the composer’s own hand, for solo guitar. The six-movement Suite Compostelana (1962) was written, as the name suggests, in Santiago de Compostela and dedicated to Segovia. Shibe here omits the ‘Cuna’ (Lullaby) and ‘Recitativo’, moving from the toccata-like ‘Preludio’ through the slow, spare ‘Coral’ and unsettled ‘Canción’ before ending with the joyful Galician dance, redolent of bagpipe drones, that is the ‘Muñeira’.

Like Mompou, the Andalusian composer Manuel de Falla (1876–1946) drew on traditional and modernist musical styles and material; but, like Stravinsky, he also employed neo-Classical elements, particularly in his later music. His Homenaje pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920) – again his only work for classical guitar – was written with advice from his friend, the Spanish guitarist and composer Miguel Llobet. It was later arranged for piano, and then orchestra. Interestingly, in more recent times many of Falla’s orchestral works have been arranged by performers for guitar, whether solo, duet, or ensemble, in a sense coming full circle.

Much has been made of Falla’s use of the sensual Cuban dance, the habanera, in this sombre context; the work also quotes one of Debussy’s Estampes, ‘La soirée dans Grenade’. In a 1976 interview, the great Spanish guitarist José Rey de la Torre, who studied with Llobet, said that: ‘… the combination of this funereal feeling and the habanera together, it’s very strange … There is a contradiction of the rhythm itself, the habanera, combined with that feeling of grief.” It’s from this contradiction, though, that Homenaje pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy derives so much of its heart-wrenching tension.

Francis Poulenc’s fragrantly melancholy Sarabande (the score instructs the guitarist to play Molto calmo et melanconico) was written in 1960 and regrettably the French composer’s only work for solo guitar. Moving in stately fashion between different time signatures, it retains little of the form’s original lively Spanish dance qualities but instead reflects its subsequent courtly evolution in Italy and France. And, despite its modernist underpinnings, it also looks back somewhat wistfully to the French claveçiniste school of the Couperin family, Rameau and co.

Like Benjamin Britten before him, British composer Thomas Adès (born 1971) combines a profound, markedly literary, knowledge of and respect for British history, musical or otherwise, with an eclectic approach to his own writing. Newly commissioned by the Barbican Centre and the European Concert Hall Organisation and here receiving its UK premiere, Forgotten Dances is not only Adès’s first stand-alone work for solo classical guitar, but his first ever published solo work for an instrument other than the piano.

That said, his Habanera for guitar, from the opera The Exterminating Angel (2016), does, in a way, provide an indirect link between Forgotten Dances and Falla’s Homenaje. There is also a more direct link between the opera and Forgotten Dances, with the title of one of its movements, ‘Berceuse – Paradise of Thebes’, referencing part of the Buñuel film on which The Exterminating Angel is based.

Before the Berceuse comes the ambiguous, filigree ‘Overture – Queen of the Spiders’; after is the virtuosic ‘Here was a swift’; a serene ‘Barcarolle – the Maiden Voyage’; the dissonant tintinnabulations of ‘Carillon de Ville’; and finally the Purcellian ‘Vesper’, a chaconne based on that composer’s Evening Hymn.

The result is nothing less than a phantasmagoria of startling complexity and originality, with Adès making no concessions to the player in his novel treatment of the classical guitar’s resources. But with such an advocate as Sean Shibe, Forgotten Dances will not be easily forgotten.

© William Yeoman

Programme and performers

Scottish Lute Manuscripts (compiled by Lady Margaret Wemyss) A Scotts Tune
Mervell’s Sarabande
Holi and Faire
Ladie Lie Near Me
A Scots Tune

Federico Mompou Canción y Danza X (sobre dos Cantigas del Rey Alfonso X)
’Preludio’, ‘Coral’, ‘Canción’ and ‘Muñeira’ from Suite Compostelana
Manuel de Falla Homenaje pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy
Francis Poulenc Sarabande
Thomas Adès Forgotten Dances (co-commissioned by the Barbican and ECHO Rising Stars, UK premiere)
I Overture – Queen of the Spiders 
II Berceuse – The Paradise of Thebes
III Courante – Here was a Swift (for Max Ernst)
IV Barcarolle – The Maiden Voyage
V Carillon de Ville (for Hector Berlioz)
VI Vesper (for Henry Purcell)

Sean Shibe guitar

Sean Shibe

Sean Shibe was born in Edinburgh in 1992, studying at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland under Allan Neave and at Kunst-Universität Graz in Austria and in Italy under Paolo Pegoraro. He is now a guitar professor at Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

He is a former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, Borletti–Buitoni Trust Fellowship 2012 winner, Royal Philharmonic Society 2018 Young Artist Award winner and recipient of the 2022 Leonard Bernstein Award. This season sees him premiere concertos by Cassandra Miller and Oliver Leith, as well as tour Thomas Adès’s Forgotten Dances. He also appears in recital at venues across Europe, including the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Philharmonie de Paris, Konzerthaus Wien and Wigmore Hall as he takes up the title of ECHO Rising Star. Further highlights comprise a US tour with tenor Karim Sulayman, performances with mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska, and the UK premiere of Francisco Coll’s Turia for guitar and large orchestra with Delyana Lazorova and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

He regularly collaborates with leading soloists and ensembles and in recent years has worked with the Hallé, National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, BBC Singers, Manchester Collective, Dunedin Consort, Quatuor Van Kujik, Danish String Quartet, LUDWIG, Krzysztof Urbański, Christoph Eschenbach, Taavi Oramo, Catherine Larsen-Maguire, flautist Adam Walker, singers Allan Clayton, Ben Johnson, Robert Murray, Robin Tritschler and performance artist Marina Abramović.

He is an ardent supporter of contemporary music, regularly taking a hands-on approach to new commissions and programmes and working with composers to experiment with and expand the guitar repertoire. Premieres to date include works by Daniel Kidane, David Fennessy, Shiva Feshareki, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Freya Waley-Cohen and Sasha Scott. He is equally committed to traditional repertoire, regularly pairing bold, new pieces with his own transcriptions of JS Bach’s lute suites and 17th-century Scottish lute manuscripts.

Sean Shibe’s discography continues to garner recognition from critics and audiences all over. Recent albums include Lost & Found (awarded an OPUS Klassik 2023 Award), Profesión, exploring 20th-century South American music, and the Grammy-nominated Broken Branches, a kaleidoscopic exploration of everything from 17th-century lute to Arabic oud in collaboration with Karim Sulayman.

Audience in the hall

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