Guitarists Joseph Ricker and Jamie Balmer make the ancient feel new, and the new feel ancient. As Duo Orfeo, they have since 2005 turned their classical training into a voyage of discovery. A unique assembly of works across genres and time periods, as original as Ricker’s transcriptions of them, is their calling card. In the interest of enriching the guitar repertoire while also enlarging possibilities of timbre and expression, Ricker and Balmer went electric in 2010 and followed up two years later with I sing the body electric. What began as an experiment quickly became an inspiring transformation that deepened an underlying commitment to giving just as much attention to the previously neglected as to the canonical, the latter beautifully re-imagined with a gentility rarely heard on the electric guitar. Whether acoustic or amplified, the Duo’s 12 strings dance beneath hands capable of emotional heights more typical of singers than of instrumentalists. Common to both registers is the Duo’s mission of musical integrity and the personal touch required to make it palpable. I sing... opened a door. Now’s the time to step through it.
Guitar Nouveau reworks seven centuries of music originally written for voice, organ, harpsichord, and lute. The Duo’s bell-like sonorities imbue each of the album’s two “Books.” Book I, entitled “Morning into Evening,” opens with Ricker’s original Variations on a Theme from The Sacred Harp, exploring a nineteenth-century book of four-part sacred vocal music from the American south. It serves as an ideal introduction, turning inward to look outward. Replete with sections transcendent and rustic alike, and threaded by a recurring twang, it prefaces anonymous music for two lutes two centuries its junior. The contrasts thereof flow organically into Frédéric Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. Here the reference is personal, harking to the Duo’s first acoustic studio album, which featured two of the Polish composer’s nocturnes. The music’s descriptive qualities are only enhanced in the electric guitar setting, as are those of Leoš Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path, from which three selections find themselves subsequently re-imagined. Janáček’s geometries scintillate in a forthright notecraft that feels botanical, microscopic.
Book II, “Night into Dawn,” continues the album’s bridging of past and future through a sonorous here and now. This, too, begins with variations, these by American composer Thomas Schuttenhelm (b. 1975). Although billed as such, Schuttenhelm’s seamless vignettes act as a fantastical prologue to Thomas Tallis’s motet O nata lux of 1575. Both composer and musicians enhance the unique dissonances of medieval vocal music, using them as anchors for a ponderous, cellular approach by which elaborations precede their themes. Thereafter, the listener encounters a handful of other pieces for keyboard, including an allemande by eighteenth-century harpsichordist Jacques Duphly, a selection from Sergei Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives of 1915-17, and William Byrd’s beloved The Bells, which concludes the album. These delicate expositions bookend luscious, scintillating traversals of Gabriel Fauré’s evergreen Pie Jesu (from the d-minor Requiem) and the opus 78 Sicilienne, as well as the Kyrie from Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, which dates furthest to the fourteenth century. All of this music has about it something both timeworn and immediate and, like the hymn by J. S. Bach that looks toward the album’s gentle finale, feels writ fresh on a weeping willow’s bark.