BACH | Sean Shibe

Three years as a Delphian artist have seen Sean Shibe record music from seventeenth century Scottish lute manuscripts to twenty-first-century works for electric guitar, picking up multiple editor’s choices and award nominations for each release, as well as the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious Young Artist of the Year accolade.

Now he turns to the music of J. S. Bach, with three works whose obscure early performance history belies their status as repertoire staples for modern guitarists.

The musicological questions that have arisen over what instrument Bach intended for these works – questions encapsulated for Shibe by the phrase ‘pour la luth ò cembal’, which appears in the composer’s hand at the head of the manuscript of the Prelude to bwv 998 – are here answered by the unshakeable assurance of Shibe’s performances.

"Commandingly impressive in slower movements, like the improvisatory opening Prelude of the E-minor Suite, and the spacious Sarabandes of that work and the C-minor Partita ... the clarity in his articulation of the most complex counterpoints is as exemplary as his gloriously warm timbre is alluring"

"Few have recorded [Bach's Lute Suites] with such a thrilling combination of technical flair, finesse and blazingly evident musical sympathy. It’s almost as if this music was waiting for Shibe to come along, the results are that breathtaking ... Shibe’s playing throughout the disc marries chamber-music delicacy with a rapt and pliable spirituality that is deeply affecting ... the way that Shibe offers so much light and shade, so much loving delineation of the various strands, and a certainty of pacing that blossoms naturally (and excitingly!) into the concluding virtuoso Allegro.

Certainly it’s one of the finest Bach discs to come our way in a long time"

read the full review here

"Bach's music for the lute has been something of a connoisseur's speciality, but this album could change that ... hear it played on a guitar with the intelligence, fantasy, and palpable love that Shibe brings ... Fugues are unfolded with faultless attention to line. But more importantly, they live and breathe, and everything glows under the rich light of discovery. Stunningly recorded, this collection is a memento of a young artist on the vertiginous ascent, offering music making that is utterly ravishing"

"magnificent ... the flow of the E-minor Suite's Prelude is subtly arrested by expressively arpeggiated chords which throw into sharp relief a cut-glass Fugue that attunes the listener to rippling yet clearly defined semiquavers ... Has the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro ever sounded so contemporary in its nostalgic sweetness and, in the final movement, sheer unabashed joy?"


"through Shibe’s sensitive playing it’s possible to discern the distinct personalities of the relatively youthful composer honing his craft and the mature master at the height of his powers ... The guitar is not known for its breadth of dynamic range, but Shibe shows clearly that it is perfectly possible to achieve great sonic variety, both in volume and in texture ... he achieves the seemingly impossible by successfully recreating something of the spirit of an expansive keyboard prelude ... nothing short of triumphant."


read the full review here

"The tone is warm and rich, the playing astonishingly clean, the ornamentation delicately and imaginatively applied and Shibe's ability to voice Bach's separate lines borders on the astonishing ... I couldn't stop playing this recording - in fact it's some of the classiest and most compelling Bach playing I've heard on guitar ... It goes beyond the technique and that's astonishing in places... I'm learning things about the music I hadn't noticed before because of the way Shibe voices and inflects it with such intimate understanding"

ANDREW McGREGOR | Record Review

"A disc I never wanted to end: Sean Shibe displays clarity, structure and an innate sense of elegance … Bach was constantly re-inventing his music on other instruments, and on this disc Sean Shibe gives us a masterly and elegant demonstration of how suited it is to classical guitar. Shibe's Bach has a lovely clarity and sense of structure to it, along with his own innate sense of elegant in the playing.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★


"J’ai entendu ces pièces des centaines de fois dans le passé. Et j’en ai pratiqué quelques-unes à la guitare en tant qu’amateur. Les retrouver ici par le guitariste écossais Sean Shibe c’est comme les redécouvrir pour la première fois. Son jeu est d’une grande douceur, nuancé et coulant comme une eau limpide, en modulation constante, improvisé de phrasés libres et gracieux."

Le Parnasse Musical

"This astonishing guitarist born in Edinburgh to English and Japanese parents plays with such depth of tone, colour and intricacies of touch that it is as though he's at a harpsichord, not strumming or plucking fretted strings ... Shibe's music-making is masterful, beautiful and convincing in every way ... embellishments glint like jewellery ... How I panted for more"

"There are many performances of these works in the catalog. Vintage performances on guitar include Julian Bream and John Williams; a more recent and comparable release comes from Franz Halász, who plays the Suites in their original key for lute on modern guitar (see our review here). This new release is an essential addition to sit proudly alongside these formidable interpreters. Shibe is so successful here that another disc to complete the lute suites would be most desirable."

Read the full review here

Recorded: 20-21 May & 17-18 Dec 2019

Venue: Crichton Collegiate Church, East Lothian

Producer: Paul Baxter

Editor: Matthew Swan


BWV998iii. Allegro

Musical Explorer

From sublime Bach to electric angst, guitarist Sean Shibe's ambitions for both himself and his instrument know no borders, as he tells Martin Cullingford

Recording Sessions image foxbrushfilms.com

Follow an artist for a period of time, through performances, studio sessions and a spot of socialising, and the chances are that you'll end up with a rich portrait of a creative spirit. Few artists, though, would produce a portrait quite so psychedelically diverse as that hurled at the canvas by a season in the life of Sean Shibe: a season that takes us from exquisitely fragile folk songs, to an ear-shattering electric epic delivered in a costume of fabulous flamboyance, via sublime Bach sessions in an isolated church nestling in nature, south-east of Edinburgh....

.. the [BACH] sessions really were a privilege to witness. Crichton Collegiate Church, where they took place, is about 7.5 miles outside Edinburgh, but may as well be 75 miles. Sitting in tranquil mid-Lothian landscape, it dates from the 15th century and fared somewhat precariously through the politics and religious upheavals of the intervening half millennium, but survived to be beautifully restored relatively recently. It's now beloved by musicians, not least artists on Delphian, a label with a firm commitment to exceptional recorded sound. Small in stature, the space feels just right for the intimacy of Bach's lute suites, perfectly proportioned to gently cradle their fragility and their strength, to let the colours bloom and the themes to dance delicately in the air. On this cold winter's morning, the surrounding frozen fields silent, the experience was almost meditative: the world stilled, nothing disturbing this most profound music.

"Delphian: a label with a firm commitment to exceptional recorded sound"

"It's easy to think of all works by Bach as uncompromisingly spiritual, but there is a different spiritual emphasis to each one"

.. Shibe sat alone in the nave flanked by two electric heaters, a model of poise, while, in a small vestry, those of us in the makeshift control room observed a library-like intensity. Talking between takes almost felt like an intrusion...

Martin Cullingford

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Gramophone.

Featured Film

Further reading....


Sean Shibe on BACH

Sean meets with Presto Classical's Katherine Cooper to discuss the challenges and rewards of performing Bach on the guitar

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