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Guitarist makes most of musical scholarship

Guitarist David Leisner brought an important musical discovery to his recital Friday night. It was a stunning sonata by the heretofore unknown 19th century English composer Stephen Pratten. Leisner gave one of his first performances of the work on the excellent guitar series presented in the Student Services Building Auditorium on the Dale Mabry Campus of Hillsborough Community College.

Leisner said he came across the sonata last summer, at a guitar convention in England, and termed it "one of the great masterpieces of the guitar literature of the 19th century." Little is known of Pratten, who lived from 1799 to 1845, a time when English music was going through a long dry spell between Purcell and Elgar.

The Pratten sonata is more or less conventional in shape _ the movements being Maestoso, Andante molto and Rondo _ but the musical line, for all the great variety and lyricism, is absolutely unerring in its architecture; there doesn't seem to be a wasted measure.

Though the work is firmly in the romantic tradition, brimming with melody, it has an integrity all its own, an inevitability and rightness to the music that does indeed feel like a masterpiece. Leisner gave it a superb performance, especially in the engrossing finale.

He had another revelatory piece of musical scholarship on his program, playing the 1928 manuscript version of Villa-Lobos' great 12 Etudes. It contains many differences from the published edition, which was dedicated to Andres Segovia.

As Leisner speculates in liner notes to his CD of the Villa-Lobos cycle on the Azica label, Segovia probably recommended many misguided revisions that the composer incorporated into the work. The guitarist believes the manuscript is a superior version, and it inspired his biggest, boldest playing of the evening.

Not too long ago an opus like the Villa-Lobos was unthinkable for Leisner. Starting in 1984, a hand condition called focal dystonia derailed the guitarist's career. He couldn't play for the better part of a decade.

Today, he uses a instrument with a small stand that rests in his lap, which he adopted as part of his long odyssey to get back to performing. The changes he went through seem to be reflected in his thoughtful, relaxed style, in contrast to the ferocious intensity of many a guitar virtuoso.

The program opened with a pair of Schubert songs transcribed by Mertz. Standchen was a meditative, tender gem, but Die Post, from the Winterreise song cycle, suffered from a couple of clunky notes.

There was also a set of four little pieces by Leisner, who was born in 1953. He said they came from popular music he grew up with, but there was nothing particularly recognizable in the music.

Most interesting was Episode, which had some soft, oddly fingered phrasing that forced you to listen closely.

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