Guitar Madness

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Ah, but none dare call it madness.

We’re speaking of the classical guitar, to which milder epithets appropriately apply. How about “modified rapture,” as in The Mikado? That comes up right before Nanki-Poo reveals to his beloved Yum-Yum that he is not a “wandering minstrel” but rather the son of His Majesty the M., therefore much more attractive as husband material:

Nanki-Poo: But — (aside) Shall I tell her? Yes! She will not betray me! (to Yum-Yum) What if it should prove that, after all, I am no musician?

Yum-Yum: There! I was certain of it, directly I heard you play!

On tap this week: the guitar concertos et al. of Federico Moreno Torroba (1891–1982), done up handsomely by Pepe Romero and his protégé Vicente Coves. Also Guitarra mía, an album of tangos by Astor Piazzolla (1921–92) and Carlos Gardel (1890–1935) from Franz Halász. Also Andrea Bissoli’s Villa-Lobos: Complete Guitar Manuscripts and ¡Viva Segovia!, the latest from Roberto Moronn Pérez.

If it seems that modern music for classical guitar begins and ends with Andrés Segovia (1893–1987, shown above in his younger days), that’s because it pretty much does. Essentially self-taught, Segovia developed techniques that increased the instrument’s range of available tone colors and dynamics while also enhancing player efficiency, i.e., reducing the effort involved. Driven by a desire to gain respect for the guitar as a serious musical medium, he transcribed dozens of works by Renaissance composers, also Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Chopin, and Schumann. His growing reputation attracted living composers to him, and he boldly approached others as well—Villa-Lobos and Torroba were among his converts. As a teacher, he shaped the styles and tastes of several generations of younger performers, among them John Williams and Julian Bream.

Torroba was already an extremely successful composer of zarzuelas (Spanish-language operettas) when Segovia first asked him to write something for guitar. Eventually he composed around a hundred guitar works including ten concertos—more even than his friend Rodrigo. It’s a pleasure to report that volumes 1 and 2 of a projected three-volume edition of Torroba Guitar Concertos (Naxos 8.573255, 8.573503; various downloads available) proved enormously satisfying. Torroba had a gift for sensual, catchy melodies—he was the zarzuela king!—and a knack for colorful orchestration. Here’s the opening of Homenaje a la seguidilla (1962):

Oh, wait! You wanted to hear the guitar. Here you go:

That’s from Diálogos entre guitarra y orquesta (1977), with Vicente Coves handling solo chores. Notice how lightly the accompaniment is scored. There’s plenty of give and take, space enough for the guitar to speak without raising its voice. A good thing, because an unamplified guitar can’t really raise its voice; its strength lies in the suggestion of intimacy. No banging entrances à la Tchaikovsky No. 1! Better to make the audience wait, as in the opening two-plus minutes of Homenaje.

Pepe Romero there, starting off Aires de La Mancha with Jerigonza, based on a children’s language game. Where’s the orchestra? Surprise! Volume 1 includes two solo guitar suites. It was refreshing to hear Torroba’s distillations of Spanish cultural tradition in these brief works. Incidentally, Torroba turned to writing concertos only in the 1960s, after the zarzuela craze had begun to die out. At that point he could combine a genius for melody and color with his long experience in the theatre. There’s plenty of drama in any good concerto:

Concierto de Castilla, from vol. 2. Vicente Coves solos; his brother Manuel conducts on both volumes. Nicely recorded, with sensitive but honest coverage of the soloists. I’m eagerly awaiting vol. 3 now, assuming it will include Nocturnos, for two guitars, and Concierto ibérico, for four (and written for the legendary Romero Quartet).

German guitarist Franz Halász came up with a nifty idea for a tango collection: why not combine music by Astor Piazzolla, the best-known tango musician of recent years, with that of his predecessor Carlos Gardel, a popular Argentine singer and matinee idol who died in a 1935 plane crash? The resulting album, Guitarra mía (BIS-2165; SACD, 24/96 download), consists largely of song arrangements by Halász and others; Piazzola’s Cinco Piezas para guitarra is included at the end. By alternating the music of these two, Halász throws differences between their personalities and cultural eras into sharp relief. Here is some of Gardel’s Mi Buenos Aires querido:

And here a bit of Piazzola’s Primavera porteña, jazzier and more dissonant:

As a performer Halász combines absolute technical security with a certain restlessness of spirit. This could make him an ideal interpreter of the material, but he’s clearly more at home with Piazzolla than Gardel, whose unabashed lyricism and sentimentality belong to a bygone age. The artist acted as his own engineer/editor; his wife Debora, Brazilian by birth and a gifted pianist, produced.

Naxos has now combined Andrea Bissoli’s three Villa-Lobos: The Guitar Manuscripts albums into a box set (8.503289). It would be wrong to characterize its contents as wildly variable, although compared with the prospective Torroba set, it’s certainly a mixed bag. Mr. Bissoli is a good guitarist and also something of a library rat. He’s developed a cadre of colleagues who steer him toward forgotten (and sometimes interesting) material in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ vast (and vastly uneven) corpus of works. So in vol. 1 we get not only the Guitar Concerto (1951/c1955) for Segovia but also a Valse-Choro cut from the early Suite popular brasileira because it was too “bold and innovative.” When it surfaced in the archives of publisher Max Eschig several years ago, Bissoli was apparently standing by. Likewise, he’s reconstructed a lost 1937 work for guitar, flute, and female chorus, Motivos Gregos, by using two contemporary manuscript reworkings of the same material. It’s haunting and unique.

Less haunting and far from unique is Bissoli’s reading, with soprano Lia Serafini, of the famous “Ária” from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 in a version for voice and guitar. You may find it impossible to banish fond memories of Renée Fleming or Joan Baez or any of a half-dozen other sopranos offering this music in its more familiar incarnation with cellos.

Unexpected joys also pop up, as with volume 2’s Choros No. 6, a 25-minute-long orchestral tone poem with nary a guitar intruding. What’s it doing in a set of “guitar manuscripts”? Apparently Bissoli wanted it to stand alongside his performance of the 5-minute-long Choros No. 1. (A Choros is a Choros!) Some of No. 1:

Like I said, a mixed bag. (You may want to compare Julian Bream’s classic performance of Choros No. 1 here.) Curious Villa-Lobos devotees will find much to savor and/or ponder in this set. At Naxos’ prices, the rest of us can afford to give it a spin too. (Check out very fine soprano Gabriella Pace in vol. 2.)

And so we come to ¡Viva Segovia!, Roberto Moronn Pérez’s third offering in his series from the Andrés Segovia Archive (Reference Recordings FR-723; HDCD, download). Said “archive” is a smallish collection of works recently discovered among Segovia’s private papers. Segovia never played most of them; a few were performed once or twice and then dropped. Think about that: “viva Segovia,” indeed. (And here I’m not getting snarky about Segovia’s lifelong effort to broaden the guitar repertoire, but rather about misleading marketing.)

On this newest installment we get music from Hans Haug, Cyril Scott, Lennox Berkeley, Ettore Desderi, Aloÿs Fornerod, and Fernande Peyrot. Not exactly household names, but here’s the thing: Pérez plays the socks off these pieces. Moment for moment, these are the best performances I heard this week: committed, stylish, technically stunning. Turns out Haug, Scott, Berkeley and the rest are beautiful when they take their glasses off. Here’s a bit of Desderi’s Sonata in mi:

I’m going to get Pérez’s Spanish “archive” album (FR-705) too. If you’re a classical guitar nut, you’ll probably acquire all three. Why not? It’s good music played as if it were great.

And that’s all for now. Let me know if you’ve happened upon any recent (!) classical guitar releases that should have found their way into this column.

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