The following reviews are to be taken as recommendations. It is not my purpose to take up server space and our time with recordings that do not merit an unequivocal *****Buy It rating.
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13. Gustave Leonhardt - JS Bach Harpsichord Transcriptions
14. Sigiswald Kuijken - Bach on violin
SL WEISS; Sonata in A minor - L'Infidele, Prelude and Fugue in C
VIVALDI ; Concerto in F
SL WEISS; Tombeau Count Logy
JS BACH; Chaconne
Nigel North, lute
Linn Records CKD 006
This 1991 recording finds the English lute virtuoso Nigel North exceeding even his earlier exalted standards of musicianship, technique and style. Important to the interest of this disc are the transcriptions, the Vivaldi being the concerto Op 3 no 9 which Bach also reworked as BWV 972 (with elements taken from both versions), and the culminating moments being Bach's own justly famous Chaconne. Meanwhile the Weiss runs both these big names close, his lute writing clearly producing wonderful effects, especially where in the Tombeau the funeral bell tolls for the Count with unearthly bent notes in the lowest register of the instrument (usually translated, rather weakly, as mordents on guitar).
In particular listen out for North's lively sense of rhythm and well proportioned sense of rubato, both qualities that many guitarists could learn from.
North recently wrote the only manual on continuo playing for the lute to be published in recent centuries, and this profound experience of harmony and style comes through at every turn, borne of innumerable sessions playing continuo with the finest singers, instrumentalists and period-instrument orchestras. In this solo repertoire he is free to apply his apparently limitless technique on this daunting instrument to the finest musical realisations imaginable.
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Ricardo Iznaola is an unusual artist in many senses. He has never beaten the familiar track in terms of repertoire and technical matters, although he has performed around the world, broadcast widely and teaches at a major US institution in addition to classes in various parts of the guitaristic universe. A certain proportion of this individuality stems from his educational lineage, which is that of Regino Sainz de la Maza. Although de la Maza was the dedicatee and first performer of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez and hence responsible for bringing into the world the most-heard major work in our repertoire, he was not in the same position as Segovia to sanction students or to enforce in them a certain set of ideas about music and the guitar.
The most striking legacy of this in Iznaola is his tone production, which is immediately evident as being 'other' than the orthodox sound. It is a tone that is more direct and less 'refined' than that of the Segovian lineage. Despite this it would be entirely wrong to dismiss this sound as crude and inexpressive - this record would hardly be featuring in this column were that the case. However the subject has to be raised as it is an unavoidable reaction whenever an Iznaola recording is heard for the first time and it is a sound that is easily misunderstood. What Iznaola gains from his technical procedures with the right hand is an astonishing fluency of figuration that brings to life the otherwise improbably-suited music of the various major composers listed above.
That these transcriptions 'work' at all is in large measure due to the ability of the player to flow over the technical obstacles and maintain the line that to the pianist is relatively straightforward but to the guitarist is a perpetual matter of shifts and adjustments in both hands.
The choice of repertoire is of course another major point of departure that Iznaola makes from the familiar pattern, and the fact that these transcriptions make musical, intellectual, and in a high-wire-act sort of way, technical sense, is little short of miraculous. In live performance, I have never seen jaws drop so rapidly in front of any other artist, and the sense of the phenomenal transfers well to disc; the fact that the player today can do certain of these items, including his own Etudes, even better live than on this recording is a recommendation to catch him in concert, not an excuse not to acquire the discs. The Etudes are all tributes to musical figures, and exhibit a fertile and informed compositional sense no less than quite remarkable technical demands.
Lest it should start to sound as though this CD collection is 'all technique and no feeling' let me close by stressing that Iznaola is above all a deeply poetical artist, who happens to channel his ideas into musical of a rather complicated nature most of the time. His is a view of music and the guitar that usefully challenges every assumption you may care to make, in a way that allows the listener to profit from the stimulation, even if unable to tread the same ground in the same way - which is most of us.
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Julian Bream and Franz Halasz playing Antonio José and others. Read on...
Antonio José - Sonata ed. J.B.
Paganini - Grand Sonata Op 39 ed J.B.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco - Sonata Op 77
EMI 5 55362 2
This themed disk presents three works little if at all previously associated with this artist. Despite the Tedesco being the first large-scale sonata to establish itself in the repertoire, Bream had avoided it - and the composer - for forty years. This performance is an entirely satisfying arrival and one wonders how it took Bream so long to get there. One looks forward to a Bream version of that other milestone of Segovia's inspiration, the Ponce Folias Variations.
Less obvious is the Paganini. This is the Sonata that he wrote for guitar with violin accompaniment, and the violin part is so slight as to be almost always dispensed with and incorporated into the guitar. However Bream has gone several leagues further than the usual practice in making his version of this work. Here we have Bream the re-composer; not re-writing the work structurally or melodically, but re-inventing it from the inside out, fleshing out the harmonic and motivic detail until it sounds like - well, Mendelssohn. It remains in many ways a rather silly piece despite Bream's powerful reading, but it is worth the listening just to see what he has done with the bare bones of this skimpy inspiration.
According to one story Bream was put onto the sonata by the unfortunately short-lived Spanish composer Antonio José by an American student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Whatever the route to the work (the notes take a different view) the small fact that it was greatly promoted around the world and performed on very numerous occasions by Ricardo Iznaola is entirely absent from the text. However Bream is on home ground with the music because this is Spanish music with a distinct French background; José spent time in Paris and like most of the musicians of his day owed some debt to the French manner. This should be obvious from the music even were it not a matter of historical record, and Bream, for whom the music of Faure and Ravel is frequent listening, is able to bring out this element very effectively. He also departs rather radically in a few places from the text, which is unfortunate, however the overall effect of his interpretation, especially in the problematical last movement, is very rewarding.
Here we start to move into comparison territory. Anybody interested in this important if belated addition to the repertoire is likely to be very attracted to a Bream version. Let me discuss two others for the time being (pending a full review of the available releases).
Ricardo Iznaola, whose recording is discussed elsewhere, made the first efforts for this work in recent times, and was the foremost student of the sonata's dedicatee, Regino Sainz de la Maza. Anybody seriously interested in the piece should automatically add this to their list therefore (quite apart from the other attractions of the set). However there are aspects of this performance that let it down. In particular the finale, which is a very tricky and in many ways unfortunate movement to have to tackle, does not work so well for Iznaola. The difficulty simply put is that the main material of the finale is uninteresting and yet requires phenomenal agility and momentum, and moreover great chunks of material from preceding movements is quoted verbatim. The effect, after the subtle and interesting music of the previous movements is of a finale that falls flat unless quite exceptional things are done with it. Bream's answer is to fly into the fast notes with gusto and to shape the lines quite sharply, and to colour the quotations as much as seems suitable. Iznaola loses momentum at various places where even greater energy was required and the faults of the movement remain too clear.
The third option in this discussion comes from the German guitarist Franz Halasz. If you are in the market for one version of these three I suggest you go for Halasz, simply because he does more right more of the time, adheres closer to the published text that does Bream, (though without the sense of French influence) and rattles through the finale with far greater Brio than either of the others.
Some small explanation of the matter of the texts used is in order. The published version edited by Berben and produced in 1990 used a draft version made by the composer. Unknown to them at the time, Iznaola had been using a fair copy made by the composer, with small alterations, and for this reason different guitarists have been using versions of the sonata that differ in various small ways, depending on whether they are drawing solely on the published edition, or whether they have worked with Iznaola - as many have - to learn the composer's later thoughts. All will be resolved when the new Berben edition is produced using Iznaola's version!
It only remains to discuss the rest of the Halasz programme, which is all Spanish, covering the complete guitar solos of Turina, Roberto Gerhard and Falla. Quite simply this performance is electric and is full of a huge energy, fire and colour. Individual commentary is superfluous.
Here are the details;
plays Gerhard, Turina, Falla, José
BIS CD 736
Turina; Rafaga, Sonata, Fandanguillo, Homenaje a Tárrega, Sevillana
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MUSIQUES POUR GUITARE ET VIOLONCELLE
Christine Heurtefeux - guitar
Reine Flachot - cello
Circé 87121 LD
Baumann - Duo op 62
Granados - Elegy, Intermezzo
Villa-Lobos - Bachianas Brasileiras no 5
Biberian - Eight Bagatelles
Falla - Chansons Populares
Gnattali - Sonata
Chamber music is important. We all know that in principle. How often does it really work as a musical experience? Well, here it does, largely because the two players know each other extremely well, and both are highly accomplished. The musical differences between the guitar and the cello are of course very great; this is helpful to the combination in that there is no confusing their roles, and the giant expressive resources of the one remain musically focussed, allowing the more subtle musical resources of the other their natural occupations.
The repertoire combines original works for the combination with arrangements. The presence of the popular Granados and Villa-Lobos items works very well with the more demanding pieces written to exploit the possibilities of a large sustaining voice and a smaller chordal voice.
Of these, the Gnattali is perhaps the easiest to access, with is buoyant melodic ideas and latin background. The Baumann is more studied but again quite accessible. However, both the most challenging and the most worthwhile is the Biberian. Firstly, this music is the most thoroughly integrated writing on the disc, partly no doubt because of the composer's personal experience with the guitar. Beyond that the Bagatelles project a strong musical vision that grows consistently with each hearing, and as a result lasts longest in the imagination.
The musical virtues of the artists are those of proper music making; they not only play 'together' but with great unanimity of purpose. One is never in doubt where the music is going, and how they want the hearer to experience the intensities and relaxations of the trip. The disc as a whole is an extremely invigorating trip and a study of the musical interaction of these players - quite apart from the beauties of their choice of repertoire! - makes for a highly profitable experience.
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I should just mention the breathing: Galbraith breathes quite loudly
and noticeably. Its at least as distracting sometimes as Glenn Gould's singing,
and in a similar way, I would say that the performance here transcends this
small issue in the way that nobody could really force Gould to shut up and
stop groaning along, but his recordings of Bach are amongst the finest ever
made. Galbraith might one day learn not to huff and puff so much, meanwhile,
please just buy his CDs and be amazed at the music.
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with Jennifer Hambrick, flute* and Arturo Guzman, guitar**
When the Caged Bird Sings...*
Meditation and Chant
Artemis and Apollo**
Brad Richter is a guitarist composer currently based in Chicago. His compositions are an eclectic mixture of an identifiably American background with decidedly 'educated' musical style that introduces sonorities, harmonic ideas, and structural issues that take the music into original areas of musical thought. He studied at Yale and the Royal College of Music in London, and both his compositional and performance abilities are highly developed.
This is the most satisfying of quite a number of such CDs I have heard recently. Richter has the right idea in many areas of the discipline; good ideas which he doesn't give away too easily; a firm grasp of contemporary musical discourse; an always accessible manner even in passages of non-tonal writing; a neat and technically fluent playing style. All these are probably best summed up in the Eight Preludes, originally Etudes, which were written in partial fulfulment of the requirements of his M.Mus degree at the RCM. They all take their inspiration from one or other emotion or feeling; musing, desire, doubt, frustration, anger, regret, solitude, elation. What could very easily be a regrettably sentimental or over-obvious portrayal of these human realities has been handled very sensibly by Richter, who imparts each with a clear notion of the overt idea but also works in plenty of more subtle musical discourse as well. Interestingly, these Preludes/Etudes feature a graphic form of notation which specify right hand position much more precisely than the standard "pont" or "tasto" which most composers live with, and the intention is that these specifications should be integral to the compositional process. Whether this is the case or not I am not entirely sure, but it does show one aspect of the composer's enquiring mind and unwillingness to be bound by the usual habits of notational usage.
Suitably enough, the opening title is most obviously 'folky' American, inspired as it was by a visit home to Oklahoma farm country. Most of the recording however resides somewhere between this extreme and the abstract thought found occasionally in the Preludes.
A disc that warrants repeated listenings, and grows richer and more impressive each time.
This recording is available from GSP (San Francisco) tel
415-896-1144 (10am to 5pm Pacific time) or the from the artist
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TIPPETT The Blue Guitar & other 20th Century Guitar Classics
Tippett - The Blue Guitar, Sonata for solo guitar
Britten - Nocturnal after Dowland Op 70
R R Bennett - Five Impromptus
Walton - Five Bagatelles
L Berkeley - Sonatina Op 52
Nimbus Records NI 5390
Australian born Craig Ogden has one of the most fluent and unimpeded technical foundations of any guitarist. Still in his early 20s, Ogden has shown a healthy interest in contemporary repertoire and this recording boldly gathers together the most significant items Bream commissioned from English composers.
I say 'boldly' because all the items here have been recorded by their dedicatee, in some cases more than once (though the Tippett was only recorded for BBC broadcast). If nothing else however this recording is a must-buy simply because it compiles in one package all these seminal works, and in versions whose artistic quality is unimpeachable and whose technical accomplishment is frequently astounding.
Nobody is ever going to say that it isn't worth listening to Bream in any of this repertoire; his understanding of the idiom, his friendship with all the composers, his remarkable powers of interpretation, all put him in a special category apart from all other artists. Having said that, it is far from impossible to conceive of performances which to some people will prove preferable to Bream's, and this recording by Ogden comes as close as any I have seen to achieving that distinction.
Firstly, Ogden achieves a technical fluency and ease in all this music which Bream, for whom many technical matters have remained laborious, cannot match. Where such fluency is crucial to the music, this is an easily deciding factor; only where some impression of great obstacles overcome is appropriate, can such fluency lead to a seeming undervaluing of the piece. My impression is that most of the music here does not really need to seem laborious, and in such places as the Walton Bagatelles, Ogden soars while Bream, at time, grinds. Perhaps the only place a more studious approach could have benefited the music is the Passacaglia from the Britten Nocturnal, where some sense of striving is missing from Ogden, who rarely if ever needs to strive to achieve anything on the guitar.
Apart from a pure and immaculate tone, Ogden's rhythmical perfection is a joy to behold (he has played percussion to professional levels), and the technical freedom he has to allow subtle shaping and shading of the line is used intelligently and in the best possible taste.
Further comment however is largely superfluous. This recording should be in the collection of everybody seriously interested in the repertoire - which includes after all a high proportion of the finest music we have for guitar. Ogden's performance is so full of felicitous insights and a fresh enthusiasm that it should both win new understanding for this music, and many new followers to his increasingly mature and rewarding artistry.
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NOW HEAR THIS!
JS BACH - TRANSCRIPTIONS
Violin Sonatas BWV 1001 and 1005
Cello Suite BWV 1012
Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77014
Gustav Leonhardt, one of the most important figures of the early music movement, has recorded pretty well all of the Bach keyboard music, and has all the scholarly, interpretative and technical resources to do so to the most demanding levels and for the most critical audiences. Here he turns his attention to repertoire that will be more-or-less familiar to guitar players, the first and third violin sonatas and the sixth cello suite.
My reasons for including this (and the following entry) are two-fold. Firstly, hearing on other instruments music we know on guitar is invaluable as an aid in getting away from the guitar's tendency to impose its own ideas on the music, irrespective of the way the music wants or needs to be presented. Even if we are not playing these particular items, it is very useful because we can transfer the musical sense to other, perhaps easier, things we do play; we can also compare favourite guitar recordings and see how the two differ, thus helping to teach ourselves about those guitar habits mentioned.
The second reason is stylistic in a purer sense; the use of early instruments for early music is now well established and widely accepted, and the insights that flow from this are invaluable both in specific performance issues and in our growth as musicians. Thus, hearing historically informed performances of familiar music is an excellent way to integrate elements of performance practice into our own playing.
In the case of this disc I am not advocating its use as a model for transcription, as Leonhardt makes a very full use of his keyboard to realise the works in question, and few of these ideas, either in specific or general terms, seem to me to be useful for guitar transcription. What is undeniably useful to observe is the relation of the guitar and harpsichord in both being plucked string instruments whose sound immediately decays, and the way that it is possible to organise the performance so that this does not undermine the musical sense in works conceived for bowed string instruments. This is in fact far harder on harpsichord because of the lack of dynamic capability (harpsichords can't play forte then piano; this is why the pianoforte was invented), and here the guitar has an advantage. However much can be learned from our keyboarding cousins in the relation of texture and gesture to rubato and the grouping of ideas into phrases, down to the minute level of the staccato articulation of the upbeat making it sound lighter and "quieter" than the downbeat.
And if nothing else this recital is a very powerful musical experience; the music works incredibly well in its new clothes and underlines the importance of the inner life of the music itself, despite our tendency to get wrapped up in the outer show.
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SONATAS AND PARTITAS BWV 1001-1006
Sigiswald Kuijken, violin
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi GD 77043
Kuijken is to the violin somewhat as Leonhardt is to the keyboard, a virtuoso soloist also well at home directing ensembles of various sizes. While it would not be wise to pretend that he has quite the same degree of total technical precision, this is at least in part due to the instrument; small divergences of intonation after all are inherent in violin playing, moreover it is actually much harder to play the gut-strung baroque violin as accurately as the metal strung modern instrument, and so comparisons of this complete Bach with the many such cycles recorded by 'modern' players has to be sensitive to this issue.
What you get from listening to Kuijken which is always to a greater or lesser extent absent from modern instrument versions is a vision of the style; the lightness of touch and step, the freedom and clarity of articulation, the crispness of the chords. All these add up to rather a large difference in effect, and all are also largely due to instrumental differences, the size and weight of the bow, and the way that violin education for many decades has emphasised a heavy stroke that rarely if ever leaves the string.
What is the relevance of all this to the guitar player? Well the stylistic relevance is the same as that mentioned above in the discussion of the harpsichord, except that the violin embodies other qualities that the guitar also shares to some extent, principally due to the shared use of one hand to stop strings, and the other to make them move; vibrato, tonal shadings, dynamics etc.
The more particular relevance is that the baroque violinist is careful to use quality silence between notes, as well as quality notes, whereas the typical violin education, as mentioned, does not allow for much attention to silence at all. The same applies to guitar education, where we spend a lot of time thinking about the beginning of the note, a certain amount of time thinking about its duration, and rarely any time about its curtailment, its articulation, the insertion of effective silence between notes, even sometimes quite fast ones, for specific musical reasons.
Listen to Kuijken and you will quickly observe that articulation is used to make music sound dance-like, light on its feet. The serene adagios do not call for it, though remember that for technical reasons some passages may be quasi-involuntarily staccato. The message though is very clear; this music benefits from an awareness of very precise note-durations, which must therefore be controlled using well organised technical resources. For the violinist some of these things come very naturally - indeed these things form part of the 'style' for precisely this reason. For instance, repeated notes cannot be legato, because the bow has to change direction for each new sounding of the note. The guitarist can play repeated notes legato (as much as possible) but often needs to be shown where not to by recordings such as this.
Finally, please do not take any of these suggestions, or the performance on any of the recordings, as prescriptions or blanket instructions. They are intended as, and they are only useful for, a perspective widening exercise. They should be seen as part of a general education giving access to ideas that it remains the player's responsibility to sort, assess, and use where appropriate.
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