Guitar Recital: Jose Antonio Escobar (Jose Antonio Escobar/ Norbert Kraft) (Naxos: 8.555719)
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Bachs Sei Solo BWV1001-1006 , dating from about 1720, were not the first works to be written for unaccompanied violin, but they were ground-breaking in the level of their technical difficulty, and in the skill and ingenuity with which the problems of realising complex and contrapuntal textures on an unaccompanied violin were solved. Bach had an intimate knowledge of the violin and may have been an excellent player, but it is likely that in writing these works he enjoyed the collaboration of Johann Georg Pisendel, the greatest violinist of the time. A bow can touch no more than two adjacent strings at the same time, so the presence of contrapuntal lines can only be suggested, a thing in which Bach was wonderfully adept; such problems do not exist with the guitar, the plucked strings of which, on the other hand, cannot match the violins sustaining power. However, Bach reworked numerous bowed-string works for the harpsichord (or lute-harpsichord), so we may make similar adaptations with a clear conscience. The three Partitas are da camera works, largely containing dance movements, while the three Sonatas each contain a Fugue; that in BWV1001 is the shortest of the three Bach later reworked it for the organ, and it was adapted for the lute by J. P. Kellner.
Francisco Tárrega was a seminal figure in the history of the guitar, one who revived interest in the instrument at a time when it was at a low ebb. In this his own performing career played a part, but it was limited and without grandiose visions; it was, rather through other aspects of his work that his long-range influence has been felt. He defined the bases of good technique, though these were later modified by others to adjust to modern performing situations. His teaching was spread by his students, notably Emilio Pujol (1886-1980) and Miguel Llobet (1878-1938) and through them Andrès Segovia (1893-1987) and his successors. In Tárregas time the salon was the natural habitat of the guitar and both this and his didactic work are reflected in his compositions. Of his 78 original works, 28 are Studies, fifteen are Preludes; most of the remainder are Albumblätter, many of which are in the form of popular ballroom dances of the day. Collectively, his works are marked by refined craftsmanship and are utterly idiomatic to the guitar; their language is Romantic and their appeal lies in their melodic lines, sincerity of expression and clarity of form.
Paris was the meeting place in 1826 of two great Spanish guitarists, Dionisio Aguado and Fernando Sor, who became close friends and duo partners \Les deux amis" of Sors Op.41 (1829-30). Whilst Sor played without using the nails of his right hand (as did Pujol), Aguado, the more extrovert of the two, used them (as did Segovia and almost everyone else since) and stunned his audiences with his virtuosity and the volume of his sound to which his use of the "tripodison" (a stand on which the guitar rested, separated from the players body) no doubt contributed. Sor acknowledged the value of this device but it is not known whether he ever used one. The works recorded in this programme make it clear that Aguados justifiable success did not rest solely on displays of idle virtuosity; his early training in music was thorough.
Two other names that are often mentioned in the same breath are those of Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz, yet in their lifestyles, characters and musical outlook they were poles apart. Granados presented musical Spain through the senses of a sensitive observer rather than a passionate participant, but Albéniz had his feet firmly on its soil. The island of Mallorca (Majorca) has been called The jewel of the Mediterranean. The haunting opening of Albénizs portrayal, a barcarolle, is reminiscent of the style of Chopin, who spent a winter there. Torre bermeja (The Crimson Tower) refers to any one of the many stone towers scattered throughout the Spanish countryside, one made of particularly red-coloured stone. The liveliness of the music may well portray village life and the gypsy festivities around the tower, rather than the tower itself.
Frank Martins Quatre pièces brèves were written in 1933 and were promptly rejected by Segovia, whose idea of what was and was not music placed them on the wrong side of the divide. They remained neglected until the 1950s when Julian Bream recorded them. Martin was discouraged by their reception and decided not to write any more for the guitar, until Julian Bream persuaded him to resume; before he could do so, however, he died. The titles of the movements suggest an evocation of the baroque music of the French courts, but in no way a pastiche. A feeling of unease and brooding mysticism pervades the music, fed by a recurrent falling chromatic figure (a flirtation with serial technique) and mildly dissonant chords. The Air, with accents placed on the second beat, is in effect a sarabande, the Plainte is released from its tortured efforts to escape from its melancholy only at the end, and Comme une gigue is gigue-like only in its use of hemiolas, one of the devices used to preserve constant motion without settling into uninterrupted spin. Martin later reworked these pieces for both piano solo and orchestra, one of the few cases in which a guitar solo was the starting point; Rodrigos Zarabanda lejana and Waltons Five Bagatelles have been others,
Vicente Asencio, whose ashes are inurned close to the grave of Tárrega in Vilareal, was one of the Catalonian composers who, like Federico Mompou, Roberto Gerhard and Joan Manén, followed in the wake of Manuel de Falla. The element of mysticism and introspection that is in the piano music of Mompou is in the guitar music of Asencio. In his Suite mistica it is specifically associated with religious contemplation, but in Col.lectici intim it is more intimately personal and sometimes verges on the sentimental, but without lapsing into sentimentality. The titles of the movements speak for themselves: La serenor ( Serenity), La joia (Joy), La calma (Calm), inspired by the Valencian legend La flor del lliri blau (The flower of the blue lily), La gaubança (Elation), a happy jotaü a tribute to Falla, La frisança (The Shiver). These are all emotions that each of us has felt in our own ways.
© John W. Duarte