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CLASSICAL  February 2006

CLASSICAL February 2006

Subject:

Guitar Concertos

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 7 Feb 2006 17:33:11 -0600

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          Modern Guitar Concertos

*  Francaix: Guitar Concerto
*  Ponce: Conciero del Sur
*  Rodrigo: Fantasia para un Gentilhombre

Eliot Fisk, guitar
Philharmonia Virtuosi/Richard Kapp
ESSAY CD1088 Total Time: 70:36

Summary for the Busy Executive: Two classics and an oddity.

The composers of Spain and Latin America have built the strongest modern
pillars of classical guitar music, so seeing works by the Spaniard Rodrigo
and the Mexican Ponce doesn't surprise me.  Seeing a French concerto,
however, made me look twice, just to be sure.

Jean Francaix, however, has written several works that use guitar.  At
heart, he's a miniaturist.  He tends to get length by putting together
short movements (this concerto has five).  As a composer, he has a strong
point of view, deriving from the lighter works of Satie, Les Six, and
the short Stravinsky scores composed around the end of World War I.  I
should mention, however, that his influences aren't so stylistically or
expressively constrained.  Stravinsky may have written the Four Russian
Songs and Ragtime, but he also came up with Oedipus Rex.  Poulenc composed
both Rapsodie negre and the organ concerto.  If Francaix has a "big
piece," I don't know it.  I think of him as a musical toymaker of exquisite
clockwork scores.

Even though French composers haven't made a big splash in guitar
literature (outside of transcriptions by other hands), Francaix has
worked the guitar into several of his pieces.  The modesty and intimacy
of the instrument appeal to him and chime well with his musical outlook.
Writing a guitar concerto has its pitfalls.  As good post-Romantics,
we have an heroic idea of the concerto soloist.  On the other hand,
the modern symphony orchestra easily drowns out an unamplified guitar.
Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, probably the most popular in the
repertory, essentially fools the ear.  The orchestra sounds bigger
than the number of instruments actually playing, and Rodrigo creates
an intricate choreography between mass and solo that allows the guitarist
not only to cut through, but to apparently ride the crest of a powerful
orchestral wave.  Francaix has never been interested in the grand soaring
climax, so the fact that he doesn't go Rodrigo's route should surprise
no one.  He pits the guitar against a small string ensemble.  If there
are more than ten instruments in the orchestra, I'd be amazed.  Formally,
the concerto proceeds on dance and song or on stripped-down classical
structures -- sonatina vs.  sonata, rondino vs.  rondo, eg -- but also
with a great deal of sophistication.  We get little foxtrots, similar
to those in Poulenc's Les Biches, waltzes, gigues, boulevardier saunters
down the street.  Even so, the last movement rondino features two subjects,
both thematically related, and so displays an architectural sophistication
despite its short length.  The counterpoint demands a cruel precision
from performers.  Rhythms must be razor-sharp, and the clear textures
Francaix achieves give players no room to hide.  Francaix's music may
sound naive, but that misleads.  The model here is Haydn.

The Ponce concerto, on the other hand, pretty much meets our expectations
for musical Iberianism.  It sounds Spanish as all get-out, even though
Ponce hailed from Mexico.  The music is caught somewhere before real
Modernism -- neither as Cubist as Chavez nor as Stravinskian as Revueltas.
It's a purely late-Romantic piece, without the frills of, say, Granados.
The orchestra expands a bit from the Francaix to include single winds,
but it remains a chamber ensemble.  Ponce separates his winds and strings
to an unusual extent.  Even though the concerto peaks higher than the
Francaix, it's still fairly modest in its ambition.  It does everything
it sets out to do.  I like it.  However, it's hard as hell to write
about.  There's no real hook in it.  Nevertheless, I find it very
attractive, possibly because I love the Spanish idiom.

Rodrigo's Fantasia para un Gentilhombre long ago entered the classical
guitarist's standard repertory.  The folks who run down this piece and
Rodrigo in general because he's not as good as Bartok or Falla seem to
me to miss the point.  Rodrigo obviously derives from late Falla -- a
work like El Retablo de Maese Pedro, for example.  Yet, at his best,
Rodrigo has his own imaginative vein that transforms his materials and
his style into something other than Falla's.  His music evokes medieval
and Renaissance Spain, as well as the height of Jewish culture in Spain.
I don't know whether he's conscious of the last, but it shows up
nevertheless.  In the Fantasia, Rodrigo uses themes from the Spanish
lutenist Gaspar Sanz.  Structurally, as the word "fantasia" implies,
the piece proceeds loosely, borne out by movement titles like "Villano
y Ricercar" and "Espanoleta y Fanfare de la Cabaleria de Napoles." Yet
it somehow manages to hang together.  Rodrigo brings back themes from
previous movements periodically.  In a way, his method reminds me of
Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, with an abundance of first-class melodic
invention overriding any reasonable objection to the architecture.  His
orchestration is more varied than either Ponce's or Francaix's, with
bright, piercing colors, and yet you always hear the guitar.  Most of
the music advances antiphonally, with guitar and orchestra in a kind
of courtly conversation.

Eliot Fisk has always been a "go-for-broke" performer -- a high-wire
act.  When he succeeds, which is most of the time, you get incredible
fire from him.  All the performances here come from live concerts.  This
works to the detriment of the Francaix, which needs a precise fit between
parts.  Actually, I've never heard a successful live performance of
Francaix's orchestral music for exactly that reason.  You can get away
with a lot of slop in Beethoven and Brahms, even in Mozart, but not in
Francaix.  Still, the work itself is interesting enough to recommend.
You probably wouldn't get the CD for the Rodrigo.  It's a good account,
but you can do better.  The most successful reading on the CD is the
Ponce.  The collaboration between Fisk and Kapp's Philharmonia Virtuosi
is warm and lively.  They relate as equals, although the guitar has the
usual soloistic prominence we expect in a concerto.  The CD includes an
encore track of the last movement, and the sparks fly even higher than
in the previous play just minutes before.  Apparently, Fisk suggested
this to Kapp on the spur of the moment.  It's precisely the sort of
gamble Fisk likes to take and it pays off.  The musicians are no longer
worried, even a little bit, about being careful.  They just take the bit
between their teeth and *play*.

Steve Schwartz

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