Interchange: Concertos by Rodrigo and Assad
Two recent Telarc CDs together offer an attractive range of guitar music by Latin American composers (plus one Spaniard), from intimate solo pieces to grander four-guitar concertos, and from the early 20th century to the present time. The performers are major artists — indeed, stars of the Telarc catalog — and are deservedly given the fine sound quality we've come to expect from the label.
David Russell — the Scottish-born, Minorca-raised, Galicia-dwelling guitar virtuoso — offers a program of pieces by five Latin American composers, providing the “Latin Sounds” of the album title. (Other works by some of these composers can be heard on the CD's predecessor, Russell's Grammy-winning Aire Latino.) He opens with music by the Paraguayan Augustin Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944), a guitar virtuoso himself and pioneering recording artist. We are given a suite of dance-derived pieces in the styles of various Latin nations: a breezy Maxixe (Brazilian); a more soulful Aire de Zamba (Argentine, and unrelated to the Brazilian samba); an especially lovely repeating-note Canción de la Hilandera or “Spinning-Girl's Song” (Mexican); and two works whose province is unmentioned in Richard E. Rodda's booklet essay, a tenderly romantic Confesión de Amor and a nimble waltz called TuImagen (“Your Image”). Without being overly sentimental, flamboyant or self-consciously arch, but always songful, Russell brings out the particular character of each piece—setting our expectations for the rest of the CD.
Next is the one “chestnut” on the program, Manuel Ponce's Estrellita, dating back to 1912 and made famous not only by Andrés Segovia but by Jascha Heifetz in a violin arrangement. Russell takes it plenty slowly — really stretching out the melody in a way that recalls Debussy's La plus quelente, or even some zither strains of The Third Man. The other Ponce music on the CD is a brief set of Tres Canciones Populares Mexicanas, written for Segovia — all of them light and graceful.
Hector Ayala was an Argentine, known for his involvement in tango ensembles, though his Serie Americana (“American Series”), is again a sampler of musical forms of various Latin nations. Following a moody Preludio, we are offered a samba-style Choro from Brazil, a pentatonic Takirari from Bolivia, a Paraguayan Guarania with what Rodda calls “gentle melancholy” (it's by far the longest piece in the suite), a more dashing Chilean Tonada (“tune”), a Peruvian waltz, and finally, an Argentine Gato y Malambo, combining a couples' dance and a gaucho dance, with some very interesting syncopations.
The Brazilian Armando Neves is represented by two short works, a Choro and a Vals. These are both easy-going pieces, seemingly improvisatory, or meandering, even if well-structured. More engaging to this reviewer are the final works on the program, by Jorge Morel, an Argentine performer-composer (b. 1931) who has been based in New York since his Carnegie Hall debut in 1961, and is a well-known recording artist and collaborator with American jazz artists. Two of the pieces are dedicated to Russell: a genial but briskly moving Recuerdosdel Caribe (“Caribbean Memories”) and a lively Mangoré (UnaDanza), written in homage to the Paragrayan composer-guitarist who opens this CD program. Also included are Pampero (representing a stormy cold front moving across the Pampas, according to Rodda), Barcarole (sounding more Spanish than Venetian), and Jugueteando (literally “Playfully”), a frolicking conclusion to the CD. Throughout, Russell's impeccable musicianship is made vivid to us by Telarc's warm, realistic sound.
For a bracing contrast of scale, our other CD at hand offers a pair of four-guitar concertos, the well-known ConciertoAndaluz by Joaquin Rodrigo (the very first four-guitar concerto, 1967) and the world-premiere Interchange by Sergio Assad (2008).
Though less famous than the same composer's Concierto de Aranjuez, the ConciertoAndaluz is extremely engaging as well, beginning with an unforgettable tune that opens the first movement against a strong bolero rhythm. The work was written for Los Romeros: one can hear the premiere recording, originally on Mercury, with the Romero family and the San Antonio Symphony conducted by Victor Allessandro, on a 2-CD set of Rodrigo works compiled by DG (289 469 190-2). The contrasts between the two recordings are striking, beginning with a much slower Tempo di Bolero, played with almost metronomic rigidity by the original performers, while the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and their accompaniment, David Amado leading another regional orchestra, the Delaware Symphony, seem to have lived with the piece, offering a more relaxed though very spirited rendition of the movement. Both strings and guitars in the DG reissue sound thin compared to the plummy fullness of the Telarc forces, but the earlier recording does have good stereo imaging and balance of soloists with orchestra, and the San Antonio strings do “sing” the opening tune memorably if cautiously. Telarc has given the soloists just a bit too much prominence, so that in their rendition of the tune the Delaware strings seem slightly hidden behind a wall of guitar strumming.
I have not been able to compare the Romeros' second recording, with Neville Marriner and St. Martin's-in-the-Field, from the 1970s, available on a Philips set. But the LA Quartet and Amado/Delaware acquit themselves admirably throughout the concerto. Their Adagio is, as it must be, an evocation of a haunting Andalusian night with its solemn, steady pulse against which guitar and woodwind soloists offer melismatic outpourings. The concluding Allegretto is played with particular verve and exciting interplay between the soloists and the orchestra.
The LAGQ have had a long personal and professional relationship with the Assad brothers, the renowned Brazilian guitar duo. Sergio Assad wrote a piece called Uarakena for the LAGQ's Guitar Heroes CD (another Grammy-winner), and in 2009 his Interchange concerto was premiered (with the San Antonio Symphony, be it noted). The piece is structured on the ingenious but somewhat nutty analogy of an LA freeway interchange, specifically the four-tiered one near Downtown. As the composer puts it, “Since they all live in LA and drive around quite a bit, I envisioned each of them being on their own musical highway, which ultimately comes together to a central meeting point.” Beyond that notion, each of the first movements is designed to reflect the personality or interests of one of the players. “Sephardic Passage” highlights William Kanengiser's Jewish heritage and interest in Renaissance and Middle Eastern music, adding a few klezmer touches as well. “Gypsy Slopes” connects with Scott Tennant's interest in flamenco (and contains a palm-drumming from the other soloists) and is said to have Balkan elements as well. “Pacific Overlook,” a slow movement, is “reminiscent of a jazz ballad,” according to Assad, though it has perhaps more of a dreamy Hollywood pop mood, with allowance for improvisations by Matthew Greif. “Forroblues Detour,” for John Dearman, has a slow introduction but becomes a lively Brazilian-flavored piece. (The forróis a Brazilian rhythm.) The finale, appropriately titled “Crossings,” features an extended cadenza for all four soloists before the orchestra joins them for a mélange of themes from the previous movements.
The whole concerto is a good deal of fun, though time will tell whether its musical materials are truly memorable. The soloists must be considered definitive in their tailor-made parts, and Amado and the Delaware Symphony are excellent; despite being a set of solo portraits, the concerto gives the orchestra a prominent role, with important solo licks for woodwinds in each movement. Though I would have preferred a more realistic balance of the guitar quartet with the orchestra when everyone is playing, the recording, made in Wilmington's Grand Opera House, otherwise leaves nothing to be desired, with rich, full sound for the four players spread across the audio stage before us.
Sonidos Latinos: Guitar Music of Latin America:
Interchange: Concertos by Rodrigo and Assad: