I’ve sure listened to a lot of fantastic classical guitar albums in the past year! Herewith, ten of my favorites that I wrote about in this space from November 2016 to the beginning of December 2017; 112 in all. So it’s not technically a list of 2017 releases; several came out in 2016. A few of the descriptions have been shortened for this list. Feel free to tell us your own favorites from the past year-plus! —Blair Jackson
Edges of Thought
(Manchester Strings Records)
Wonderful outing by Albanian guitarist living in England dips back to Albéniz, Chopin, and Satie, but also a diverse group of contemporary composers, such as Leo Brouwer, Jorge Morel, Gary Ryan, and Miroslav Tadić. The Manchester UK–based Northern String Quartet and percussionist Michael Walker add significant color to a number of tracks.
Asturias, Rumores de la Caleta (Albéniz); Valse, Op. posthume 69 No. 1 and No. 2 (Chopin); Indifference (Colombo/Murena); Un Die de Novembre (Brouwer); From Laments, Dances and Lullabies, Vol. 1: “Rustemul,” “Macedonian Girl,” “Walkdance” (Tadić); Benga Beat, Hot Club Français (Ryan); Danza Brasilera (Morel); Gnossienne No. 1 (Satie)
Watch Jon play Gary Ryan’s Hot Club Français below:
Ravel, Debussy: Music for Two Guitars
Aside from the opening number, which was arranged by Stephen Goss, the other pieces on this wonderful CD of French impressionist works by Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) and Claude Debussy (1962–1918) were arranged for two guitars by Tracy Anne Smith and Rob MacDonald, aka Canada’s ChromaDuo. As Graham Wade puts it in his notes for the CD, the composers’ works “are sensuous and immediate, using vivid titles and an inventive vocabulary to create a world of imagination and spontaneity.” A revelation, and a superior achievement all the way around.
Alborada del gracioso (Ravel); Children’s Corner (Debussy); Clair de lune (Debussy); Valses nobles et sentimentales (Ravel); La plus que lente (Debussy); Deux arabesques (Debussy)
Below is a fun/cool conceptual video (sans actual depiction of the duo or a guitar) of ChromaDuo’s version of the first movement of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, titled “Modéré très franc,” written for solo piano in 1911.
The Romantic Guitar
One of the best performances I heard at last year’s GFA in Denver was Fabio Zanon’s electrifying rendition of the Grande Polonaise by the semi-obscure Polish composer Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz. It was stunning! Now, that piece (a world premiere recording) and seven other pieces from the Romantic era are presented in this superbly played and recorded collection from the spellbinding Brazilian guitar. Add in pieces by great guitar composers Napoléon Coste and J.K. Mertz, and mainstream Romantic giants Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Liszt, and you’ve got a sensational lineup of works of varying moods which Zanon delivers about as perfectly as anyone could hope for.
La Source du Lyson, Op.47 (Coste); Adieu!/Nach Osten (von Weyrauch); Introduction et Caprice, Op. 23 (Regondi), 2 Lieder ohne Wörte (Mendelssohn); Bardenklänge, Op. 13, Lied ohne Wörte (Mertz); Kindersonate, Op. 118A (Schumann); Grande Polonaise, Op. 24 (Bobrowicz); Andantino, S. 192, Nuage Gris (Liszt)
Prepare to be blown away! Here is Zanon playing Bobrowicz’s Grande Polonaise:
When I finally saw Raphaella Smits perform at GFA in the summer of 2016, her skill and passion were very much on display throughout her program, so I should not be surprised that this latest recorded offering is also a rich and deeply felt “recital.” Just three composers are represented: Manuel Maria Ponce (four of the five movements of his gorgeous homage to Weiss, written for Segovia, with its deep, affecting “Sarabande” and spry, memorable “Gigue”); Barrios (two preludes and the beautifully wistful Leyenda Guarani); and Mompou (his tonally variegated 1962 Suite Compostelana, which seems to be quite popular among players these days). Everything about this project is completely top-notch; the recording of the late luthier John Gilbert’s 1980 8-string guitar is spectacular!
Suite en la meno: Homage to S.L. Weiss (Ponce); Preludio en la menor, Preludio en do menor, Leyenda Guarani (all by Barrios); Suite Compostelana (Mompou)
Here’s a recent video of Smits playing Barrios’ Leyenda Guarani:
Sonidos de Paisajes: Music of Spain
As you might expect from a guitarist’s album featuring “Music of Spain,” this superb Turkish player has included pieces by most of the “big” names: Albéniz, Tárrega, Falla, Torroba, et al, and even a few of the most-played numbers, such as Asturias, Lagrima, and La vida Breve. But to his credit, Saritepe makes interesting choices with two of those three “war-horses,” supplementing Asturias with percussive cajon and compas (handclaps) during the main repeated motif (I’m not sure a short cajon solo was necessary in the middle), and playing the more flamenco-style arrangement of La vida Breve favored by Paco de Lucía. All his other selections are outstanding, and include several that are far from common, such as Tárrega’s gorgeous Adelita, Llobet’s Mazurka por Federico Buifaletti, Torroba’s Sonata-Fantasia and Mompou’s Cancion No. 6. Saritepe has sequenced the disc beautifully, mixing the styles and tempos from track to track so that each selection feels fresh when it arrives and no single mood overstays its welcome. A lovely surprise.
Asturias, Capricho Catalan, Torre Bermeja (all by Albéniz); Lagrima, Sueño, Adelita, Maria, Rosita (all by Tárrega); Mazurka por Federico Bufaletti (Llobet); La vida Breve (Falla); Cancion y Danza No. 1 (Pipo); Sonata-Fantasia (Torroba); Cancion No. 6 (Mompou)
And here’s a new video of Saritepe playing Tárrega’s Adelita:
Kaiser Schmidt Guitar Duo
Kaiser Schmidt Guitar Duo
The young German duo of Jessica Kaiser and Jakob Schmidt have been performing together for a decade already, but this is their first CD release—and it’s a winner! The nearly hour-long disc contains just four quite diverse multi-part pieces: two from the late 19th century (by Enrique Granados and Gabriel Fauré), and two from the late 20th century (by Astor Piazzolla and Dušan Bogdanovic); all but the Bogdanovic were originally piano pieces. The playing is superb throughout, the strong communication between the players clearly evident. I’m a sucker for the intoxicating Romantic melodicism of Valses Poeticos (played in full here) and Faure’s wonderful six-part Dolly Suite; those sandwich the lively and always appealing Tango Suite. The Bogdanovic Sonata Fantasia (originally dedicated to the Assad Brothers) is more obviously “modern” in its sensibilities, but makes for a bracing conclusion to a fine program. The recording by Hans-Werner Huppertz is excellent, as well.
Valses Poeticos (Granados); Tango Suite (Piazzolla); Dolly Suite (Fauré); Sonata Fantasia (Bogdanović)
So far we’ve only been able to find the CD for sale through the duo’s website; we’ll update when we know more.
Below, the Kaiser Schmidt Guitar Duo play “Berceuse” from Fauré’s Dolly Suite:
Celestial: the Music of Ernesto Nazareth
The popular and influential Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth (1863–1934) wrote on piano, but many of his pieces have been successfully adapted to guitar in modern times—here, we’re treated to 16 pieces lovingly arranged by contemporary Brazilian guitarist/composer Sérgio Assad (who graces the cover of the Summer 2017 issue of Classical Guitar) and gracefully played by Marc Teicholz, who currently teaches at both the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Cal State East Bay. In his notes for the album, Assad notes that Nazareth was influenced both by rhythmic street choro bands and other native Brazilian performers, as well as classical musicians such as Chopin. You can hear strains of many different styles in this lively selection of tunes, from choros to tangos to waltzes, bits of ragtime, ballads; many pieces feature of mix of tempos (such as the exquisite title track). Teicholz’s sure and tremendously appealing interpretations of Assad’s arrangements truly show off Nazareth’s gifts as a composer to the fullest. Highly recommended! Besides this exceptional recording, Les Productions d’Oz/Doberman-Yppan is also offering a 68-page book containing Assad’s arrangements for all 16 pieces, aimed at advanced players.
Brejeiro; Eponina; Serambeque; Turbilhao de Beijos; Ensimesmado; Tango Habanera; Mandinga; Celestial; Fetiço; Confidencias; Batuque; Expansiva; Pinguim; Tenebroso; Escorregando; Elegantissima
Brasil Guitar Duo
CAG (Concert Artists Guild)
This superb CD opens with a pair of wonderful Baroque keyboard pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), arranged for two guitars by BGD member João Luiz. The duo’s timing is absolutely impeccable; everything is as clean and confidently rendered as can be. From there, the rest of the album is by modern, living composers (with the exception of Heitor Villa-Lobos, whose rather dark “Prelude” for Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4. appears). Gerard Drozd, who has written for the duo in the past, contributes a new piece for them, the seven-part Suite Op. 142, which is, the composer says, “a kind of music that can describe different moods, places, human characters, etc. There is no need to describe each movement separately. I leave it to listeners of the CD and believe in their inner or innate sensitivity and imagination.” Some of the Rameau/Baroque vibe returns in BGD member Douglas Lora’s Valsa; that’s followed quickly by Luiz’s Djavan’s Portrait, based on a theme by contemporary Brazilian songwriter/guitarist Djavan Caetano Viana, whom Luiz cites as an early influence. The title track by David Leisner (again, written for the duo, in 2014) is another fascinating piece that goes many rewarding places, from its slow, minimalist beginning of harmonic pings, to more accelerated passages, and a quiet ending that drops off in a return to harmonics. Then, Marco Pereira’s Bate-Coxa is a perfect uptempo Brazilian romp to bring the disc to its conclusion.
Pièces de Clavecin: Les Cyclopes, Gavette avec 6 Doubles (Rameau, arr. Luiz); Suite Op. 142 (Drozd); Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4, “Preludio” (Villa-Lobos, arr. Luiz); Posludio (Lora); Valsa (Lora); Djavan’s Portrait (Luiz); 7 Anéis (Gismonti, arr. Luiz); Ghosting (Leisner); Bate-Coxa (Pereira)
Below, the duo plays a version of Douglas Lora’s Posludio a few years ago. That’s him on the right.
The fine Canadian guitarist Alan Rinehart, who has put out five CDs on his own and was previously associated with the Vancouver Guitar Quartet, presents six medleys/fantasies drawn from mid-19th century operas written by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) and arranged for guitar by a Verdi contemporary, J.K. Mertz (1806–1856). As noted in Ravello Records’ description, “The six Verdi fantasies are taken from a larger Mertz collection of 34 similar pieces based on operas, called Opern-revue, Op. 8. These ‘revues’ were not unlike works for piano by composers such as Liszt, which were arrangements of or fantasies on popular operatic arias. Both these and Mertz’s revues responded to the popular demand of the opera ‘experience’ adapted for a small, private setting. Mertz’s revues are more ambitious, however—they adapt not just a single aria, but the entire opera, compressing a large scale, two- to three-hour production into a 10–15 minute piece medley for solo guitar.” The results are spectacular! I was so impressed by the seamlessness of Mertz’s medleys—the tasteful juxtaposition of sweeping themes, arias, and assorted waltz and other “dance” segments. I never felt “cheated” by the relative brevity of each section, and the transitions all felt natural and not at all abrupt. Each piece seems like its own self-contained musical universe, with its own character, flow, drama and excitement. And as a guitar album, it covers an amazing amount of stylistic ground and demands much of the guitarist. Rinehart’s playing is crisp, confident, and passionate.
Nabucco; Ernani; Rigoletto; Il Trovatore; La Traviata; Il Vesperi Siciliani
What a revelation this album is! All but two of the album’s 18 pieces are by French composers: Dutchman Peter van der Staak is one outlier, though his piece is called “Bellefleur: Valse française”; the other is Alexandre Lagoya, of Greek-Italian heritage but famously the husband and guitar-duo partner of French legend Ida Presti. But let’s not get too hung up on national identity because, for example, the opening Vals for Atom, by modern French composer Laurent Boutros, has apparent musical roots in Near-Eastern music (Turkish? Armenian?), and one might say the same for Erik Satie’s Gnossienne, No. 1, here in Roland Dyens’ arrangement. Mowbray neatly pairs that with her own arrangement of Satie’s much-played Gymnopédie. The album’s program has an artful and intelligent flow. The aforementioned “Bellefleur” was dedicated by van der Staak to contemporary French guitarist/composer Arnaud Dumond, and is followed on the album by Dumond’s five disparate Hommages français (nods to Couperin, Poulenc, Milhaud, Debussy, and Ravel. Then we have Poulenc’s sadly beautiful Sarabande pour guitare, dedicated to Ida Presti; followed by three from Presti herself, including the Baroque-sounding Étude du matin and the lively and infectious Danse rythmique—the latter dedicated to her husband Lagoya, who is the composer of the lovely next piece on the album, Reverie, which he wrote for Presti in 1959. Edith Piaf and Luis Guglielmi’s La vie en rose may be the most famous French song there is, but the gorgeous version here still sounds fresh and sparkling. And the disc closes with pop singer Claude Nougaro’s frothy 1962 hit, Le jazz et la java, arranged by another fine modern French composer, Thierry Tisserand. The playing throughout by the Maryland-based guitarist is splendid!
Vals for Atom (Boutros), Chanson Trilce (Boutros); Les Échelles du Levant (Boutros); Gnossienne No. 1 (Satie, arr. Dyens); Gymnopédie (Satie, arr. Mowbray); Bellefleur: Valse française (van der Staak); Cinq hommages français: Couperin, Poulenc, Milhaud, Debussy, Ravel (Dumond); Sarabande pour guitare (Poulenc); Étude du matin (Presti); Étude No. 2 (Presti); Danse rythmique (Presti); Réverie (Lagoya); La Vie en Rose (Piaf and Guglielmi, arr. Raymond); Le jazz et la java (Nougaro, arr. Tisserand)
Below, Mowbray plays Ida Presti’s Danse rythmique: