Nelly von Alven and Luiz Mantovani of the Nova Guitar Duo
Some weeks we take a peek at recent albums or sheet music releases. Here are three CDs I like that have come into the Classical Guitar office within the past few months.
You can listen to some of these on various of streaming services, but we always encourage you to support the artists by actually buying anything you like! Obviously we cannot research and report every outlet or online business where these albums are sold (Amazon, for instance, has outlets in many different countries/regions, but we generally link to the U.S. version), so check your favorite places that sell CDs and downloads, as well as your favorite streaming sites!
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Sortilegios Nova Guitar Duo
German Nelly von Alven and Brazilian Luiz Mantovani met when they were studying at the Royal College of Music in London and then formed the Nova Guitar Duo duo in 2016. One thing that separates them from most duos is their combination of instruments: Nelly plays a conventional six-string classical, and Luiz plays an eight-string “Brahms guitar.” Their exceptional debut album, Sortilegios (the Spanish word for “spells,” as in magic spells) definitely derives special power from the presence of those extra low strings on Luiz’s guitar, though to his credit it is usually a very subtle addition to the overall sound; very piano-like low-end accents in most cases. But in no way does this relegate him to some subordinate “bass” role in the duo. Sometimes it’s Nelly who is handling the lower registers, which Luiz then chirps above, and there are many instances where where they’ll trade lines in the same registers, or “answer” each other, or then drop into a lovely unison harmony. The duo have tremendous chemistry and synchronicity.
Just three composers are represented on the album, though a substantial amount of time is devoted to each: Manuel de Falla (1876–1946), Federico Mompou (1893–1987), and Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959). And though all three wrote music for guitar (Villa-Lobos the most), the album consists entirely of the Nova duo’s own arrangements of piano pieces by the composers, with the wonderfully lyrical 12-part Cirandinhas by Villa-Lobos claimed as the first guitar-duo arrangement of the full work. I like Luiz Montovani’s description in the liner notes of what binds the composers together in the duo’s eyes:
“The three composers chosen for the Nova Guitar Duo’s debut album have many things in common: They were all born around the last quarter of the 19th century and thus experienced first-hand the huge political and social transformations that took place in the early 20th century; they all engaged with Modernism to a greater or lesser degree, nevertheless retaining a deep connection with Romanticism; they all valued the folklore and popular traditions of their native countries and incorporated them into their music; and they all composed for the guitar, although the core of their oeuvre remains music written for voice, other instruments and ensembles.”
It turns out to be a great combination of composers. Falla’s Danza ritual del fuego is the best-known work on the whole album (popular with guitar duos since Bream and Williams mastered it), but it’s much more rare to hear the four movements that precede it in the Suite from El Amor Brujo; indeed, hearing the suite in full makes the Danza feel even more like the exciting culmination of a deeper, more textured “story.” Three of the 15 Canción y danza pieces Mompou composed over a more than 50-year period are here, each different from the other in character and a lovely little jewel in itself. Their version of Cancion y Danza No. 6 was one of our Video Pick of the Week choices in the spring of 2018. And I love the nods to the Baroque in No. 5. The aforementioned Cirandinhas, written as a piano cycle in the mid-1920s, could not be more charming. The notes explain that Villa-Lobos based the work on children’s tunes, but don’t be fooled by that—there’s a deceptive complexity to these “simple” tunes.
Suite from El Amor Brujo: Intoducción y Pantomima, Danza del terror, Romance del pescador, A media noche—Sortilegios; Danza ritual del Fuego (de Falla); Four by Mompou: Canción y danza No. 6, Pajaro triste, Canción y danza No. 2, Canción y danza No. 5; Cirindinhas (12 parts) (Villa-Lobos)
Guitarra e outras histórias: Musica de António Pinho Vargas Pedro Rodrigues
This delightful album unites two important figures in contemporary Portuguese music: Guitarist Pedro Rodrigues and composer António Pinho Vargas. This project started several years ago when Rodrigues created a guitar transcription of Vargas’ piano piece called “Tom Waits” (presumably named for the gruff-voiced American singer-songwriter). Vargas was so taken with the interpretation that he encouraged Rodrigues to take on more of the composer’s piano works, and the result is this album, actually recorded back in 2012, but released last fall. Vargas is a versatile and prolific composer who has worked in a number of different genres and formats, including solo piano, jazz combo, as well as writing oratorios, orchestral pieces, chamber works, and film music. I’m in no position to generalize about his work, as I’ve literally only heard Rodrigues’ album and then several YouTube piano versions of those pieces played by Vargas. But what’s here is overwhelmingly lyrical and song-like, with an emphasis on catchy, melodic riffs/motifs—what in the pop world we would call “ear candy.”
I have no idea if Vargas has been influenced by the early Pat Metheny Group (and its pianist Lyle Mays) but there are several passages reminiscent of that amazing band’s approach, including short departures from the structured riffs to go off on what sound like brief improvisations. There are theme-variations explorations on a few tracks, and places where the tempo suddenly picks up, then gets even faster before returning to the elegant main theme (as on A Dança dos Pássaros). If you are familiar with the Windham Hill/Americana sound of the late ’70s and 1980s, as embodied by the likes of guitarists Will Ackerman and Alex de Grassi and pianist George Winston, I hear similarities to those artists’ approach to melody and composition. (Again, it’s entirely possible Vargas has not heard any of those artists, but all three are reference points for me.) And in some of the slower pieces, like As Mãos and Lindo Ramo, Verde Escuro, I’d swear I hear the influence of Baroque sarabandes.
I don’t want to get too far into the comparison game, because this is still highly original and distinctive music. Some of it will undoubtedly feel too “safe” for listeners seeking more adventurous and challenging directions, and what I hear as a pleasing basic optimism in its repeated figures, could sound too pat to others. But give it a listen; it’s quite a pleasing intoxicant—and Rodrigues’ guitar work is really outstanding throughout!
Vilas Morenas; Tom Waits; Briquedos; A Dança dos Pássaros;As Mãos;Lindo Ramo, Verde Escuro; Quatro Mulheres; Fado Negro; Uma Já Antiga; June; O Sentimento De Um Ocidental
Historical Italian Guitar Maker Bruno Giuffredi
The rather clumsily translated title notwithstanding (the Italian “liuteria chitarristica italiana” is ever so much more graceful and descriptive), this is a thoroughly entertaining album, beautifully played. If you poke around YouTube for a while, you’ll discover that Italian guitarist Bruno Giufreddi appears to specialize in playing different guitars, and indeed the conceit—that is to say, the idea—behind this particular release is to expose listeners to some of the guitarist’s favorite 20th century Italian luthiers. Seven guitar-makers and nine guitars are represented across the 12 different pieces on the album. I confess to not knowing any of luthiers before I heard this, but no doubt some of them—all now deceased—might be familiar to you: Pietro Gallinotti, Luigi Mozzani, Giueseppe Bernardo Lecchi, Lorenzo Bellafontana, Mario Pabé, Carlo Raspagni, Mario Novelli. The guitars come from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’90s.
There is a similarly wide range to the works on the album, all of which are by Spanish or Italian composers, spanning from the late 19th/early 20th centuries (Manjón, Tárrega, Respighi, Turina) to present-day living Italian composers such as Angelo Gilardino (who also wrote the interesting liner notes, printed in English and Italian), Ganesh del Vescovo, Livio Torresan, and Stefano Casarini. As you might expect, the styles vary, from more traditional Spanish and Italian—Manjón’s Leyenda, Respighi’s Variazioni, Giovanni Murtula’s Tarantella, Tárrega’s Four Mazurkas (of which Adelita! is probably the most-performed)—to the decidedly more modern musings of Gilardino, Del Vescovo, and Torresan. Even with my relatively conservative tastes, however, I found all the contemporary pieces to be easily digestible.
It’s difficult for me to comparatively evaluate the sonics of the guitars, even on headphones, so I will take the coward’s way out and say they all sound good to me (which they do). However, I will especially tip my cap to the sumptuous 1952 and 1957 guitars by Pietro Gallinotti. Actually, Giufreddi has provided an easy comparative guide for us to appreciate the differences in tone: The final nine tracks on the album are devoted to a single 40-second piece by Stefano Casarini played on each of the guitars showcased earlier! Frankly, that’s a bit much for me (not exactly encouraging repeat listening) but it is an interesting idea, and consistent with the album’s stated purpose. There’s a lot to love about this album.
Leyenda (Manjón); Variazioni (Respighi); Prélude (Mozzani); Tarantella (Murtula); Tres Temas de recuerdos (Pahissa); Four Mazurkas (Tárrega); Studio No. 29, Passacaglia (Gilardino); Three Studios (del Vescovo); Fantasia (Torresan); Fandanguillo, Op. 36 (Trina); Laberinto (Sainz de la Maza); Studio No. 4 (Casarini; on 9 different guitars)