Album Review/Profile: Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan’s Wondrous ‘Intimate Impressions’ Features Works by Ravel, Debussy, Mompou, and More

Classical guitarists Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan
Adam Cicchillitti (L) and Steve Cowan
BY BLAIR JACKSON

We all bring our own likes and dislikes—our own musical prejudices, one might say—to everything we listen to. I happen to love the music of the so-called French “impressionist” composers of the late 19th and early 20th century. I also love guitar duos (and trios and quartets), and have really enjoyed past albums featuring Canada-based Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan, alone or together. So this album, Intimate Impressions (I prefer the French title, Impressions Intimes, but it doesn’t read as well for English-speaking audiences) was made for a listener like me. And the truth is, I like it so much that I’ve had a hard time not listening to it again and again, rather than moving on to other albums in my towering stack of recent (and not-so-recent) releases.

Intimate Impressions (for 2 guitars)
Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan

(Analekta)

It’s difficult to express what is so special about this music. Most of these pieces have their origins in piano works (though there is a harp sonata by the lone woman composer on the disc, Germaine Tailleferre, and André Jolivet’s Sérénade was penned for two guitars), so the sonic palette is broad and deep and better suited to a duo than solo guitar. (That said, there are two marvelous solo showcases—one for each guitarist—of popular pieces in the guitar repertoire: Debussy’s Arabesque, no. 1 and Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte.) The melodies are rich without being over-bearing, the harmonies sometimes unconventional and unpredictable (this is all way past post-Romantic), the textures lush but still tasteful. It’s not, strictly speaking, an album of French impressionist pieces; rather, the informative accompanying booklet (in English and French) notes, they are “20th century works written in Paris, for two guitars.”

Cowan and Cicchillitti have worked together enough now that they have developed the necessary “duo telepathy” that allows them to gracefully and effortlessly pass musical ideas back and forth, sometimes completing each other’s thoughts, it seems, other times “answering” with bold new statements and ideas. The arrangements are universally brilliant; kudos to both and for developing fresh repertoire for the guitar! Their previous album, the excellent Focus, was dominated by contemporary works by Canadian composers and was an unabashedly modern affair, loaded with dissonant moments, abrupt rhythmic shifts; all in all a challenging musical landscape (but a fascinating one to explore). Here, Jolivet’s Sérénade is the only piece with what I would call late 20th century sensibilities (it was written in the ’50s), yet it somehow fits in well amidst the more melodic fare. And, in truth, Ravel and Debussy were “modern” for their time: you can hear their influence on composers as diverse as Gershwin, Stravinsky, a number of early jazz and pop songwriters, and even on later minimalists such as Steve Reich.

All in all, it’s a uniformly strong, compelling, and deeply affecting album by two virtuosos clearly at the top of their game. By the way, you’ll hear Adam on the left and Steve on the right in the splendid recording by the always reliable Drew Henderson. (The photo at the top was taken by Brent Calis.)

Sonatine: I. Modéré, II. Mouvement de Menuet, III. Animé (M. Ravel); Musica Callada: I. Angelico, no. 1; II. Legato metalico, no. 5; III. Allegretto, no. 11; IV. Calme, no. 16 (F. Mompou); Sonate pour harpe: I. Allegretto, II. Lento, III. Perpetuum Mobile (G. Tailleferre); Préludes, livre 2, no. 5 Bruyéres (C. Debussy); Arabesque, no. 1 (C. Debussy); Préludes. livre 1, no. 8, La fille aux cheveux de lin (C. Debussy); Sérénade: I. Praeludio e Canzone, II. Allegro Trepidante, III. Andante Malinconico, IV. Con Allegria (A. Jolivet); Pavane pour une infante défunte (M. Ravel); Le tombeau de Couperin (M. Ravel); Prélude (M. Ravel)

The album can be purchased and/or streamed through Amazon and iTunes/Apple Music and streamed on Spotify.

I recently asked Messrs. Cowan and Cicchillitti a few questions about this fabulous project:

I am a huge fan of your fellow Canadians ChromaDuo and their Ravel, Debussy: Music for Two Guitars album from a few years ago. Are they friends/acquaintances of yours? Did what they did influence your choices at all?

Adam Cicchillitti: ChromaDuo is one of the great guitar duos to ever come out of Canada. We are both friends with Tracy Smith and Rob MacDonald and very familiar with their Naxos recordings, including their beautiful Ravel/Debussy album. We wanted to make sure when we set about picking our repertoire for this album that there wasn’t any overlap with their French album. In general, we always set out to make our own arrangements. ChromaDuo is not the first duo to arrange Ravel and Debussy for the guitar, and our Intimate Impressions will not be the last guitar album you hear of that repertoire. The intimacy of the music and the richness of the harmonic language suits the guitar perfectly, and even more so when two guitars are involved.

It was also very important for us to fit the project into a more specific theme, which is why the album includes five different composers, all of whom spent the bulk of their careers in Paris. With that theme in mind, we wanted to explore the music of lesser-known composers like Tailleferre and Jolivet, and Mompou has long been our favorite composer as a duo. Finally, rather than focusing on the composers themselves, we wanted to paint a picture of different compositional and aesthetic styles in their music that were influenced by the Parisian milieu—from impressionism to neoclassicism to avant-garde, Paris was a hotbed of stylistic influences.

What sort of factors went into the choice of pieces?

Steve Cowan: There were many “seeds” planted for this idea in the past in the form of arrangements of singular movements, and when an album project presented itself, we needed to expand so that each composer had a more substantial presence on the album. Adam arranged the first movement of Ravel’s Sonatine many years ago, and I arranged Secreto by Mompou and Bruyères by Debussy years ago as well. They all worked well, so we just kept the ball rolling—the
full Sonatine, more Mompou miniatures, and more Debussy preludes.

We tried to choose different works from each composer’s catalog that we hadn’t heard on guitar, for the most part. There was a lot of “I love this piece, do you love this piece?” “Yes, let’s play it.”  Adam and I have very similar taste when it comes to classical music.

Debussy and Ravel are often lumped together as the leading “impressionists,” and although Mompou’s style is certainly more introverted and sparse, his harmonic language is very clearly influenced by those two. Tailleferre and Jolivet are stylistically quite different—but shared the “Parisian” link. We thought the theme could simultaneously represent some composers that shared stylistic traits, but also show the progression in style that occurred in French music throughout the 20th century.

It’s worth noting that Mompou is not French [he was Catalan, from Spain], and Musica Callada was not actually composed when he was living in Paris. That said, his musical voice can largely be understood as a product of French influences and his many years living in Paris, so we still thought it would fit.

I love the Tailleferre harp sonata—and the harp in general. It fits in so nicely, in part because we already associate the harp with the orchestral music of the impressionists, but also because the harp does have guitaristic qualities. How did the process of working from harp music differ from working from piano music?

AC: For the most part, harp gestures translate much better to the guitar than piano gestures. There were a few sweeping glissando gestures that had to be adapted to make them effective on the guitar, but the final transcription is very similar to the original harp score. Essentially, one staff goes to guitar 1 and the other to guitar 2; there was a lot less arranging overall than in the piano music featured on the album. Once the notes had been engraved, it was just a question of identifying ideas that were repeated so that we could create a dialogue between the two parts. One of the golden rules in music arranging is to make the melody as easy and singable as possible. This can be troublesome on the guitar because of the attack-and-decay nature of the instrument; it’s difficult to make melodies lyrical, smooth, and connected and to make the guitar sing.

On the piano, particularly in the Ravel arrangement featured on Intimate Impressions, there is a ton of important melodic material embedded in the middle voices. This means that the guitar part not playing the melody risks being intricate and difficult. Just look at the opening of the album [Sonatine]: Guitar 1 has an easy and beautiful melody in octaves, while guitar 2 is arpeggiating moving harmonies in 32nd second notes. The level of difficulty between parts when transcribing piano music risks being unbalanced. It was easy and fluid in the Tailleferre sonata.  

When you approach a piano work to adapt to two guitars, what sorts of characteristics are you looking for? Surely you must reject some for not being practical on a technical level to make the piano-to-guitars transition.

SC: Things in piano pieces that may not work in guitar arrangements include achieving the same rapid speed, and also extremely dense chords and textures. Luckily, most of this music is light and elegant in its composition, so other than occasional note omissions or changing of the register, we are not leaving out too many things. The speed in the third movement of Ravel’s Sonatine or Tombeau de Couperin was definitely tricky, but good arranging and lots of practice helped us get a convincing result.

In the case of these pieces, we could usually tell what would work on guitar by listening to piano versions, and upon attempting to arrange and play them, we were right. Things like arpeggios, floating melodies, the same pitch range of the guitar… if we hear super-low or -high notes on the piano, or blazing fast motives, or huge, thick chords, it’s a “no.”

Mompou was the easiest to arrange and play. It’s generally more simple, rarely fast, and worked almost exactly as written—tonality, register, voicing—the works!

What is the process of dividing up the parts like? As far as I can tell, no one is always playing the “left” or “right” hand piano part; it feels like it moves around a lot. Ever have any fights, metaphorically speaking, over who is going to take which part?

SC: This is where we learned from listening to other great guitar duos, such as SoloDuo or Henderson-Kolk. When playing arrangements, they often pass the parts back and forth, and I think that’s an aspect that makes the arrangements sound convincing—it makes them sound more like actual guitar-duo pieces. Lots of guitar pieces we’ve played in the past are written this way—to be more of a dialogue—and it has influenced our development as a duo.

Furthermore, we’re often taught as soloists to “do something different” on the repeat, with regards to color, phrasing, etc. When you just switch parts between two different guitarists on the repeat, it kind of takes care of that on its own. We try our best to be homogeneous and consistent in our approaches when playing the same motives, but at the end of the day we are still two different musicians with two different guitars and sounds. So it keeps things fresh for the listener, I think.

Definitely no fights, physically or metaphorically. Adam will often volunteer to take the hard parts, and I gladly abide.

After your thoroughly modern last album, Focus, what was it like to dive into this decidedly different musical world?

AC: It was truly a pleasure for both of us to record an album in such a different musical world than Focus, particularly because we have always strongly identified with this repertoire. The two of us built a strong bond recording Focus and then touring the album over a year ago, so we were a much more experienced duo coming into our second full-length album recording. We believe the overall blend of the ensemble has improved a lot.

However, we had a much shorter time frame to work with when preparing Intimate Impressions, and most of the works are original arrangements that were very time-consuming to prepare. In addition, although the two of us are both very comfortable in the modern idiom, we felt compelled to consult expert pianists in preparation for this album. It was really enlightening to get input from non-guitarists who are intimately familiar with the repertoire, particularly because they don’t get carried away with guitar technique; their focus was more on the clarity of musical gestures and stylistic authenticity.   

Anything you’d like to add? Any plans for touring at some point behind this album?

AC: Yes! The duo is very busy in the upcoming year with a new project of six concerti for two guitars and orchestra, which will be premiered at the Guitare Alla Grande 2022 festival in Ottawa, Canada. We have commissioned Steve Goss, Patrick Roux, Amy Brandon, Bekah Simms, Kelly-Marie Murphy, and Harry Stafylakis for six new works featuring two guitars and the chamber orchestra Thirteen Strings. We received over $50,000 in funding from the Government of Canada for this project, and we’re very excited that our country is playing an important role in vastly expanding our orchestral repertoire. The plan is to record that project with Analekta at the end of 2022.

We are currently touring Intimate Impressions with the Prairie Debut agency, with more to come! Naturally, COVID put a halt to our live touring plans in 2021, but we have still been offering virtual recitals of the repertoire to audiences worldwide. Moreover, we just recorded three new videos of contemporary repertoire for guitar and electronics in a very cool collaboration with the McGill Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT). We are premiering a brand-new invention, which is a device attached to the classical guitar that captures body motion data and allows the performer to control the electronics from the instrument through body movements.