Danza De Medianoche: A Celebration of Leo Brouwer’s 80th Birthday
By Blair Jackson
New York-based Spanish guitarist Virginia Luque’s two-disc compendium of guitar works by Leo Brouwer feels like a fitting capstone to the worldwide celebration of the Cuban composer’s 80th birthday in 2019. Actually, beginning in 2018, Bouwer was seemingly everywhere—giving interviews, hosting master classes at guitar festivals around the world, and working with various guitarists and ensembles preparing new works to be premiered. He is as vibrant and full of energy as ever, and it has been wonderful watching him receive the plaudits he so richly deserves.
Of course, Brouwer has long been one of the most recorded contemporary guitar composers, and there are quite a few all-Brouwer discs out there (by such distinguished musicians as Ricardo Cobo, John Williams, Pedro Mateo González, Elena Papandreou, the Brasil Duo, Alvaro Pierri, and Ricardo Gallén, to name some), but his output is so enormous and deep, the premieres spread over so many different albums by different guitarists, it’s frankly hard to keep up with him! Personally, I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of his oeuvre. Which may be a reason I’m enjoying Luque’s nearly two-hour set—the first in her Gold Catalogue Composers series released on her own Iberia Productions label—so much. It features strong performances of some of Brouwer’s best-known works from the 1950s (Fuga No. 1, Danza Caracteristica, Dos Temas Populares Cubanos), the ’60s (Un Dia de Noviembre and Elogio de la Danza), then jumps to the early ’80s for the brilliant El Decameron Negro suite (written for Sharon Isbin); then the balance of the pieces here are plucked from the ’90s and 2000s—all the way up to the album-opening masterpiece, Danza de Medianoche (Dance of Midnight), a nearly seven-minute world premiere commissioned by and dedicated to Luque, which has instantly become one of my favorite of his recent works.
Like most of Brouwer’s works, Danza de Medianoche is difficult to characterize because it combines modern and traditional musical strains, varies in tempo over the length of the piece, and evokes so many different moods. But if I had to choose just one adjective, it would be “mysterious.” Just seconds in, it conjures overtly Spanish flavors before yielding to a simple, lonely-sounding line that truly feels like midnight. Right at the two-minute mark a martial/tangoish rhythm erupts from the guitar, before it dissolves into a florid, quick-paced figure that reminds me of a motif in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. He elegantly winds that in different directions, soon giving way to more serpentine lonely exploration, punctuated by interesting chordal jabs, a steady acceleration that eventually slows, then recapitulates some earlier notions, ending near where it began. What a marvelous journey! I can easily see this becoming a popular concert piece. I should also note that the piece that follows Medianioche—Paisaje Cubano con Fiesta (from 2007)—is very much in the spirit of new work; a musical cousin, perhaps.
There’s so much to like here; I can’t go into at all. But among my other of my favorites are the gorgeously lyrical Cantilena de los Bosques (2007); the spare, almost Asian-sounding Paisaje Cubano con Tristeza (1996); the varied, three-part Danza Rituales y Festivas, Vol. 2, which I’d never heard before and which also seems to explicitly share some its DNA with Medianoche; and last, but certainly not least, the closing El Decameron Negro, which surprised me in this more expansive arrangement featuring Luque fronting four of the five members of New York-based Toomai String Quintet (no double-bass for this outing). It took me a while to get used to, but I did warm to it; a fascinating reworking. (Previously in our Video Pick of the Week slot, we posted a quintet version of one movement, spearheaded by Dutch guitarist Coen Klaeys.) I‘d love to know more about the arrangement! In fact, if I have one complaint with Luque’s album it is that there is literally NO information about the pieces; no dates, no nothing (so I did that homework on my own). It would have been very helpful to have more context about the works and how they fit in Brouwer’s career.
Anyway, what is here is a bonanza of prime Brouwer, prepared with care and under the composer’s watchful eye, and it’s given me an even greater appreciation of this remarkable talent!
(CD 1) Danza de Medianoche; Paisaje Cubano con Fiesta; Paisaje Cubano con Tristeza; Fuga No. 1; Contilena de los Bosques; Danzas Rituales y Festivas (Vol. 1): I. Danza de los Altos Cerros, II. Habanera Trunca, III. Guajira; La Toccata de Pasquini
(CD 2) Danzas Rituales y Festivas (Vol. 2): I. Danza de los Ancestros, 2. Glosas Comperos, 3. Tango Montrero; Elogio de la Danza: I. Lento, 2. Obstinato; Dos Temas Populares Cubanos: I. Berceuse–Cancion de Cuna, II. Les yeux sorciers–Ojos Brojos; Danza Caracteristica; Baladas del Decameron Negro: I. El Arpa del Guerrero, II. Huida de los Amantes por el Valle de los Ecos, III. Ballada de la Doncella Enamorada
So far the album is available exclusively through CD Baby, which also allows you to sample all tracks. Luque says it will eventually also appear on iTunes, Spotify, and other digital platforms, but those details are still being worked out.