Around the World with Classical Guitar: Editor Blair J.’s 10 Favorite Albums of 2020

Raphaella Smits

BY BLAIR JACKSON

In keeping with the strangeness of 2020, assembling my traditional list of favorite classical guitar albums of the past year was a somewhat unusual exercise for me. In previous years, I’ve methodically listened to and in most cases reviewed the albums that make my eventual list as the year progresses. But everything went haywire this year: I didn’t review nearly as many albums as I wanted to (I hope to remedy that in 2021!), and working at home, I often didn’t get into my usual rhythm of listening to music while I toiled away at the ol’ computer, so I have a larger-than-usual stack of 2020 releases still waiting for me as we plunge into the new year.

Nevertheless, I savored many excellent releases and, as always, it was difficult whittling the list down to just ten. The usual caveats apply: I’m not calling these the “best” or “most important” albums of the year; just my favorites, the ones that spoke to my soul most. They reflect my own, arguably conservative, tastes. It wasn’t until I had made all my choices that I discovered that my list tilts heavily toward the integration of classical guitar into world music forms, and that four of the ten feature either guitar duos, or the guitar in combination with other instruments. A few are ones I reviewed over the course of 2020, but most are not. I also have included links to places where the albums can be streamed and/or purchased, but needless to say, you are not limited to the sites we’ve mentioned.

Gaëlle Solal
Tuhu
(Eudora)

French guitarist Gaëlle Solal has been obsessed with Brazilian music (among various other styles) since being part of a Villa-Lobos festival in 2009, and then making a subsequent trip to Brazil. The sweet fruit of that obsession is this remarkable and inspiring album featuring works by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) “and also pieces by other composers who either had an influence on or were influenced by his music,” Solal writes in the liner notes of this 15-track album. Villa-Lobos has been “trendy” for a number of years now—rare is the up-and-coming (or well-established) guitarist who doesn’t include a work or two in her or his repertoire—and with good reason: Villa-Lobos’ writing seamlessly blended strains of various Brazilian folk music forms with sophisticated classically influenced structures and ideas. He was a master of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Solal’s album offers seven Villa-Lobos works—including popular selections such as “Chôros No. 1,” two parts of the Suite Populaire Bresilienne, the ubiquitous (but always welcome!) Prelude No. 2,” and “Modinha”—and then surrounds them with stellar, well-known works by Brazilians likes Pixinguinha, Egberto Gismonti, Guinga, Jobim, and Garoto; with two Villa-Lobos–inspired works by Frenchman (and teacher and friend of Solal’s) Roland Dyens rounding out the collection with his some of his characteristic verve and zest. The playing is faultless throughout and the repertoire—heavy on the balladic side—manages to be both crowd-pleasing and somehow perfect. What a jewel of an album!

The album can be purchased/streamed through Amazon and iTunes/Apple Music, and streamed via Spotify and YouTube.


Luigi Attademo
Domenico Scarlatti: Absconditus (15 Sonatas for Guitar)
(Da Vinci Classics)

This is actually the fine Italian guitarist Luigi Attademo‘s second album of Scarlatti keyboard sonatas arranged for guitar (the first was recorded in 2009 and came out on Brilliant Classics), but since Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757) penned around 600 keyboard sonatas, there are certainly plenty to choose from! There are only a few repeated sonatas from that earlier album here, and of course these are new(er) recordings—from 2015. At any rate, this is a thoughtful and well-played selection, with lots of variety in the tempos and feel of the individual pieces, all nicely rendered on a Gaetano Guadagnini II guitar dating back to 1851. Some are well-known and oft-interpreted on guitar, but others, he claims in his informative liner notes, “have hitherto never been played on the guitar, such as K60, K279, and K73.” Attademo says that part of his goal with this album was to show the Spanish influence evident in some of the Neapolitan Scarlatti’s writing, and he makes a good case for it with the repertoire selections. The recording, by the great John Taylor, is excellent, as always. If you enjoy Scarlatti, this album is a must!

Available purchase and/or streaming from Amazon, iTunes/Apple Music, and streaming on Spotify or YouTube.


An Tran
Stay, My Beloved: Vietnamese Guitar Music
(Frameworks Records)

I reviewed this transcendent album back in April 2020, and it has only risen more in my estimation since then. An Tran‘s Stay, My Beloved album contains seven solo guitar pieces written by or arranged from traditional Vietnamese folk songs by a pair of contemporary Vietnamese composers, Nguyen The-An and Dang Ngoc Long. Anyone with some familiarity with Asian music forms will immediately recognize the stylistic provenance of much of this music, filled as it is with moments where An Tran is clearly mimicking the sounds of traditional instruments with his guitar, not to mention the sort of irregular rhythmic paths some of the mostly spare melodies take. Yet it is still undeniably a modern classical-guitar album, with reference points Western audiences will recognize–highly virtuosic passages that display what a gifted guitarist An Tran truly is, whether effortlessly flying through dazzlingly speedy runs, or complex rhythmic shifts, unusual harmonies, or the many “effects” he employs: damping and snapping strings, bending notes, percussive strumming up and down the neck, fluttering cascades of notes; his uniquely Asian tremolo. It’s an amazing potpourri of styles and approaches, but they all hang together marvelously, and coalesce into a sort of enormous impressionist watercolor that depicts landscapes and the sounds of nature, and tells stories and talks about human emotions.

Available for purchase and/or streaming through Amazon, and iTunes/Apple Music, and streaming on Spotify and YouTube.


Raphaella Smits
Vienna Concert
(Soundset Recordings)

This latest release from the great Raphaella Smits is not a live recording, as the title might imply, but instead a wonderful “concert” program of selections by Romantic composers Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806–1856) and Franz Schubert (1797–1828), played divinely on an 1827 French-made Mirecourt guitar with eight strings (two low basses), two of them gut. Smits, of course, is no stranger to Mertz’s music, having performed and recorded his works many times through the years. Mertz was a virtuoso himself, and mastering his guitar music is not easy; yet Smits makes it sound almost effortless. As she writes in the liner notes, “For me, the quality of Mertz’s compositions match the greats such as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Schubert. Beyond that, he had his own language: beautiful melodies, fantastic cadenzas, virtuosic passages, and with that great ever-present Romantic soul.” Indeed, though Schubert gets (almost) equal billing, two of the three pieces by him on the album are Mertz guitar transcriptions of songs from Schubert’s posthumously published Schwanengesang collection. The Mertz pieces include the Trois Morceaux, three from the Bardenklänge, the frequently performed and truly sublime Elegie, and more. The drama and beauty of her playing on Mertz’s Fantasie Originale and La Rimembranza (which was new to me) is something to behold. But it’s all fantastic; Romantic guitar at its absolute best!

Available for purchase and/or streaming through Amazon and iTunes/Apple Music, and streaming on Spotify and YouTube.


Davin-Levin Duo (Colin Davin, guitar; Emily Levin, harp)
Banter
(Iris Records)

I’ve been a lover of the harp ever since my teen years when, as a member of my high school chorus, we sang the moving “Sanctus” from Fauré’s Requiem at a concert, accompanied by a professional harpist; that led me to various French “impressionist” orchestral works that also employed the harp. My first exposure to the harp-and-guitar combination was the excellent 2015 album by Jason Vieaux and Yolanda Kondanassis called Together, but this more recent effort by guitarist Colin Davin (who, with Vieaux, leads the guitar department at the Cleveland Institute of Music) and harpist Emily Levin (who plays with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, among others) is even more to my liking. What a marvelously varied and engaging disc! It opens with a propulsive and hypnotic slice of Philip Glass; moves on to a handful of selections from Ravel’s 1910 piano-duet suite Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) dealing with the Beauty and the Beast story; offers two premieres commissioned by the duo—Will Stackpole’s Banter, Bicker, Breathe ranges from jagged, angular modernisms to a nearly meditative close; Dylan Mattingly’s La Vita Nuova (and other consequences of spring) is all serenity, budding life, and beauty—and then Manuel de Falla’s complex and exciting El Amor Brujo serves as a wonderful conclusion to a deliciously different program. Encore!

Avaialable to be streamed/purchased through Amazon and AppleMusic, and streamed on Spotify and YouTube.


The Czar’s Guitars (John Schneiderman and Oleg Timofeyev)
A Tribute Vladimir Morkov
(Hanssler Classic)

Having been a fan of John Schneiderman and Oleg Timofeyev’s epic 7-CD box set from 2016, The Russian Guitar 1800–1850, I looked forward to this double-CD set, which centers on contributions from “musician, music critic, composer, arranger, and pedagogue of the highest order” Vladimir Morkov (1801–1864), who like so many devotees of the 7-string Russian Guitar, all but disappeared from musical memory in Russia after the Revolution of 1917. The Russian-born Timofeyev, and to a slightly lesser extent, Schneiderman, have done more than anyone to unearth the repertoire and composers of 19th century music for the Russian Guitar, which draws heavily from Russian and Gypsy folk sources as well as Western classical music. As with the Russian Guitar box, the performances here include both duets (with Timofeyev on Russian guitar and Schneiderman on Russian “quart” guitar) and solo numbers from each. But musically, this set is weighted heavily toward Markov’s wonderful arrangements of Classical and Romantic themes from operas, chamber works, and art pieces, with less (though still considerable) material derived from Russian and gypsy folk sources. So there are themes from Rossini, Bellini, Haydn, Carcassi, Sor, and Mertz, in addition to various Russian and European composers— including Morkov himself. There’s a Zapateado and an Andalusian Jota, as well as an intriguing Baroque-era piece derived from a work by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (a name that was new to me). The collection ends with ten very short preludes by Markov, some of which are interesting; others less so to my ears. Still, a very impressive album, with many moments of drama, delicacy, and sonorous appeal.

Available for purchase/streaming through Amazon, Presto Music, and Naxos Direct.

Xuefei Yang
Sketches of China
(Decca)

From my December 2020 review of this Xuefei Yang album: “A truly wonderful two-CD set devoted to both ancient and modern Chinese works, recorded in Beijing. Most are solo guitar pieces, but a handful find her accompanied effectively by an orchestra or a solitary guzheng or xiao (bamboo flute). Disc 1 is the more traditional-sounding of the two. . . artfully combining classical guitar with folk music. . . .There is a spare beauty to so much of this music; as Westerners, it is natural that we associate this sort of music with decorative Chinese art—scenes of waterfalls cascading over rocks, rippling streams, delicate trees dotting steep hillsides. But as Xuefei says in her helpful notes, these aren’t just evocative natural landscapes brought magnificently to life, though they are that. They are also portraits of human emotions. . . .Xuefei’s ability to mimic certain traditional Chinese instruments on her guitar is uncanny—the quick slides up and down the fretboard; the seemingly endless variations of tremolo (so different than Barrios!); the distinctive, crisp, individuated plucking of certain notes; the at times brash and explosive strumming; the glistening rushes of notes that sound like they’re pouring out of her instrument; the creative employment of harmonics. This is a seriously virtuosic performance that takes ‘classical guitar’ in many exciting new directions. Disc 2 introduces more ‘modern’ elements to the sound—get ready for a handful of pieces (or parts of pieces) where the plucking turns to abrasive snapping, rhythms become abrupt and irregular, and the serene beauty of country landscapes gives way to what sound more like gritty, overcrowded city scenes; at least that’s how I hear it. Even at its most abstract, however, there are still wisps of tradition blowing through the music, but in a sometimes startling new context. [It is] truly remarkable musical achievement.”

Sketches of China can be streamed and/or purchased through Amazon and iTunes/Apple Music; and streamed on Spotify and YouTube.


Duo Tandem (Necati Emirzade, Mark Anderson)
Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi
(Naxos)

From my 2020 review of this album: “The versatile [American-Cypriot] duo gives over their entire release to compositions by Cypriot-British composer Kemal Belevi (b. 1954). Most of the works were originally written for other instrumentation: The four Cyprian Rhapsodies, for example, were written for orchestra, Suite Chypre for guitar and cello, and Turkish Suite for guitar and violin and guitar. I can’t speak to any of those versions, but Belevi’s arrangements here sound perfect on two guitars! The Mediterranean character of Belevi’s writing comes through on every piece. Traditional Greek and Turkish influences abound, and both of those folk music idioms have Middle Eastern qualities to them, so it’s difficult for me (a mere layman where those styles are concerned) to tell where one ends and another begins. Whatever the case,  it’s a glorious amalgam: full of joyful, intoxicating rhythms, catchy melodies and riffs, and enough moments of delicate beauty to allow for introspection and reflection. Belevi has created an exotic-yet-still-familiar musical universe which Anderson and Emirzade—both virtuosos— skillfully translate and transmit to all of us over the course of a little more than an hour. . . . You really can’t go wrong with this album.”

The album can be purchased and/or streamed through AmazoniTunes/Apple Music, and streamed on Spotify and YouTube.


Francisco Correa
Música de la Tierrita
(AM Records)

I think it’s fair to say that Colombia has not produced as many notable classical guitarists as some of its South American neighbors—Gentil Montaña, Ricardo Cobo, and Irene Gomez are the names that immediately jump into my mind—but now its time to add Francisco Correa to that list. Originally from the Boyacá region, in the lush central part of the country, Correa moved to Europe in 2006 and received the bulk of his guitar training in Barcelona, Paris, and London. But on this album, the title of which translates as “Music from the Homeland,” Correa performs pieces written by three contemporary guitarist-composers from Boyacá, twin brothers Daniel and Lucas Saboya (b. 1980; each contributes a suite) and Juan C. Guío (b.1970). There is an intoxicating lyricism to so much of this music that I just love—I’m reminded of the melodic beauty and rhythmic inventiveness of such long-departed giants as Agustín Barrios and Antonio Lauro, and more recent composers like Jorge Morel, though none of it feels imitative in any way. Some pieces are based on regional dances; others appear to draw on everything from jazz to the balladry of earlier eras. Correa is equally comfortable gliding through brisk, virtuosic numbers and exquisite, heartfelt songs. In the examples below, the first is the opening movement of Daniel Saboya’s Suite Colombiana No. 1, and the other is a piece by Guío; both are world premieres. Highly recommended!

Available for purchase/streaming through Amazon and iTunes/AppleMusic, and streaming on Spotify and YouTube.


Saron Isbin, Amjad Ali Khan
Strings for Peace: Premieres for Guitar and Sarod
(Zoho)

By this point we probably should not be surprised by any stylistic turn taken by Sharon Isbin, who has shown time and again that she is among the most adventurous players out there. Even so, I wasn’t expecting this: A full album of Isbin performing world premieres of original pieces written for classical guitar and Indian sarod—a multi-stringed, fretless instrument that somewhat resembles a lute, but sounds more like a sitar. I’ve been a fan of Indian classical music since the mid-’60s (my older brother turned me on to sitar great Ravi Shankar), and I saw the late, great sarod master Ali Akbar Khan perform several times (and interviewed him once), so Strings for Peace is right up my alley, as they say. Isbin shares the spotlight with three sarod players—Amjad Ali Khan and his two sons, Amman Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash—as well as tabla player Amit Kavthekar, on three substantial ragas and one shorter piece. Though the overall character is distinctly Indian, Isbin’s guitar fits in perfectly, soaring expressively in her many spotlight turns (both fast and slow), playing in unison with the sarod, or “answering” sarod lines. Her virtuosity and obvious comfort in this setting allow the guitar to be an equal partner in this fascinating and completely satisfying fusion of Indian and Western styles. Check it out!

The album is available for purchase/streaming through Amazon and iTunes/Apple Music, and streaming on Spotify and YouTube.