Classical Guitar Review: Thomas Athanaselos’ South American Journey; Italian and French Romantic Guitar from Pascal Valois

classical guitarist pascal valois sits in a chair with his guitar
pascal valois
BY BLAIR JACKSON

New albums by classical guitarists Thomas Athanaselos and Pascal Valois have caught our ear recently. Here we review both to take a trip through time and around the world with three albums featuring a wide variety of compositions.

Thomas Athanaselos Takes a Deep Dive into South America

Iguazú
Thomas Athanaselos
(self-released)

Just as mastering Bach seems to be a rite of passage (of sorts) for many (most?) classical guitarists, so, too, it seems that taking a deep dive into the music of Brazil and other South American and Central American countries becomes more popular with each passing year. And why not? It’s an incredibly rich and diverse musical heritage, so much more than just Barrios, Villa Lobos, and Lauro, to name just three titans. And also, most excitingly, it encompasses so many contemporary composers, so the catalog of great pieces to play is virtually inexhaustible.

The cover of classical guitarist Thomas Athanaselos’ album Iguazu. Athanaselos sits on a bench next to his guitar case.

On Iguazú, the outstanding Greek guitarist Thomas Athanaselos offers a wide spectrum of mostly well-known pieces by Brazilian and Argentine composers, as well as three of his own works that fit in thematically and musically with his other choices—indeed, the lovely title track is his, inspired by the famous Iguazú Falls that sit on the border between Brazil and Argentina. Most of the choices here are pieces that have already been shown to be popular in the classical guitar repertoire, such as Marco Pereira’s bubbling Bate Coxa, Dilermando Reis’ contemplative Eterna Saudade, Sérgio Assad’s lilting and infectious Catareté and charming Valseana, and two of Astor Piazzolla’s most famous works, Oblivion and Adios Nonino. If you know some or all of those, you can see what Athanaselos is going for: melody reigns supreme throughout; there is barely a discordant note struck on this album. Still, all is not light and tuneful. There are darker moments, as well as a beautiful sadness that emanates from a few pieces.

Athanaselos’ playing is confident but never strident; he has mastered these sometimes tricky rhythms and plays them as if they are second-nature to him. His own pieces show how much he has internalized the essence of these musical forms. He captures the buoyancy of the uptempo pieces and also manages to coax tremendous feeling out of this ballad-heavy program, really making the melodies sing. It’s a wonderful album!

Bate Coxa (M. Pereira); Frevo (M. Pereira); Eterna Saudade (D. Reis); Alfonsina y el Mar (A. Ramirez, arr. R. Dyens); Suite Brasileira No. 4: Catareté (S. Assad); Suite Brasileira No. 4: Toada (S. Assad); Balada par Martin Fierro (A. Ramirez); Oblivion (A. Piazzolla, arr. R. Dyens); Adios Nonino (A. Piazzolla, arr. C. Tirao & T. Athanaselos); Aquarelle II: Valseana (S. Assad); Aiteall (T. Athanaselos); Fantasia y Mirada (T. Athanaselos); Iguazú (T. Athanaselos)

At the moment, this self-released album is available only through the Danish music publisher Bergman Edition. Hopefully it will turn up eventually on free streaming platforms, because this deserves to be heard!



Two Recent Albums by Pascal Valois

Napoli 1810
Pascal Valois
(Analekta)


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Napoleonian Guitar Sonatas
Pascal Valois, guitar; Jacques-André Houle, violin
(Centaur)

Canadian classical guitarist Pascal Valois specializes in early Romantic-era music (and guitars) and has released two albums highlighting that music within the past couple of years. The most recent one is subtitled “Italian Romantic Music” and features solo guitar pieces by Paganini, Carulli, and Giuliani. In 2019, he put out an album featuring French guitar sonatas from the early 19th century, including two by Antoine de Lhoyer that are for guitar and violin (played by Jacques-André Houle). On both the virtuoso plays a marvelous-sounding c. 1820 guitar built by Mirecourt luthier Bernard Cabasse.

Classical guitarist Pascal Valois in a suit with his guitar on the cover of his album Napoli 1810

I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say that when I hear most pieces by Giuliani and Carulli, I can usually picture in my mind’s ear how they are going to go to a degree; how they will develop. They were productive, highly dependable composers who worked beautifully within the established forms of the day, though frankly, they rarely surprise me. That said, Carulli’s Six Andantes offer of wide ranging exploration of themes that showcase Valois’ expressive gifts, his flawless ornamentation, as well as his technical mastery of the material. And the Giuliani Sonate (op. 15) is a delight: The Andante is moving and introspective, the Finale appropriately laced with some fireworks that Valois plays with fluid grace. My favorite piece, though, is the opening salvo from Paganini, his Grande Sonate, which fully lives up to that composers’ reputation for penning works that really stretch a guitarist. Here, it is the lengthy second movement and its progressively more challenging variations on the rather calm main theme.

It’s also worth noting that Napoli 1810 includes a pair of world premieres from the very prolific Carulli, both of them strong and interesting.

The cover of classical guitarist Pascal Valois' album Napoleonian Guitar Sonatas with abstract art

As for the 2019 Napoleonian Guitar Sonatas album, which we didn’t get around to reviewing last year, it is also a highly compelling collection, especially notable for the the two Antoine de Lhoyer “Sonatas for guitar and violin accompaniment.” Now, I can’t tell you the number of albums I’ve heard where a guitar-violin duo or guitar-cello duo heavily favors the bowed instrument, leaving the guitar with less prominent and often less interesting parts. Well, on these two pieces, Valois and violinist Jacques-André Houle seem to be on about equal footing throughout, trading off on who handles the melodic passages.

I was unfamiliar with the other two composers represented on the album, Louis-Ange Carpentras and Alexandre Alfred Rougeon-Beauclair, but I really like each’s sonata here. The Carpentras has some powerful, dramatic, nearly Beethovenian moments along with clever sections that almost feel like a guitar duet, where parts seem to answer each other. The other is a bit more conventional, but also outstanding.

Both albums are engrossing from beginning to end and I recommend you check them out! If I had to choose one over the other, I’d probably take the Napoleonian Guitar Sonatas, for its expanded musical palette.

Napoli 1810
Grande Sonate pour le guitare, M.S.3 (N. Paganini); Six Andantes pour guitare, op. 320 (Carulli); Sonate pour la guitare, op. 15 (Giuliani); Sonatine pour guitare, op. 59, no.1 (Carulli); Sonate pour la guitare, op. 159, no. 1 (Carulli)

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


Napoleonian Guitar Sonatas
Sonates pour le guitare avec un un violon oblige, op. 17, No. 1  (A. de LHoyer); Sonate brillante, op. 1 (L-A. Carpentras); Sonates pour le guitare avec un un violon oblige, op. 17, no. 2  (A. de LHoyer); Sonates pour le guitare, op. 4, no. 1 (A.A. Rougeon-Beauclair)

The album can be bought or streamed through Amazon and Apple Music, and streamed via Spotify and YouTube.