On its 75th anniversary, three master guitarists reflect on JoaquÍn Rodrigo’s popular masterpiece
To get inside the Concierto de Aranjuez from the player’s perspective, I interviewed three guitarists who have added their unique interpretations to the canon of recorded versions: David Russell’s 1997 take (for Telarc) was cut with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Erich Kunzel; Xuefei Yang’s 2010 rendering (for EMI Classics) had her fronting the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue; and Miloš Karadaglic recorded it (for Deutsche Grammophon) on his 2014 release Aranjuez, playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Do you remember when you first heard Aranjuez and whose version it might have been?
RUSSELL: My grandmother bought an LP of Narciso Yepes playing it, with the Fantasía para un Gentilhombre [Rodrigo’s 1954 guitar concerto, written for Andrés Segovia; it’s often been paired with Aranjuez on albums] on the other side. So I heard it as a small child.
YANG: I probably first heard it when I was teenaged. I can’t remember when or where, but I do know the first time I heard it I was moved, I was touched. It’s one of those pieces that spoke to me the very first time.
KARADAGLIC: Yes, it was by John Williams. I grew up in Montenegro, where we didn’t have access to a huge number of CDs in the ’90s, and John Williams was a big star in classical music, so his CDs made it across the Adriatic from Italy. It was the Sony release. I think that’s kind of in my mind a little of how the concerto should sound in terms of the clarity. I loved it the first time I heard it, but I didn’t play it until many years later.
Do you recall when and where you first played it with an orchestra?
RUSSELL:I don’t actually remember playing it for the first time, but it must have been when I was around 20, finishing my studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
YANG: I was in my late teens. I was quite nervous. I think everyone who plays mostly solo guitar gets nervous before they play with an orchestra—it’s so different. The most important thing, of course, is you have to listen to the orchestra. You can’t just follow the conductor. For example, in the second movement, you can’t just watch the conductor, you have to really listen to make it a chamber ensemble. In a lot of places you have to listen to yourself and follow the conductor to interpret the sounds together. The orchestra actually probably has a harder time hearing you. An orchestra is like a big elephant—the conductor makes a motion and it takes a second for the sound to come out. But the guitar is such a quick instrument—you see the [conductor’s] hand come down and you might be quicker than the orchestra, so you have to take all that into account.
KARADAGLIC: I first played it at the Royal Academy in London in my final year there, with the orchestra of the Royal Academy, and it was one of the scariest experiences of my life! Because it’s one thing to learn all the notes of the Concierto, and another to stand in front of an orchestra—so many players—and be able to play it convincingly. As guitarists, we are trained to play soft, but to play a concerto, something happens in your body and you have to learn how to deal with it. The projection is different, the sound is different, the whole feeling and the direction of the music has to be different, so it’s a big adjustment.
Miloš Karadaglic and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s recording of the Adagio.
I would think it would be challenging to adjust to the dynamics of an orchestra, to play at sufficient volume to still be prominent in the overall blend.
RUSSELL: If the orchestra is good, they can play gentle enough so the guitar is audible. Nowadays, too, there are very good amplification systems, and I often use them to make a better balance with the orchestra.
YANG: I really enjoy playing with an ensemble. I’ve found that a general problem with guitarists playing chamber music is we sometimes tend to play on our own too much, and not play so much with the ensemble. Also, you will play differently. I tend to play louder. For me, it’s just natural. Even if I’m amplified, I will tend to play louder because I’m sitting in front of an orchestra and I feel that I want my sound to be kind of leading—sometimes you need to lead the orchestra, which is hard for guitar.
Even if we use amplification, there is a difference in how you attack the strings. It took me a few years to get used to amplification. At the beginning, when I first started playing in front of a microphone, I didn’t feel the sound was mine anymore. [Laughs] By now I’ve gotten used to it.
The other thing I feel is that when you play a concerto, you almost have to exaggerate everything. Because when we play solo, you can do lots of nuances and people can hear them, but when you play concertos and there are so many musicians, suddenly the nuances are hidden—they don’t come out, so you have do more to make sure people can hear what you’re doing.
David Russell and the Orquestra de Cambra Illa de Menorca perform the Concierto de Aranjuez.
Can you talk about the how you approach the three movements, and especially the Adagio, which allows so much room for expressiveness? Each movement has a distinctive pulse—or more than one—whether it’s established by pizzicato or bowed strings or the double basses. I’m wondering how those affect the guitar’s role in the piece.
RUSSELL: Specifically I like to hear the pulse in the bass line in the slow movement, so I am able to play my rubato, while the general pulse stays constant, except for the very end of each long phrase. A large amount of Rodrigo’s music has a very strong rhythmic impetus, and I think it is important to maintain that.
The second movement of the concerto offers a great variety of possibilities [for personal expression]. That means that each time we hear a different guitarist playing it, we are able to enjoy that player’s personality coming through in the music.
The first and last movement depend much more on the rhythmic vitality of the soloist. All the scale sections in the first movement can be very exciting if the player is confident and strong. The last movement needs to be played with happiness and, again, strong rhythm.
KARADAGLIC: I’m one of those players who never focuses so much on the notes. Because the notes are only the paint, and what you do with those colors becomes the painting. What I feel about the Concierto is, if you forget how technically challenging it is to play, and how thin the texture of the guitar can seem against the texture of the orchestra, and instead focus on the extreme programmatic nature of the piece, and have that in your mind through the whole performance, then the effect is going to be correct.
Because Rodrigo was a blind man, and if you think about someone who doesn’t see, then the other senses have to be so much more sensitive. What he wanted to do with the music was paint a landscape of the gardens and fountains and singing birds of the park [of Aranjuez]. All those rhythm changes, all those accents, and those sparkly moments in the first and the third movements in particular—those are all the sounds of nature and that’s what I always think about when I play it. The moment I focus on the notes, I get away from the sound of nature.
I had a very interesting conversation with Rodrigo’s daughter [Cecilia], because there were a couple of instances where I was asked to play only the second movement, and for that you need permission. She let me do it because I’m doing so much for the piece right now, but I said, “Why are you so reluctant?” And she said, “Because the beauty of the second movement doesn’t come through as intensely and beautifully as when it’s played in the context of the whole piece,” and I think she’s absolutely right. She said, “If I allowed everybody to play only the second movement, I’m afraid the Concierto would stop to exist as a whole very quickly, because then everybody would just want to do the second movement.” I thought that was a fair point to make.
One of the most challenging parts of playing the Concierto is to see the piece as a whole—to have a very clear arc of how you are building, from the very first chord you strum to the very last pizzicato you finish the concerto with.
YANG: I think the most important thing in the first movement [Allego con Spirito] is the rhythm, because it is the most flamenco-infused movement. I think you can’t take it as a classical piece played in the classical way—you need to have a more flamenco feel, which is in the rhythm and the accents and the feel of it. It makes the movement more lively. I think I was influenced by Paco de Lucía in the first movement, but I’ve made it my own now.
With the second movement, I’ve always felt like it was my voice and I was not influenced by other versions I’ve heard. That was the first movement I really felt I owned. When I made the recording, I made a greater effort with the other movements, so in the end I feel like I own all three movements, and I’m really comfortable playing the whole thing. What’s great about the second movement is it’s like a conversation with the orchestra. That’s a lot of fun for me. And the cadenza is so well written! But it’s all well written—the tutti climax!
The third movement [Allegro Gentile] is lively and light. Of the three movements, maybe it’s the least interesting. But then you make it more interesting with contrasts and colors. And it’s fun to play, too.
Why do you think the Concierto has endured so well, becoming more and more popular over time?
RUSSELL: It is an engaging piece, exciting to listen to, well-orchestrated. We have few concertos that can rival the quality of the Aranjuez. None can rival its popularity.
KARADAGLIC: The whole trajectory—the journey with the piece toward those massive chords in the cadenza of the second movement—is extremely programmatic, so you can allow your imagination to take you as far as you wish. I never like to think about music practically. I think it’s very helpful to just allow it to take you to the place where you want to go at the time you perform it; or if you’re in the audience, when you hear it. All those rubatos and all those tension-and-release moments, all those moments of passion and joy and rhythm—you can find just about every human emotion in that concerto, and this is the reason it connects on such a broad level with so many people around the world.
YANG: It’s great music. Lots of times you think that something so popular might be a cliché, but it’s wonderful music. That’s why it’s famous! It also has had some luck being used in movies and on Miles Davis’ hit album.
Among all the guitar concertos we have, it’s still the best. Fantasía [para un Gentilhombre] is a good piece, too, but it is lighter. It’s all relative. I like to say we don’t need a steak every time. We can have variety. But I wish we had more great concertos.
Xuefei Yang and the Barcelona Symphony perform Concierto de Aranjuez.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.