Recent Album Releases: José Antonio Escobar; Steve Cowan, and Stéphane de Carvalho

José Antonio Escobar's latest album is devoted to the guitar music of Eduardo Sáinz de la Maza

Some weeks we take a peek at recent albums or sheet music releases. Here are three CDs I like that have come into the Classical Guitar office within the past several months.

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You can listen to some of these on various streaming services, but we always encourage you to support the artists by actually buying anything you like! Obviously we cannot research and report every outlet or online business where these albums are sold (Amazon, for instance, has outlets in many different countries/regions, but we generally link to the U.S. version), so check your favorite places that sell CDs and downloads, as well as your favorite streaming sites.  —Blair Jackson

To see links to all of our online album reviews, click here. —Blair Jackson

Eduardo Sáinz de la Maza: Guitar Music
José Antonio Escobar

First, let’s take a moment to once again praise the Naxos label for their unwavering dedication to presenting the full breadth and scope of the classical guitar world, from “recitals” by up-and-coming guitarists to deep-dive series (often stretching over years) in which contemporary guitarists interpret guitar works by a given composer. The label’s taste in projects is impeccable, the guitarists are all first-rate, and the sonics always top notch, as well. Their latest triumph is this single-disc of guitar music by Spanish composer/guitarist Eduardo Sáinz de la Maza (1903–1982). Though somewhat overshadowed by his virtuoso-guitarist brother Regino—who will forever be linked to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, as its dedicatee, the first to play it in public, and the first to record it—Eduardo enjoyed a long and fruitful career, as well (nicely illuminated in Graham Wade’s excellent-as-always album notes), and his standing appears to still be on the rise. This album will certainly help that. It’s an utter joy to listen to, and Chilean guitarist José Antonio Escobar (who currently resides in Spain) is fantastic throughout.

The album starts with two of Sáinz de la Maza’s best-known works: The percolating, rhythmic Habanera and the beautiful and evocative Campanas del alba (“Bells of dawn”; love the tremolo!). Though written in the ’50s and early ’60s respectively, both fall clearly within the lineage of classic Spanish-Romantic works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Also filled with Spanish character, but a bit more modern-sounding, is the wonderful eight-part, 25-minute suite from the late ’60s called Platero y yo (“Platero and I”), which was inspired by a series of prose-poems by Juan Ramón Martinez about a pet donkey and some of the people and creatures Platero and his master (who is telling the story) encounter in their travels together. That’s a terribly short and feeble description of the tale, which is actually surprisingly deep, veering from “El loco” to “La muerte” (no translations needed!)—with many side roads in between. I urge you to look it up online sometime. It’s quite captivating! Martinez wrote 138 poems in the Platero series, eight of which Sáinz de la Maza chose to “illustrate” musically. Graham Wade offers a helpful description of what each section describes. (By the way, this Platero y yo is not to be confused with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s rendering of the story in 28 parts, five of which were recorded by Segovia in the mid-’60s; you can hear all 28 of his on a 2-CD Naxos release performed by French guitarist Catherine Liolios.)

The second half of the album includes three homenajes, including the enchanting (and popular among guitarists) Homenaje a la guitarra (dedicated to brother Regino), the Homenaje a Toulouse-Lautrec (I couldn’t tell you how it relates to the artist, but it’s a nice piece), and Homenaje a Haydn, which somehow manages to evoke both Haydn and Spain simultaneously. The remaining four pieces jump from Bolero (1936) up to Evocación Criolla (“Creole”) in 1978, all of them deeply melodic and steeped in an underlying neo-Romanticism he never seemed to fully abandon.

A marvelous collection from beginning to end!

Habanera; Campanas del alba; Platero y yo: Platero, El Loco, La azotea, Darbón, Paseo, La tortuga, La muerte, A Platero en su tierra; Homenaje a la guitarra; Homenaje a Toulouse Lautrec; Confidencia; Homenaje a Haydn; Bolero; Soñando caminos; Evocación criolla; Laberinto

Escobar’s album can be purchased /streamed through Amazon and iTunes/Apple Music, sampled and bought on Presto Classical, and streamed on Spotify and YouTube.


Arctic Sonata: Gulli Björnsson
Steve Cowan
EMEC Records

Canadian guitarist Steve Cowan has a knack and a passion for modern music, as he showed on his solo debut a few years ago, called Pour Guitare, which featured contemporary works by Canadian guitarists, and by continuing to commission new works. The titular piece of Cowan’s latest, Arctic Sonata, by Icelandic composer Gulli Björnsson, is dedicated to Cowan, who premiered it in 2016; this marks it debut recording. It a wonderful three-movement work, based on two Icelandic sagas that tell the story of the Viking colonization of Greenland and North America in the 11th century. I’m sure I could not have intuited that without Cowan’s helpful liner notes, but it is fun to think of the highly virtuosic work as evoking long boats speeding across the North Atlantic in search of new worlds. The quieter middle movement serves as a nice respite between the propulsive “Voyage” and the exciting and invigorating final section, which depicts a battle between the Vikings and the natives who populated the “new” land. It’s modern, occasionally discordant, but still accessible.

The next several pieces on the album all date from the first half of the 20th century and reflect varying degrees of what I would call early modernism, when writing for the guitar began to drift away from 19th century and earlier classical precursors, and instead embraced more radical early 20th century forms. As the leading guitarist in the world beginning in the mid-1920s, Segovia flirted with overt modernity, and many of the pieces he commissioned or accepted took the classical guitar in new directions that no doubt were startling to some. On this album, Swiss composer Frank Martin’s  early ’30s work for Segovia, Quatre Piéces Bréve, shows some of those modern influences coming to the fore; yet it is interesting to note that another piece here, Darius Milhaud’s Segoviana from 1957, was evidently deemed too abstract for the Maestro. Frankly, I’m not a huge fan of either those works (I do love the “Air” in the Martin piece); more to my taste are Albert Roussel’s Spanish-tinged Segovia, Jacques Ibert’s lovely and mysterious Ariette, Francis Poulenc’s moving Sarabande (written for Ida Presti), Aram Katchaturian’s rich Prelude, and the first three of four short works by Mario Gangi (especially Fiaba). My one disappointment was the Quattro Pezzi by Ennio Morricone, which I found to be grating and charmless. (OK, I probably let my love of his marvelously inventive movie music influence me a little.)

All in all, though, this is a stimulating, provocative, and occasionally beautiful album played with confidence and style. And don’t be surprised when you see Arctic Sonata turning up in other players’ repertoires. It’s a good one!

Arctic Sonata: Voyage, L’Anse aux Meadows, Battle (Björnsson); Segovia, Op. 29 (Roussel); Segoviana, Op. 366 (Milhaud); Ariette (Ibert); Sarabande (Poulenc); Quatre Piéces Bréve (Martin); Estudio I (Guarnieri); Incantevole; Ninna Nanna a Pabu; Fianba; For Charlie Parker (all four by Gangi); Perlude (Katchaturian); Quatro Pezzi (Morricone); Sonatina (Scott)

Cowan’s album can be streamed and purchased through Amazon, iTunes/Apple Music, downloaded from Presto Classical, and streamed on Spotify. Sheet music for the title suite was published by Les Productions d’Oz and is available from Strings By Mail and other outlets.

Stéphane de Carvalho

I really do try to listen to each album that comes my way on its own terms, as a statement by that artist, and I try to appreciate the choices and performances without comparing them to other versions of those pieces I might be familiar with. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. In the case of this generally good album by Stéphane de Carvalho, I unfortunately (for him) went into my initial listening with Jan Depreter’s masterful Villa-Lobos: Complete Works for Guitar Solo, which I’ve listened to a lot in the past few months, still very much in my head. So when this album opened with the Cinq Préludes pour guitare, I was jarred by what I heard as some rushed and uneven passages, and the slightly brittle tone to the guitar during “No. 1”; so different than Depreter’s mellifluous reading. (The version linked to at the bottom, from a few years ago, sounds much better to me.) But then the rest of five sounded fine to me; its warm melodies nicely etched and the more rapid passages sounding reasonably assured.

I have a similar reticence about his interpretation of Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (as arranged by Sérgio Assad): The opening movement, Verano Porteño, sounds off to me, unsure of its insistent tango rhythm, its dissonances amplified and exaggerated. The other movements fare better, but I still feel as though overall it is missing some of the work’s essential flow.

Much better in my view is de Carvalho’s take on Leo Brouwer’s famous Sonata, which powerfully captures that three-movement piece’s many shifts in rhythm, tone, and dynamics, as well as it gorgeous melodic moments. The guitarist also gives a, appropriately lively and spirited reading to the fourth part of Gentil Montaña’s Suite colombiana No. 2 (“Porro”), and acquits himself quite well on Barrios’ La Catedral—a piece that is seemingly irresistible to guitarists since John Williams introduced it to contemporary audiences more than four decades ago. Rounding out the mixed Latin American recital is the jaunty Los Caujaritos by Igancio Figueredo and here the guitarist does a nice job of differentiating the various “voices” in the piece.

Cinq Preludes pour guitare (Villa-Lobos); Sonata (Brouwer); Suite colombiana No. 1 (Montana); Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas: Verano Porteño, Otoño Porteño, Invierno Porteño, Primavera Porteño (Piazzolla, arr. Assad); Los Caujaritos (Figueredo “Indio,” arr. Diaz), La Catedral (Barrios)

The albums is available for download purchase from Amazon, Presto Classical, and iTunes/Apple Music, and can be streamed via Spotify.

And here’s a link to Vimeo clip from a few years ago of Stephane playing Villa-Lobos’ first Prelude: