Recent Albums by Otto Tolonen, Duo Tenebroso, and Kevin J. Cope
Some weeks we take a peek at recent albums or sheet music releases. Here are three of the CDs that have come into the Classical Guitar office recently.
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Some of the albums we talk about online will be reviewed in the magazine, some not. But we want to at least mention most of them here. You can listen to some of these on various of 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, so check your favorite places that sell CDs and downloads!
To see links to our previous album listings/reviews, click here.
Retratos Otto Tolonen
I have to admit to a certain amount of trepidation before I saw Finnish guitarist Otto Tolonen play at GFA in 2017. Quite honestly, I was not fond of his last album, Royal Winter Music, which consisted in its entirety of his versions of two mammoth late 20th century works, Henze’s Royal Winter Music and Britten’s Nocturnal After John Dowland, both originally popularized by Julian Bream. Oh, there was surely nothing wrong with Tolonen’s playing; back then I simply did not like either of those pieces. A lot of it surely was a matter of exposure. My inexperienced, untrained ear/brain had tremendous difficulty appreciating such abstract, dissonant, difficult music. Since then, repeated listening to the Nocturnal, both in concert and CD (including Tolonen’s), has led me to seriously re-evaluate my view of that piece; finally, I “get it.” I’m still wrestling with Royal Winter Music; for me it’s a tougher slog.
Still, when I saw Tolonen perform at GFA and he opened with two movements from Royal Winter Music, I enjoyed seeing him tame those parts of that work, and then, as I wrote at the time, I was totally won over by “the ‘old school’ classical of Regondi’s Rêverie–Nocturne, which includes a lot of serious tremolo work (perfectly executed) that sounded at once Spanish and Italian.
“Then it was back to the modern with a bizarre piece by the contemporary Italian composer Alvaro Company, called Las Seis Cuerdas (The Six Strings), written in 1963. Tolonen warned that the piece was ‘extremely experimental’ and explained that Company included detailed notation on the angle of the nail in some parts, the exact spots to hit the guitar in some percussive passages so exactly the right timbre is produced, where on the strings certain notes should be plucked, etc. The seven short movements definitely delivered the promised experimentation, and it was engrossing in its oddness. Again, Tolonen was so committed to the piece, I was able to transcend my conservative aesthetics and just go with it completely.”
Well, lo and behond, the Regondi and the Company are both on Tolonen’s new Recital CD. I still love the Regondi, but I have not really warmed to the Company; watching him play it at close range live evidently gave me an appreciation for the work that hasn’t translated for me in an audio recording. Each of the short sections feels like an incomplete sketch to me, and no amount of technical pyrotechnics—using a slide of some sort, percussive tapping, “prepared guitar” intrusions, and such—pull it all together for me.
What does work well for me (aside from the wonderful Regondi) is splitting Piazzolla’s Cuatro estaciones (arranged by Sérgio Assad) into its four component parts and spreading them throughout the album, opening with Primavera Porteña, putting Verano after the Regondi, Otoño after the Company (a surprisingly natural juxtaposition), and dropping Invierno right before the beautiful closing number, Ariel Ramirez’s Alfonsina y el Mar. It’s an interesting way to present Piazzolla’s piece; I feel it actually adds to its overall power to see each turn up in different contexts.
I’m going to go back and try the Company again. I want to like it. I do like Tolonen and appreciate his adventurous spirit. So I’m willing to believe he’s right and I’m probably wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time; won’t be the last.
Primavera Porteña (Piazzolla, arr. Assad); Nocturne—Reverie (Regondi); Verano Porteño (Piazzolla, arr. Assad); Las Seis Cuerdas (A. Company); Otoño Porteño (Piazzolla, arr. Assad); Due Canzoni Lidie (D’Angelo); Invierno Porteño (Piazzolla, arr. Assad); Alfonsina y el Mar (A. Ramirez)
Portland, Oregon (USA)–based Duo Tenebroso is Kristen Waligora and David Franzen, and their name, according to their website bio “is inspired by the painting style of Tenebrism which employs extreme contrasts of dark and light, with darkness being the predominant feature to allow a spotlight on the subject. In much the same way, Duo Tenebroso strives to use the language of music to illuminate the spirit.” That was a new word for me so I looked it up and was greeted by the works by such painters as Caravaggio, Tintoretto, and George de la Tour, all masters of what I have always thought of as chiaroscuro, but perhaps there’s some nuance there. Anyway, cool name, cool concept.
I’m not exactly sure how the name ties in with the music on this first album by the duo, but it’s a really well-made and well-played disc with lots of stylistic variety, perhaps starting on the lighter side and moving more to darker shadings as the recital progresses. With the exception of the Allegro from Scarlatti’s K87 Sonata, Vivaldi’s L’estro Armonico from his Concerto in A Op. 3, No. 6 (more common in the guitar world as a quartet piece, but also recorded as a guitar concerto by Angel Romero), and Assad’s Jobiniana No. 1, this was all new music to me. It opens with the Prologio for a piece by Spanish composer Victor Carbajo (b.1970) originally written for string quintet and quite miraculously brought down to two guitars by Franzen—the declarative opening, which sounds almost Beethovenian in the original, translating potently before it veers into a brightly melodic section in which the upper-register guitars sound almost harp-like. More Carbajo follows, this time a two-guitar transcription of a piano piece called La Humana Primavera, in which each of the five short sections has a different character, from a waltz, to a Baroque-ish movement (with keyboard-like flourishes), a lonely-sounding ballad, a Romantic excursion, and a final, more curious modern thought. It’s a fine piece, and at around 12-1/2 minutes in duration, would make an excellent concert piece for a strong duo.
Following the aforementioned Vivaldi and Scarlatti, both delightful and well-achieved, we jump into Steve Reich’s Nagoya Guitars, which is, well, “Reichian” in all that implies: marked by repeating patterns, interwoven rhythmic statements, and with its own internal momentum. I like Reich in general, though I am, quite honestly, also somewhat in the camp of “a little bit goes a long way”; at under five minutes this is a perfect dose. After Assad’s Jobiniana No. 1, which always strikes me as surprisingly neo-Romantic, the album concludes with a world premiere recording of La Danza Grotesque by Oregon guitarist and composer Alexander Liss. Far from “grotesque” (in the album notes, Liss explains he is using the word differently here), it is perhaps a little darker than most of what precedes it—it possesses a relentless, somewhat discomfiting energy—but also graceful melodic moments and what sounds like, to these ears, some pleasing American folk influences.
Antígona: Prologo (V. Carbajo); La Humana Primavera (V. Carbajo); Concerto in A Op. 3 No.6: Allegro (Vivaldi); Sonata K.87 (Scarlatti); Nagoya Guitars (Reich); Danse de Travers I (Satie); Jobiniana No. 1 (Assad)
Because this is such an interesting album, it’s a bit frustrating to report that I can find no links to stream it, and only one to buy it: through the online Classic Guitar Shop (linked to the duo’s site), where you’ll also find audio for two parts of La Humana Primavera, and a clip from La Danza Grotesque. The video below has nothing to do with the album, but at least shows how good Duo Tenebroso is!
Destination Unknown: Original Compositions/Solo Guitar Vol. 1 Kevin J. Cope Viduus Records
Kevin J. Cope is a composer, guitarist, teacher, and current president of the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society, and while the guitar is his main instrument, he has also written for all sorts of different instrumental configurations, from horn octet to solo piano, solo clarinet, soprano voice and flute, an ensemble of flute, viola, viola da gamba, violincello and harpsichord, and more. He has a number of interesting influences, as well, from Arabian scales to serial music, free atonal music, Latin, even heavy metal rock (which was a big part of his background). You might hear snatches of most of those styles on this introspective and moody solo guitar disc of his original compositions (though I can’t say I hear any metal influence). The most obvious of the flavors is the exotically piquant Arabian textures that find their way into several pieces. And though there are certainly nods to less conventional modern strains, and a certain dark solemnity that infuses much of this, it still ultimately feels very accessible, and a few pieces—Solstices, the elegy Twilight at the Dawn (watch below) and various parts of Suite No. 1, for example—show Cope’s gift for attractive melodic writing. I also really like the development in the piece called Kuitra, which opens with a calm, waltz-like figure, twists into a more dissonant realm briefly, then goes into a more Spanish/Latin-sounding section, before heading back to the modified waltz. All in all, it’s a fascinating and stimulating debut that gets better and better the more you listen to it.
I should also note that the music for the spare and mysterious lead-off track on the album, Pneuma, appears in the Fall 2018 issue of Classical Guitar magazine in our Music to Play column, so you can try to play it yourself. Cope’s website also contains music for other pieces of his, if you’re interested.
Pneuma; Suite No, 1; Solstices; Ithnaan Maqamat; Ayoub; Kuitra; Five Studies; Quatre Piéces Bréve; Twilight at the Dawn