Sharon Isbin and Isabel Leonard’s ‘Alma Española’ is Overflowing with Iberian Spirit

sharon isbin alma espanola classical guitar spanish
From the Winter 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY BLAIR JACKSON

Sharon Isbin and Argentinian American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s enchanting recent album Alma Española is, according to the guitarist, the first devoted to Spanish “art song” since Narciso Yepes and Castilian mezzo Teresa Berganza put out their Canciones Populares Españolas record on Deutsche Grammophon 40 years ago. That LP consisted of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 13 Canciones española antiguas and Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas. Those two suites form the backbone of the release by Isbin and Leonard—with new arrangements by Isbin on the Garcia Lorca set (“It was really important for me to expand on the guitar parts in a way that had not been done before,” she says)—but there is also quite a lot more: A splendid version of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Aranjuez ma pensée (with touching and evocative lyrics by Rodrigo’s wife, Victoria Kamhi); Agustín Lara’s lovely Granada; a pair of Isbin adaptations of works by Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge; and two splendid solo showcases for Isbin: Granados’ Danza española No. 5 and Tárrega’s Capricho árabe.

The blend of Isbin’s guitar and Leonard’s voice is both powerful and exquisite, and listeners who take the time to really delve into the lyrics of the songs—which range from impressionistic scenes and small life moments to dramatic stories about love and death (by bull!)—will be richly rewarded. (The accompanying booklet offers both the Spanish lyrics and English translations.) The recording, produced by David Frost and recorded by Tim Martyn and Bryan Losch, is exemplary. It’s a wonderful project in every respect.

I caught up with Sharon Isbin by phone in late July, when she was in Colorado playing at the Aspen Music Festival. We talked about the new album.

CLASSICAL GUITAR: What was the initial inspiration for this project? Have you two known each other for many years?

SHARON ISBIN: No, it’s fairly recent. This was Isabel’s idea back in 2013. I had not yet met her, but we have the same management—Columbia Artist Management in New York—and she had told her manager that she’d like to perform with me. Because she is of Argentinian background, Spanish is a native language for her, and this kind of music is idiomatic because it was inspired by the guitar, even if it wasn’t written for it. If you look at the songs by Manuel de Falla—which Isabel has performed with piano—it makes sense to play them on guitar because that is the instrument Falla idealized when he wrote the music. And so many of the Spanish folk songs are influenced by flamenco, so it’s in a way “coming home” to perform them with guitar. In fact, Isabel prefers the Falla Siete canciones populares this way, now that she’s experienced it.

After she suggested the idea, I heard her in concert and immediately thought it would be a wonderful collaboration. She’s an outstanding singer and this is exactly the kind of music I enjoy doing. As we researched the songs by García Lorca, it became clear I would have to make new arrangements of each, because the published versions were lacking something. It became a collaborative process where we would rehearse and discuss the meaning of the lyrics and the kind of characterization and storytelling in the songs, so the guitar could be very much a part of that. If, for example, something was loud and raucous in its spirit, or instead delicate, I would have to find a way to present that. In one of the Garcia Lorca songs, a young man sets out to find a bride but instead finds his long-lost sister. Isabel suggested I play the final verse an octave higher to imitate the sister’s voice, an idea that paints the image of the character and the song’s dramatic outcome.

Everything we did together was not only carefully thought out in rehearsal, but also road-tested in concert.

CG: In writing the arrangements, were there any special considerations that came into play knowing that you would be accompanying a mezzo-soprano?

ISBIN: Once we decided on the actual repertoire, except for the Falla songs, which were scored for mezzo, we had to experiment with keys for each song to determine what would work. Isabel suggested the Montsalvatge,
which I had never done before, so I arranged two of the five that would sound idiomatic on guitar.


CG: When it says you “revised” the de Falla canciones, what does that mean?

ISBIN: Comparing the original keyboard version with the published Pujol/Llobet version, there were some things that were missing or wrong which I corrected to be more faithful to the original.

CG: I like the way you break up the Garcia Lorca with the Granados. It provides a nice and natural interlude.

ISBIN: We actually got that idea from our concert programs, where we decided to break up the sets with guitar solos. It seemed a perfect way to approach the recording, too. The guitar solos I selected share similar backgrounds and sensibilities with the songs.

CG: I was really struck by Aranjuez ma pensée; it’s so beautiful. Of course I know the adagio (second movement) from the Concierto de Aranjuez, but this is such a lovely extrapolation. I have to admit that a lot of times when I hear lyrics put to famous classical instrumental pieces after the fact I don’t care for it.

ISBIN: In this case, Rodrigo’s wife, Victoria Kamhi, composed the lyrics in 1988. It was particularly poignant, because while Rodrigo was in the midst of writing the Concierto de Aranjuez, she miscarried what would have been their first child. Not only were they mourning that tremendous loss, but she became quite ill. Rodrigo would come back every night from visiting her in the hospital, and to console himself, would play the beautiful “Adagio” theme at the piano. She recovered and they went on to have many decades together. I met them at their home in Madrid in 1979, and we shared a 20-year friendship that was very special to me.

CG: I love that in that arrangement you open with the regular guitar part but then Isabel sings the cor anglais melody.

ISBIN: Yes, it’s quite beautiful. Rodrigo’s daughter Cecilia asked me to make the first recording of the song, which I did on an album with Susanne Mentzer called Wayfaring Stranger [1998]. It’s a song that is truly beloved by both performers and audiences.

sharon isbin alma espanola classical guitar spanish close up2
Leonard and Isbin, J. HENRY FAIR PHOTO

CG: What role did producer David Frost play in these recording sessions?

ISBIN: As producer, he was very involved in the four days of recordings, making important suggestions and critiques. He played a significant role also in post-production. I was really amazed by and in awe of how he did this on our first two albums together, Journey to the New World [2009] and Guitar Passions [2011]. He collaborates often with engineer Tim Martyn, so together they create the sound, and Tim is a magician when it comes to setting up mics and using the hall’s natural acoustics.

We recorded in the concert hall at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, which allowed us to capture the natural bloom, warmth, and dynamic range of Isabel’s voice along with the resonance of the guitar. In general, it’s important to honor the sound of each performer, and by then David and Tim knew mine, so it was a matter of bringing that into focus with Isabel’s. In post-production mixing, you can adjust balances even more; it’s a very delicate process. We were not in separate rooms and there were no baffles. It’s a very organic way of recording, as if we were live in concert—with eye contact while I hear her breathing, which is part of the phrasing. All of that is a wonderful way to be able to approach recording, if you have that luxury.

CG: In the liner notes, Allan Kozinn remarks that Spanish music is part of the DNA of every classical guitarist, and certainly you’ve played countless Spanish guitar pieces through the years; but you’ve also played Bach and modern composers, many pieces written for you, and so forth. Was it easy for you to get back into a Spanish mindset for a project like this?

ISBIN: Yes. I’ve had many years of playing Spanish music, visiting Spain, even playing for the Gypsies in the Alhambra, which was an amazing experience.

This was after the Queen Sofia competition in Madrid [in 1979], when I traveled to Granada to view the magnificent palace and gardens of the Alhambra. I also wanted to listen to flamenco guitarists in the caves where they played [flamenco caves are actual caves historically used as homes, which have been converted to nightclubs], so I followed my ear to an amazing player. And when he finished the piece, which was extraordinary, he handed me the guitar and said in Spanish, “You play now.”  I said, “No, I’m here to hear you.” He said, “I can tell you’re a guitarist!” By the way I listened, I guess. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. So I began to play Spanish music, including pieces by Granados, Tárrega, and Albéniz, and within a few minutes the room filled with Gypsies. They had me captive for the next hour, asking me to play piece after piece. It was one of the most magical, memorable experiences, and it infused the music permanently with their spirit.

Also, in this case [Alma Española], some years back at a festival in Europe, I had the pleasure of reading through the Falla songs with one of the greatest Spanish singers, Victoria de los Angeles. I also studied the recording of 12 songs that Garcia Lorca performed as pianist with the Argentinian singer La Argentinita [Encarnación López Júlvez] in the early 1930s, just a few years before he was executed by Franco’s fascists. Since he never wrote down his arrangements of these songs, it is fortunate that his recording survived.

CG: Are there any plans for you and Isabel to tour behind the album?

ISBIN: We’ve performed a couple of dozen concerts together over the past three years, including sold-out recitals at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Carnegie and Chicago’s Harris Theater actually co-commissioned a new work for us by Richard Danielpour, which we premiered for the Harris Theater’s 125th anniversary last year.  We look forward to playing together again this summer and for many seasons after!