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CD Review

Ricardo Cobo

Walking on the Water

  • Roland Dyens:
  • Hommage à Villa-Lôbos
  • L. B. Story (To Leonard Bernstein & Leo Brouwer)
  • Maximo Diego Pujol: Elegía por la Muerte de un Tanguero (Homenaje a Ástor Piazzolla)
  • Eduardo Sainz de la Maza: Homenaje a Toulouse-Lautrec
  • Marco Pereira: Pieces Brésiliennes
  • John Major: Burning Circle (To Keith Jarrett & R. Colavito)
  • Larry Cooperman: Walking on the Water (Homage to Jerzy Kosinsky)
Ricardo Cobo, guitar
ESS.A.Y CD1073 50:47
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Stunning. Music by virtuosos for virtuosos.

During the Sixties, my sister saved up her pennies to buy a serious guitar, so I had the opportunity to hear a beginning student close up. Recently, she's gone back to playing after a good number of years and after finding out her guitar is now worth a small car. Anyway, I love the sound of the acoustic guitar, due in part to the folk-music craze of my youth, in part to the artistry of Julian Bream and the Romeros.

The guitar – at least if the player picks, rather than strums – always struck me as temperamental an instrument as the french horn, even under the hands of a decent executant. The little inadvertent scoops and slides made by fingers riding the strings too closely on the fretboard as they move from note to note or the sharp little thud of a note picked but not sounded or the accidental buzz of a note due to God knows what are just the usual pitfalls. It's an instrument that loves to point out its owner's deficiencies. Furthermore, many classical players seem to lose rhythm in harder passages, as well as clarity. Seldom do you find a player able to consistently deliver not only notes, but music.

Cobo plays so well, he tends to overshadow the music, and the music is strong in itself, as well as well-written for the guitar. Each composer on the program is a virtuoso guitar player in his own right, so one experiences the concert as one might a display piece by Liszt – where the performer's dazzling technique becomes an integral part of one's enjoyment. If there's a technically-better guitarist than Cobo, I don't know who. Furthermore, with perhaps the exception of Sainz de la Maza's Homenaje a Toulouse-Lautrec, a lovely fin-de-siècle waltz, all of these works pose considerable interpretive challenges. The opening to Dyens' Villa-Lôbos homage is a toccata featuring AK47-rapid repeated notes. Dyens designed the opening not only to impress, but to get the listener's jaw to drop, and Cobo unquestionably achieves the effect. The second movement emphasizes colors and "orchestration," as if the guitar were a small Brazilian combo doing a set in a club. The guitar sets up calls-and-responses with itself, and Cobo creates the illusion of different "groups" handling each one. The third movement, an aria of the type of the famous one in Villa-Lôbos's Bachianas Brasileiras #5. The finale is a blazing samba, with all sorts of cross-rhythms and various textures. Cobo plays everything preternaturally cleanly and generates great rhythmic excitement throughout.

Pujol's multi-movement Elegía for Piazzolla is, paradoxically, the most Villa-Lôbos-like guitar music on the CD, particularly the "Melancolía" second movement, a slow tune accompanied by a South-American syncopation. Pereira's Pieces Brésiliennes evoke the energy of Brazilian jazz. The effect is that of hearing hard bop in Rio. Again, Cobo produces a huge range of colors on his instrument – nails, no nails, various half stops on the frets – and he uses them to illuminate the structure of the pieces.

Dyens' neatly-named L. B. Story quotes material from Cuban guitarist-composer Leo Brouwer and from Leonard Bernstein (the opening Jets song in West Side Story). Just describing it sounds like shreds and patches, but Dyens writes tight. The piece is also unusual in that it doesn't resort to a Spanish or South American idiom. It's a little Modernist gem.

John Major (not the Tory former prime minister) dedicates Burning Circle to Keith Jarrett and "R. Colavito." I assume that's Rocky Colavito, power-hitter wannabe who played for the Cleveland Indians in the Fifties and Sixties and later (briefly) for the Yankees. On the other hand, I have no idea why anyone would want to devote a piece to Rocky, a flashy but not particularly solid player. At any rate, Major's score poses the greatest interpretive challenge on the disc, since it's the most diffuse. It has the meanders (and occasionally dithers) like a Keith Jarrett solo. However, it's also the most contrapuntally stunning on the disc. If you think about it, most guitar pieces fall into the category of melody line plus accompaniment, although the accompaniment often implies more than it actually states. A composer gets a guitar to do counterpoint only through extreme brilliance and a profound understanding of the instrument: Bach and Dowland come to mind. Major sets up three independent ideas and gets them going simultaneously. The guitar writing is ingenious and difficult as a bear. Again, Cobo plays as if the challenges didn't exist. How he gets through the piece without twisting his fingers up, I don't know. One hears music, rather than difficulty.

Larry Cooperman spearheads the New Millenium movement of music written for guitar. I'm not quite clear on the movement's aims, but from it has come an expansion of technique and musical idiom, without denying the guitar's inner nature. All the composers on the CD play guitar as well, and more than passably. All of them have written works that seem to call for the Jimi Hendrix of the classical guitar. One can easily imagine them getting ideas from their time playing. Cooperman's Walking on the Water comes from Kosinski's Being There (I haven't read the book, but I saw the movie). The piece strikes me as a modern equivalent of a Dowland fantasia. It forces the player through a gantlet of techniques, including harmonics and faux harmonics, various ingenious strum patterns, and so on. Cobo even produces different colors from his instrument simultaneously – perhaps a trick on the ear. Its difficulties must be fiendish, because Cobo makes more noise on the frets than in any other cut – which puts him down a notch to a merely outstanding virtuoso rather than someone who, guitaristically speaking, indeed walks on water. If you can't tell by now, I consider this one of most the outstanding guitar discs I've ever heard. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz