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CD Review

Modern Guitar Concertos

  • Jean Françaix: Guitar Concerto
  • Manuel Ponce: Concierto del Sur
  • Joaquín Rodrigo: Fantasía para un Gentilhombre
Eliot Fisk, guitar
Philharmonia Virtuosi/Richard Kapp
Ess.a.y Recordings CD1088 70:36
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Two classics and an oddity.

The composers of Spain and Latin America have built the strongest modern pillars of classical guitar music, so seeing works by the Spaniard Rodrigo and the Mexican Ponce doesn't surprise me. Seeing a French concerto, however, made me look twice, just to be sure.

Jean Françaix, however, has written several works that use guitar. At heart, he's a miniaturist. He tends to get length by putting together short movements (this concerto has five). As a composer, he has a strong point of view, deriving from the lighter works of Satie, Les Six, and the short Stravinsky scores composed around the end of World War I. I should mention, however, that his influences aren't so stylistically or expressively constrained. Stravinsky may have written the Four Russian Songs and Ragtime, but he also came up with Oedipus Rex. Poulenc composed both Rapsodie negre and the organ concerto. If Françaix has a "big piece," I don't know it. I think of him as a musical toymaker of exquisite clockwork scores.

Even though French composers haven't made a big splash in guitar literature (outside of transcriptions by other hands), Françaix has worked the guitar into several of his pieces. The modesty and intimacy of the instrument appeal to him and chime well with his musical outlook. Writing a guitar concerto has its pitfalls. As good post-Romantics, we have an heroic idea of the concerto soloist. On the other hand, the modern symphony orchestra easily drowns out an unamplified guitar. Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, probably the most popular in the repertory, essentially fools the ear. The orchestra sounds bigger than the number of instruments actually playing, and Rodrigo creates an intricate choreography between mass and solo that allows the guitarist not only to cut through, but to apparently ride the crest of a powerful orchestral wave. Françaix has never been interested in the grand soaring climax, so the fact that he doesn't go Rodrigo's route should surprise no one. He pits the guitar against a small string ensemble. If there are more than ten instruments in the orchestra, I'd be amazed. Formally, the concerto proceeds on dance and song or on stripped-down classical structures – sonatina vs. sonata, rondino vs. rondo, eg – but also with a great deal of sophistication. We get little foxtrots, similar to those in Poulenc's Les Biches, waltzes, gigues, boulevardier saunters down the street. Even so, the last movement rondino features two subjects, both thematically related, and so displays an architectural sophistication despite its short length. The counterpoint demands a cruel precision from performers. Rhythms must be razor-sharp, and the clear textures Françaix achieves give players no room to hide. Françaix's music may sound naïve, but that misleads. The model here is Haydn.

The Ponce concerto, on the other hand, pretty much meets our expectations for musical Iberianism. It sounds Spanish as all get-out, even though Ponce hailed from Mexico. The music is caught somewhere before real Modernism – neither as Cubist as Chavez nor as Stravinskian as Revueltas. It's a purely late-Romantic piece, without the frills of, say, Granados. The orchestra expands a bit from the Françaix to include single winds, but it remains a chamber ensemble. Ponce separates his winds and strings to an unusual extent. Even though the concerto peaks higher than the Françaix, it's still fairly modest in its ambition. It does everything it sets out to do. I like it. However, it's hard as hell to write about. There's no real hook in it. Nevertheless, I find it very attractive, possibly because I love the Spanish idiom.

Rodrigo's Fantasía para un Gentilhombre long ago entered the classical guitarist's standard repertory. The folks who run down this piece and Rodrigo in general because he's not as good as Bartók or Falla seem to me to miss the point. Rodrigo obviously derives from late Falla – a work like El Retablo de Maese Pedro, for example. Yet, at his best, Rodrigo has his own imaginative vein that transforms his materials and his style into something other than Falla's. His music evokes medieval and Renaissance Spain, as well as the height of Jewish culture in Spain. I don't know whether he's conscious of the last, but it shows up nevertheless. In the Fantasia, Rodrigo uses themes from the Spanish lutenist Gaspar Sanz. Structurally, as the word "fantasia" implies, the piece proceeds loosely, borne out by movement titles like "Villano y Ricercar" and "Espanoleta y Fanfare de la Cabaleria de Napoles." Yet it somehow manages to hang together. Rodrigo brings back themes from previous move ments periodically. In a way, his method reminds me of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, with an abundance of first-class melodic invention overriding any reasonable objection to the architecture. His orchestration is more varied than either Ponce's or Françaix's, with bright, piercing colors, and yet you always hear the guitar. Most of the music advances antiphonally, with guitar and orchestra in a kind of courtly conversation.

Eliot Fisk has always been a "go-for-broke" performer – a high-wire act. When he succeeds, which is most of the time, you get incredible fire from him. All the performances here come from live concerts. This works to the detriment of the Françaix, which needs a precise fit between parts. Actually, I've never heard a successful live performance of Françaix's orchestral music for exactly that reason. You can get away with a lot of slop in Beethoven and Brahms, even in Mozart, but not in Françaix. Still, the work itself is interesting enough to recommend. You probably wouldn't get the CD for the Rodrigo. It's a good account, but you can do better. The most successful reading on the CD is the Ponce. The collaboration between Fisk and Kapp's Philharmonia Virtuosi is warm and lively. They relate as equals, although the guitar has the usual soloistic prominence we expect in a concerto. The CD includes an encore track of the last movement, and the sparks fly even higher than in the previous play just minutes before. Apparently, Fisk suggested this to Kapp on the spur of the moment. It's precisely the sort of gamble Fisk likes to take and it pays off. The musicians are no longer worried, even a little bit, about being careful. They just take the bit between their teeth and *play*.

Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz