Andrés Segovia was a great guitarist, one of the best ever, and he was also a man of good taste. Mostly. He had a habit of picking out interesting composers, commissioning high-quality pieces, and then performing them once or never. Roberto Moronn Pérez is trawling through the Segovia collection and presenting the highlights in themed recitals. From the hundreds of commissioned works, Pérez has selected about fifty to record, broken down thematically by ethnic origin. Here we’ll consider the Spanish and French albums.
The booklet to the Spanish
album complains that Segovia had a habit of playing only some of the commissions he received, leaving the others to collect dust. Neither booklet-writer nor guitarist can hear a major difference in quality; nor can I. I do though have a rival theory: there just wasn’t enough time to play all of this stuff and still have room in recital for earlier guitar music. Segovia had bit off more than he could chew.
We have all profited from his ambition, though. This music is mostly fantastic. The Spanish album starts with four works by Vicente Arregui, an almost totally unknown name who turned to guitar music in the 1920s but carried on the colourful romantic tradition of Albéniz. His music is tuneful and unmistakably Spanish. Jaume Pahissa, who moved to Argentina in his maturity, is represented by a sheaf of pieces Segovia barely knew about at all. They’re all among the catchiest works presented on the CD. Diálogo
is the best, and maybe the most radio-ready track on the album, a simple, plain-spoken tune of aching prettiness.
Gaspar Cassadó is more famous as a cellist and the composer of Pablo Casals’ favourite encore. He apparently dabbled in guitar for a while, and though he didn’t play it for long, wrote some good pieces. The Catalanesca
is a little cheery, a little self-serious; the Canción de Leonardo
is an elegy for his deceased son. The others are, to me, very Spanish in sound but not very distinctive.
The two best pieces on the album are by the two most famous composers: Federico Mompou and Padre Donostia
. The monk’s work, Errimina
, is a seductive fantasy, based on a repeated bass figure, spanning cultures and maybe continents. Mompou provides the encore, a dance livelier than almost all his piano music, though still with the same polish and elegance.
Next we have the French
(and a Belgian
) album. When I first looked at this, I thought, “Wow, I’ve never heard of any of these composers!” but it turns out that all of them are trivia answers of some kind. Henri Collet
was friends with Albéniz, Granados, and Falla; Raoul Laparra studied with Massenet, and Pierre de Breville
studied with Franck. Pierre-Octave Ferroud was decapitated in a car crash in his thirties, depriving the world of an interesting composer whose first symphony
was much-liked by Prokofiev. Ferroud’s death inspired his friend Francis Poulenc to write Litanies à la Vierge Noire
In other words, a lot of these composers are surprisingly good. Henri Martelli’s Four Pieces
is a spectacular little suite, paying homage to baroque forms. In fact, Martelli’s nostalgia sometimes digs even deeper: the slow movement sounds like something an Italian would write for lute in the early 1600s. The suite is just ten minutes in total, and Pérez is right to call it “a real guitar masterwork”.
Not every composer was looking back in neo-baroque or neo-classical forms. Raymond Petit, Raoul Laparra, and Henri Collet turn south for inspiration, Collet’s Briviesca
a borderline Spanish work that was close to rewritten by his editor after Segovia pronounced it unplayable. The booklet does not say, but I assume Pérez recorded the second version. Laparra’s “Pueblo castellano” is especially atmospheric and enjoyable, bringing to mind Albéniz.
Raymond Moulaert, the album’s token Belgian, contributes the biggest piece, a 19-minute Suite
. The first movement takes a couple minutes to get going, because it starts with a classic guitar flourish, then proceeds with a few more flourishes. This continues until you think the music can’t possibly get more grandiose. The piece is capable of intimacy, too, and also a little darkness, like the finale’s near-quotes of Dies irae
and abrupt ending.
Ferroud’s piece is the most modern; you might think of Roussel or Poulenc. Pérez hears Stravinsky and jazz — jazz most obviously in the syncopated rhythms of the middle section, and wonders if “Segovia was not the right recipient for this piece”. Segovia was absolutely the right recipient of Ida Presti’s work, or at least I hope he was, because she called it Segovia
. It’s more or less perfect: virtuosic, with a long-breathed melody spun over challenging accompaniment. It’s like a Chopin nocturne in mood, technique, and formal perfection.
Roberto Moronn Pérez never puts a foot wrong in his admirable recitals, and occasionally you wonder if mediocre material is being really sold by his excellent delivery. Not so with especially great discoveries by the likes of Pahissa, Donostia, Presti and Martelli. Pérez deserves great credit for unearthing much of this music. The recorded sound is close but not aggressively so, and sometimes on the Spanish album there is a splashy reverb that is not to my taste. I do have one complaint about Reference Recordings’ work here: the booklet essays in both CDs proceed in a totally random order, so you have to flip back and forth to read about the next track.
What an excellent series this is proving to be.
Vicente ARREGUI (1871-1925)
Canción lejana [5:26]
Tres piezas líricas [14:45]
Pedro SANJUÁN (1886-1976)
Una leyenda [5:22]
Gaspar CASSADÓ (1897-1966)
Canción de Leonardo [3:30]
Sardana Chigiana [4:55]
Preámbulo y Sardana [6:31]
Leyenda Catalana [5:29]
Padre DONOSTIA (1886-1956)
Jaume PAHISSA (1880-1969)
Canco en el mar [3:39]
Tres temas de recuerdos [8:45]
Federico MOMPOU (1893-1987)
Canción y Danza [3:49]
Raymond PETIT (1893-1976)
Henri MARTELLI (1895-1980)
Quatre Pièces [9:58]
Pierre de BREVILLE (1861-1949)
Henri COLLET (1885-1951)
Raymond MOULAERT (1875-1962)
Raoul LAPARRA (1876-1943)
Pierre-Octave FERROUD (1900-1936)
Ida PRESTI (1924-1967)