Sunday, June 26, 2011

Playing the Aranjuez

There are several pieces that every young classical guitarist wants to learn: something by Bach, the Bourree in E minor, perhaps or the Chaconne in D minor. Asturias (Leyenda) by Isaac Albeniz and the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo. For many, these are achievable goals, though the Chaconne is going to be a challenge. Few guitarists who are not established professionals ever learn the Aranjuez, however. It is a wonderful piece, one of the most popular concertos of the 20th century. As some have said, it sounds exactly like what a Spanish guitar concerto should sound like.

I learned it in the 80s. It wasn't the first concerto I learned, I think that was one by Karl Kohaut, originally for baroque lute. Then, perhaps, the Vivaldi Concerto in D. For my junior recital I played the lovely concerto by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and for my senior, the Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, also by Rodrigo. So I thought I was ready for the Aranjuez. But it is considerably more difficult, as I discovered. There are two ways to make it easier. The first, which nearly everyone takes, is to simply change the notes, leaving some out, transposing certain chords an octave lower and thinning out the texture when necessary. This was the first path I took. Some of this is necessary as Rodrigo, while writing fantastic music for guitar, also tended to write music that does not quite fit on guitar. The other path is to seek solutions that enable you to play virtually every note as Rodrigo wrote them. Very few guitarists take this path, but among them are Pepe and Angel Romero. Luckily, Angel edited a new edition of the concerto (I first learned from the old one) that has fingerings that solve most of the problems. After playing a few times with orchestra, I still didn't feel in command of the piece so one summer I went to Salzburg, Austria where Pepe Romero used to give a month-long master class. My main purpose was simply to work through the piece with him. Fantastic experience. He is a wonderful teacher and I came away with a far better command of the piece and of technique in general. This is Pepe Romero and myself at the Hochschule fur Musik "Mozarteum" in Salzburg in 1988:

I also learned some interesting musical things, such as where the orchestra tends to speed up and where you have to give the conductor a cue. Pepe shared some of the background to the piece as well. When Rodrigo composed the music, he and his wife were living in Paris and she was pregnant with their first child. Alas, she suffered a miscarriage and the emotional depth of the middle movement, the Adagio, came out of that experience. There is a considerable range of emotion, from deep sadness to anger to acceptance. The ascent of the guitar to the highest B harmonic at the end could be seen as the ascent of the baby's soul to heaven. The third movement begins with a two-voice fugato that represents the loving couple who, even after losing their child, still have one another. The first movement? Well, as some guitarists like to say, apart from it being a wonderful piece of Spanish color, it might have been written to give the guitarist a real challenge--or headache!

Here is a photo of me playing the Concierto de Aranjuez with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra:

While in Salzburg I was invited to play a recital in the smaller recital hall at the Mozarteum, the "Wienersaal".

The summer spent in Salzburg at the Mozarteum was one of the most exciting musical experiences I have had. Not only did I spend several hours each day with Pepe Romero and many outstanding guitar students, but I also attended concerts in the Salzburg Festival, one of the world's finest classical music festivals. That year the Alban Berg Quartet played all the Beethoven quartets. I also got to attend one of their rehearsals. Karlheinz Stockhausen was there with his ensemble and they did a whole week of his chamber music. After one of those concerts I met the composer and we had a fascinating discussion about his music.

 But back to playing the Aranjuez. It is one of the most challenging and satisfying musical experiences available to a guitarist. There are many recordings available, but alas, the recording made by the CBC of my performance with the Victoria Symphony has been lost. Instead, I offer some clips from YouTube. It is amazing what you can find there! Here is a clip of Pepe working on the Aranjuez first movement with a young Korean guitarist:

Some things to notice: Pepe teaches by not saying much. He teaches by demonstration. The young guitarist is using the "m m i m" right hand rasgueado fingering that Angel uses in his edition. Pepe takes the guitar, shows her that he is planting his 'a' finger for stability and then does the rasgueado just with his index finger. There it is, and he didn't say a word. He plays a bit, then shows her again how he is planting 'a'. He also says "don't run" or better, "don't rush" (the rests). He silently communicates a solid tranquillity. If you get flustered, you sure can't play this music! The thing he can't give you is his fingers, though! Notice how she has long, slender fingers while Pepe's are shorter and stubbier. He showed me how he flexes his left hand tip-joints playing that nasty descending scale in triplets. But his tip joints are much shorter than mine. With mine (and hers) the tip joint is a lever that is too long to flex quickly enough. Notice a little later on, when he is showing her the hemiola in the scales that he actually does those really, really fast repeated notes just after. Most guitarists don't even try. I remember talking about that passage with Oscar Ghiglia and someone proposed dropping one of the three repeated notes and he just laughed and said, "hey, drop two of them, just play one..." Honestly, he's right, if you are more comfortable with one, then do it. The audience is going to prefer that you be comfortable than that you be struggling! But Pepe plays all three... It does look really easy when he does it. And then she does it too! Pepe transfers a lot of confidence when he teaches. OK, here he is playing the Aranjuez first movement in 2007:

Right off, I see that he is using the "m mim m" fingering instead of just the index. Heh. You have to remember that players are constantly changing how they do things and in many cases, there are different options you might use at different times. Another great performer of the Aranjuez is John Williams. Here he is, playing the first movement:

So different! This is a very smooth, elegant performance with very good interaction with the orchestra. Notice that Williams takes several passages down an octave that Pepe plays up, as they are written. Williams also plays two repeated notes instead of three in the passage mentioned above. But it all works beautifully. I think that Pepe brings off the rasgueado with more verve, but I like the tone color that Williams delivers better. These two players have a very different right hand technique. Pepe uses 90% rest strokes as we see in the closeups, while John Williams uses 90% free strokes. Both great performances, but different.

When this concerto was first written, in 1939, I doubt there was a single guitarist in the world that could actually play it very reliably. Now, many can.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Bryan! A combination of personal history and instruction, with illustrations. Well done!

Bryan Townsend said...

You're welcome!