Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pepe Romero

Occasionally I like to talk about an individual artist who is an outstanding musician--as opposed to an outstanding technician or self-promoter or crossover hack. In the past I have talked about Grigory Sokolov and Valentina Lisitsa on piano and violinist Kristof Barati. I've talked a lot about guitarists, but I haven't singled any particular one out. Being a guitarist myself, it is harder to be objective about players of my own instrument. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is that there are always jealousies, sour grapes and rivalries among competitors. Everyone who plays violin is in competition with everyone else. The public doesn't see this because it happens behind the scenes. Right now, for example, there are hundreds or thousands of organizations like symphonies and chamber music societies that are choosing their artists for next season (if they haven't already). Which violinist or pianist will they choose? The competition is fierce! Another, more subtle reason is that solo performers don't really want to hear other solo performers. This is not out of jealousy, however. If you have spent months or years learning a piece of music and have taken many pains to work out exactly how every note needs to be played, when you hear someone else's version, you really won't like it. It is not that your version is the only way, but that you are committed to it. Every other version just sounds wrong.

I have some advice, if anyone wants it. I am on the board of our chamber music society and we hire artists to perform around twenty concerts during the winter season. There are a couple of pianists, a couple of violinists, a baroque ensemble, some singers, a guitarist, a string quartet and so on. We just were trying to decide between two ensembles and it really came down to programming. One ensemble had a program that consisted entirely of Italian concertos from the early 1700s. The other ensemble had a program of French music and Bach. Guess which one we chose? I notice that a lot of artists don't seem to have put much thought into the program. Too much of the same thing is boring for an audience. Music in a style that you are uncomfortable with is also a bad idea. Try to have some variety in the program. Have some light, charming music, but balance it with some more substantial music. Have one piece that is perhaps a bit over the top. I've always thought that the Kronos Quartet arrangement of "Purple Haze" was sheer genius. But if you do too much of that, it seems like pandering.

But let me get back to my real topic: Pepe Romero. I studied with him on a couple of occasions in the 1980s and he was in many ways the best guitar teacher I have seen. A few years ago just out of curiosity I did a survey of the leading guitarists: Pepe Romero, Manuel Barrueco, Sharon Isbin and David Russell by totaling up their concert schedule. This is not too accurate, of course, but it gives you a rough idea. I was intentionally not looking at artists like Otmar Liebert who play a lot of concerts but is not actually a classical artist. What I discovered is that Pepe Romero plays more concerts than any other classical guitarist. Manuel Barrueco is a distant second and Sharon Isbin an even more distant third. Now this was a few years ago. I just had a look at Ana Vidovic's 2012 schedule and it looks like she is coming up fast. But Pepe Romero has been at the very top of the classical guitar field for a long time. And he deserves it.

He has recorded a tremendous number of guitar concertos and is possibly the finest interpreter of many of them. His recordings of the music of Joaquin Rodrigo are definitive. Here is a bit of the slow movement of the Aranjuez:

He is also the outstanding performer of the concertos by Mauro Giuliani. Alas, YouTube seems to have no clips of those performances, but here is a set of variations by Giuliani:

Pepe Romero is one of the great interpreters of Spanish music by Tarrega:

The Gran Jota by Tarrega is rarely heard, probably because Maestro Romero is about the only guitarist that can really bring it off:

He is a wonderful player of 20th century Spanish music as well:

Most of his best performances are not available on YouTube, such as his recording of the Suite castellana by Federico Moreno-Torroba. My favorite recording by him you may find surprising. It is of the Second Violin Partita in D minor (with the famous chaconne) and the Third Cello Suite. Absolutely marvelous playing. The tone is extraordinary and the technical command remarkable. But it is the beautiful musicianship that is the most important thing. The recording is now out of print, but here is the entry on Amazon if you want to track it down.

I'm thinking of Pepe these days because we have engaged him to play two different programs for us in early February and I'm really looking forward to renewing our friendship. One of the great artists of the guitar and a genuinely humble man...

UPDATE: I almost forgot. Pepe is also an accomplished flamenco guitarist in the classic sense, meaning that he doesn't play the somewhat degraded fusion flamenco stew so common nowadays. He sometimes plays in concert the music of Agustín Castellón, better known as Sabicas. In fact, other than Sabicas himself who passed away in 1990, I don't think there is anyone who plays it better:

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