Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Manuel de Falla: Siete Canciones populares Españolas

The singer I have been working with is proposing that we perform at least some of the songs from de Falla's lovely cycle Siete Canciones populares Españolas. Last night I attended a concert with soprano and guitar, part of a guitar festival in a neighboring city here, and the Siete Canciones ended the program. Afterwards I was chatting with the director of the conservatory and the festival and commented that I just didn't think these songs work on guitar. She looked surprised and asked why. It seems pretty obvious to me. Whereas de Falla was imitating the atmosphere and rhythms of the guitar, especially flamenco guitar, the textures and chords he wrote cannot be easily accommodated on guitar. The great Catalan guitarist and scholar Emilio Pujol made a transcription for guitar long ago and there is a more recent one that I have not yet seen.

I'm not sure which transcription the guitarist was playing last night, but, despite a lot of fiddling between songs, putting on or taking off a capo, changing its location, making large changes in tuning, it was still a wan and feeble echo of the piano original. His lackluster approach to Spanish music didn't help either! Let's have a look and see what is on YouTube. Here is a live performance with Elizabeth Sterling, mezzo-soprano and Anthony Rizzotto, guitar.


She is quite good with the Spanish and is a much better singer than the one I heard last night. Mr. Rizzotto also has a much better feel for the Spanish style than the guitarist last night, but sadly is even less accurate. The very beginning of the introduction of the first song is cut off, but of what we do hear, about 15% of the notes are either missed entirely or poorly played. This is exactly what you would expect given how fiendishly difficult trying to play these songs on guitar is. I don't have either of the guitar transcriptions handy at the moment, but here is that introduction to the first song, "El Paño Moruno" in the piano original:


Yes, this actually sounds a lot like guitar music, but the basic technical differences between the piano and the guitar is what tells. The guitar would be excellent at delivering the lower voice, even augmenting it with chords if they fit under the fingers, but that second, upper voice, easily played on the piano, is what is hard on the guitar. Believe me, this is far from being one of the harder passages, but it illustrates the problem. The guitarist has to play all the notes you see with just one hand, instead of the pianists two. Imagine if you put this score in front of your pianist and said, "ok, now play all of it with just your left hand." It might be possible, but certainly not all of it and certainly not without severe strain. Which is what it is like trying to play it on guitar. Here is an even more difficult example from the second song, the "Seguidilla Murciana". Again, it sounds like guitar music, largely because of the rhythms, but these particular chords are simply impossible on guitar at a quick tempo:

Click to enlarge
Again, ask your pianist or try yourself to play it with the left hand alone--really fast! What transcribers have done is to thin out the chords to just the essential notes. Take all the D notes out of the beginning of each three note group, for example. It is still really, really hard, but not quite as impossible. But this really distorts what de Falla is doing and dilutes the "punch" of these chords. Unfortunately, at this tempo, you have to take a lot more out! Here, have a listen to that second song in the clip. It starts at around the 1:30 mark:


But what if a really professional duo were to play the songs? Say, the great Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza accompanied by Narciso Yepes, in his day probably having the greatest technique on the guitar.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention one other advantage that Yepes has, apart from his nearly unmatched technique. He plays, not a six-string guitar, which is the norm, but a 10-string guitar, which enables him to play more notes on the bass end.


Ok, yes, much, much, much better. But the chords still have to be thinned out and still don't have the kind of punch they do on piano. So let's listen to these songs performed with voice and piano. The artists are Victoria de los Ángeles (soprano) and Alicia de Larrocha (piano):


Undeniably richer, I think you would agree? Yes, it would be very desirable to have those distinctive timbres of the guitar, but so far at least, transcribing it for guitar results in the loss of a lot of harmonic richness and, unless the guitarist is an absolute master, it is going to sound clumsy and feeble.

Here is an interesting approach. This version for cello and guitar is more convincing for two reasons. First of all, as we see in the introduction to the first song, the cello can help out with those awkward to reach notes, giving us a fuller texture. Then, in the second song, the guitarist changes the texture to accommodate a more flamenco approach with rasgueado chords rather than that awkward chordal texture of the piano. I'm thinking that this is the kind of approach to take. Essentially re-compose the music for guitar. The artists are Julia Willeitner, Cello and Danilo Cabaluz, Guitar:


So now I have to decide if I want to take on the job of recomposing all of these songs for guitar...

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