Saturday, July 21, 2018

Top Ten Large Pieces for Classical Guitar

I am doing this new post, one of at least three I am planning, to refine the project a bit. My four year old post on Top Ten Pieces for Classical Guitar has risen to be the most popular post here, so I thought I might have another go. Of course we all know that the Internet just loves lists and they are often little more than clickbait, still, it is an interesting exercise to perform. I am a big believer in qualitative judgements, but it is all in how you go about them. As in most things musical, I am moved by pragmatic estimates of quality. Actually, the inspiration for this particular list was looking at the clips online of the outstanding Polish guitarist Marcin Dylla. He tends to play exactly the larger pieces that I have long regarded as being the best in the repertoire. And why not? After all, any performing artist, unless they are driven by marketing considerations, is going to always be seeking out the most substantial repertoire to perform. Why waste time on the lesser stuff?

So how do I define "large pieces"? While there are lots of exceptions, the guitar repertoire tends to fall into a few categories, just as the keyboard repertoire does, which makes sense as it is mostly modeled after the keyboard repertoire (since the 18th century, at least). Looking just at pieces that have a total duration of at least fifteen minutes (we could set it lower, but that would make me want to create another category of "medium length pieces" and I don't want to do that right now!), we find that there tend to be four sub-categories: the first is pieces that are more or less sonatas for guitar, modeled after the classical and romantic piano sonata. These pieces usually have three or four movements, but are conceived as a single piece. Then there are sets of variations that have a larger number of shorter sections, but these are all based on the original theme. A third category is the suite: a set of several movements that contrast with one another. The model for that is probably the Baroque suite. The other category is the concerto: a three movement work for guitar and orchestra. That pretty much exhausts the large piece category.

One final note, I am trying to pick the ten best pieces in this category, but I am not claiming to be able to order them within the category. In other words, they are not in order of quality. The thing about outstanding pieces of music is that they tend to be unique, i.e. not comparable to one another.

1. "Variations sur Folia de Espana et Fugue" by Manuel M. Ponce. This is a truly outstanding set of variations, certainly one of the very best in the guitar repertoire. It was written for Andrés Segovia and takes nearly half an hour to perform. There is an excellent recording by John Williams and an excellent recent performance on YouTube by Marcin Dylla. There have even been dissertations written on the piece:

2. Nocturnal, by Benjamin Britten. Speaking of variations, the other great variation piece for guitar was written for Julian Bream and it reverses the usual order by putting the theme, a song by John Dowland, last, preceded by the variations.

3. Sonata "Hommagio a Boccherini" by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. I suppose the inclusion of this piece is a bit of advocacy on my part! It does not seem to be very popular these days. The only clip of the whole piece I could find in YouTube was by a guitarist I had never heard of. Still, I think this is a fine piece and, frankly, there are not a lot of capably-written guitar sonatas!

4. Castillos de España by Federico Moreno Torroba. This is a fine example of the suite. There were originally eight short pieces, each inspired by a different castle in Spain. Later he added another six pieces, but it is often played in the original form. Written for Andrés Segovia. There are good recordings by Segovia and Ana Vidovic among others, but it is hard to find a good recording of the complete suite on YouTube! I originally put up a few separate clips. But then I found the complete Segovia recording. You have to skip ahead to the 18:55 mark for the beginning of Castillos de España:

5. Sonata romántica by Manuel M. Ponce. Yes, Ponce gets another one on the list because he, unlike most guitar composers, wrote a lot of larger pieces. This sonata is modeled after the piano sonatas of Franz Schubert and while certainly not in their class has a great deal of charm. There are outstanding recordings by Segovia and Ana Vidovic among others.

6. Five Preludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos. If anything these pieces are over-played! Together they form a kind of suite, always popular with audiences while posing some interesting technical challenges. There are recordings by almost everyone, but the ones that stick in the memory are those by John Williams and Pepe Romero.

7. El Decameron negro by Leo Brouwer. I was torn between this piece and the Sonata by Ginastera and gravitated towards the Brouwer because it seems to be just a bit more popular among guitarists. I was actually the first person to record the piece! There are outstanding versions by John Williams among others.

8. Rossiniana Op 119, No. 1 by Mauro Giuliani. This is the odd-man out on the list. It is a potpourri, a 19th century genre that was popular at the time, but less-so now. This particular piece is a medley of themes from operas by Rossini, set for guitar by Giuliani. It has become popular as a virtuoso display piece because of a really stunning recording by Julian Bream who brings out its insouciant nature.

9. Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo. This is by far the most popular guitar concerto. In fact, it is probably one of the most popular concertos for any instrument written in the 20th century. It has been recorded by absolutely everyone and by the leading artists, such as John Williams and Julian Bream, at least three times! It is fiendishly difficult, but the spectacular melody of the second movement makes it all worth while. Williams did a lovely performance of it in the Proms several years ago.

10. Guitar Concerto by Heitor Villa-Lobos. There could have been lots of other possibilities for this slot as there are many fine guitar concertos other than the Aranjuez. The ones by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Leo Brouwer come to mind as well as the others by Rodrigo. But the Villa-Lobos is a perennial and has a unique quality that sets it apart. There are recordings by Bream and Williams, of course as well as a live one of me playing it with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra buried somewhere deep in the CBC archives.

I might add some runners-up in the future!

UPDATE: I just realized that, with the exception of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco Sonata and the Nocturnal by Britten, I have played every one of these pieces in concert! Yes, even the concertos, but I only played the Villa-Lobos on one occasion.


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I haven't been a huge fan of La folia variations over the years but I like the Ponce sonatas. They're sonatas with textbook sonata forms in the best sense of the term (I know, an oxymoron to many). Ponce's sonatas are an interesting meld of "high" and "low" that I'm not sure has been pulled off in German-language music since ... well ... Haydn. For those who read Spanish Luciano Tavares has a treatise on the Ponce guitar sonatas that's up at IMSLP.

Britten's Nocturnal is a marvel. Transformational character variation that culminates in (rather than proceeds from) a presentation of the originating theme is an interesting 20th century pattern. Britten's Nocturnal is one of the better examples in the guitar literature but what Peter Burkholder called "cumulative form" is rampant in the work of Charles Ives. Burkholder discusses cumulative form in his book on Ives called All Made of Tunes.

The Castelnuovo-Tedesco Sonata is one of the ones I was thinking about blogging about for analysis purposes. It really is a fantastic work.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think my favorite Ponce sonata is the Sonatina meridional, too short for inclusion here. Thanks for the link to the Tavares essay. I will check it out.

Yes, the Tedesco sonata used to get a lot of attention decades ago, but it seems to have faded. I think that the problem is partly that, apart from Segovia, most of the big name guitarists have not recorded the piece. Plus, the Segovia recording, while spirited, is too rough and ready to really capture the flavor of the piece. The best performance I have ever heard of it was by Abel Carlevaro in a concert in Toronto in, I think, 1978. Absolutely perfect! I have played the last movement a bit. One wonders why Bream or Williams or Barrueco never recorded it...

I finally got around to looking at your blog--lots of reading there!

Steven Watson said...

Interesting list, a few things I’ve never heard. How had I not heard Rossiniana -- exciting stuff! I am particularly enjoying exploring Torroba's works, as I said in another comment, and had a go at playing the first movement of Castillos de España, but it’s a bit too hard for me yet, though at a slower tempo it's good practise I suppose, and certainly enjoyable. Perhaps you might do a list of top-ten pieces for non-virtuoso classical guitarists! I am mostly kidding, but I do remember starting out and feeling fairly disappointing at how bland much of the beginner/intermediate repertoire seemed. Discovering lute music was a godsend.

Bryan Townsend said...

You are so right about the best quality music for beginning guitarists usually being the lute and vihuela music. If you are looking for something interesting and accessible, why not have a look at the Estudios sencillos by Leo Brouwer?

Steven Watson said...

Just been looking at the Brouwer studies -- thanks for the suggestion. They have that enjoyable quality of being more challenging than they seem (it took a while to make that first study sound musical -- very good practise for my RH thumb).

Bryan Townsend said...

It sounds as if you are working on Study VI, the first one in the second volume? If you get bored, there is a second set of ten more!