Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Top Ten Shorter Pieces for Classical Guitar

Continuing my project to create lists of guitar repertoire that refine my original top ten list, today I offer a list of shorter pieces. This follows my list of larger pieces. What I am looking for are pieces written for classical guitar up to around eight minutes in length of outstanding quality. I won't be including obvious pot-boilers, no matter how popular (the Spanish Romance, for example), because, while undoubtedly possessing charm and attractiveness to listeners, they just don't reward repeated hearings. Of course the people that hear them the most often are the performers! So I am aiming for pieces that reward both audiences and performers. I am also avoiding transcriptions which will appear in another list. So, shorter pieces for guitar of high quality, but in no particular order. (I wasn't able to resist making some brief comments on the performances.)

1. Serenade (1960) by Sofia Gubaidulina. I have been playing through this piece for a few months now and it continues to fascinate. Written when she was only twenty-nine, it still shows a remarkable originality.

(A brisk and muscular performance, she seems to have missed the change on page one to a slower tempo.)

2. Nocturno by Federico Moreno-Torroba. While performed quite often, I still think this piece does not receive as much recognition as it warrants. A simply lovely and lyrical meditation with intriguing harmonic gestures and a surprising whole-tone scale, this piece is both idiomatic for guitar and original in its organization.

(Like pretty well everyone, Williams plays this a bit too fast. It's a nocturnal! Not as fast and sloppy as Segovia, mind you...)

3. Fandanguillo by Federico Moreno-Torroba. There are just a bunch of excellent short pieces by Torroba who rather specialized in this kind of thing. This is the first movement of the Suite castellana and the second and even third movements could also qualify. The whole suite is not long enough to qualify as a large piece, so I'm picking out just this movement.

(I really think Pepe has the best version of the piece. He takes the time to enjoy it. In this clip he plays all three movements.)

4. Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega. This is one of the great idiomatic pieces for guitar. Everyone would be playing it if only it weren't so difficult! That smooth, liquid tremolo takes years to master. I have avoided putting any of my performances in these lists so far, but I spent a long time working on this piece, with pretty good results. So here you go:

5. Homenaje pour "Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy" by Manuel de Falla. This piece, the only one written for guitar by one of Spain's greatest composers, was composed for inclusion in a special edition of Le Revue Musicale, a tribute to Debussy a couple of years after his death in 1918. It is a unique and original piece, quite idiomatically written, and towards the end it quotes Debussy's piano piece "La soirée dans Grenade."

(Alvaro Pierri, one of the most relaxed performers on guitar, was a student of Abel Carlevaro.)

6. La Catedral by Agustín Barrios. Coming in at just under eight minutes is the three movement piece that for many years was the only piece widely known by Barrios. John Williams uncovered and recorded much more of his music, but for me, this remains the most interesting and original of them.

(Pretty much the definitive performance.)

7. Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart, op. 9 by Fernando Sor. I don't have many pieces on this list that are not from the 20th century, but this one deserves a place. A staple of the repertoire for many years, performances vary between seven and nine minutes so I think it just makes the cut. Some play the slow introduction and some do not. Ana Vidovic's is one of the more leisurely versions.

(This piece is much harder than it sounds as you have to play a lot of tricky passages but make them sound light and effortless! She does a pretty good job.)

8. Chaconne by Robert de Visée. This is standing in for a host of great pieces for guitar from the late 17th and early 18th century by French and Italian masters. This was the first great "renaissance" of the guitar and, sadly, not very well known. This is a performance on modern guitar done with real sensitivity to Baroque style.

9. Fandango by Joaquin Rodrigo. A great virtuoso showpiece that is at the same time a brilliant synthesis of traditional harmonic elements of flamenco music combined with the influence of Stravinsky. I have chosen the very fine version by fellow Canadian Jérôme Ducharme.

10. Elogio de la Danza by Leo Brouwer. Speaking of Stravinsky, an even more evocative homage to Stravinsky's ballets russe is found in this early piece by Brouwer. Influenced by both Stravinsky and Bartók, this piece is superbly idiomatic, making brilliant use of the guitar's resources of timbre.

(I chose this version, out of a host of possibilities, by the Czech guitarist Vladimir Mikulka, largely because he is not as well known as he should be. Very precise player.)


Steven Watson said...

I keep coming back to the Gubaidulina (which has the convenience of being slow, but I find that same slowness requires quite some concentration, and isn't at all easy to give the right space and phrasing) and enjoy playing parts (though only parts!) of the Sor. A lot of the stuff in this list I hadn't actually heard. I guess I tend to neglect this part of the repertoire as both a listener and an amateur player. But I do quite like some of this, especially listening to more Torroba.

Bryan Townsend said...

I guess you lean more towards the early repertoire? Yes, the Gubaidulina keeps drawing me back as well.