Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Five Best Recordings of the Concierto de Aranjuez

I guess this could fit into my "retro record reviews" series, but I won't label it as such even though most of the recordings I am going to talk about date back a few decades. The well-established names in classical guitar like Julian Bream and John Williams have each recorded this piece three times that I know of. I think that the versions I have put up below are the most recent ones, so the most likely to be available. Perhaps the most memorable version I have heard on record was the one recorded by John Williams in the 1970s where he began the middle movement cadenza somewhere far out on the plains of La Mancha and let it slowly grow. By that I mean, he started it very, very quietly and did a spectacular crescendo. But I suppose that version is no longer available. In any case, the five recordings I am going to talk about are all quite well known and should all be available.

The only one that is new to me is the one by Xuefei Yang, recorded in 2010. I don't know her at all, but it is an impressive performance. The other recordings I have known for a long time and, in fact, I have also met all the other performers and I have studied the Aranjuez with Pepe Romero in a master class in Salzburg, Austria. I also studied it with Oscar Ghiglia though I don't think he recorded it. I have heard a number of guitarists perform the piece in concert, though not as often as you would think. The truth is that this is a brutally difficult piece from a technical point of view and for a very long time, few guitarists could even attempt it. I think I was one of the first to perform it in Canada which I did with a number of different orchestras.

Pepe Romero has the advantage of having played this piece for many decades and having worked with Rodrigo personally and having a strong background in flamenco technique, which is why he sounds so good in the rasgueado passages. For a long time John Williams was my favorite version because he has a real gift for Spanish music and is a very fine musician as well. You might ask where Segovia is, but he never recorded, nor even performed, this piece, though he did record another concerto by Rodrigo. Narciso Yepes was always a bit underrated in my view. For a long time he was the only guitarist on the scene who had absolutely no Segovia influence. He was particularly good with Sor and Scarlatti, but he recorded just about everything. He and Julian Bream were both known for premiering a lot of new concertos for guitar.

There are innumerable recordings of this concerto by everyone from Carlos Bonell to Manuel Barrueco to Sharon Isbin, but I haven't heard them and don't feel an urgent need to. Sorry, 'bout that!

All five of these recordings are very fine and I have ranked them the way I did for reasons that might seem minor to some. I am listening as a guitarist who also plays the piece so I hear what they are doing from a fairly intimate perspective. One of the most difficult passages to bring off for someone who has not played much flamenco is the very opening of the first movement. Frankly, Pepe does this so much better than anyone else, that is one of the reasons I ranked him first. With all the other performances you hear tiny hesitations or the strumming is just not quite crisp enough. As flamenco guitarists are counseled by the dancers they accompany, the three most important things for a flamenco guitarist are rhythm, rhythm, and rhythm.

Another thing that tends to distinguish the different performances is how well the soloist works with the orchestra. There should be a real interaction. Just listen to how the bassoon doubles the guitar towards the very beginning. Some players, and Julian Bream is among them, are so involved with what they are doing that they don't seem to really be listening to the other guys.

All the recordings are pretty good in terms of clarity of sound, but the Xuefei Yang recording has an interesting failing. In an attempt to make every single detail of the guitar part perfectly audible (including those E harmonics in the first movement that you never hear), the engineers have miked the guitar pretty closely and backed off the orchestra to the point where it sounds very unrealistic. Just listen to the passage in the last movement where the guitar has a passage in thirds echoed by two trumpets. They sound very feeble and distant compared to the guitar, but, believe me, in real life that won't happen!

I think Pepe has the strongest version because of the powerful Spanish flavor he brings to it. I have heard him play this in concert and he is just as technically comfortable there as he is in this recording.

1. Pepe Romero, Academy of St. Martin's, Neville Marriner (recorded 1992)

2. Xuefei Yang, Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona, Eiji Oue (recorded 2010). This is a fine performance, though as I mentioned, it is balanced so that the orchestra sounds rather anemic. But Wuefei plays that ferociously difficult descending passage in slurred triplet sixteenths in the first movement with the best control of anyone. Her scales are top-notch and there are a lot of difficult scales in this piece.

3. John Williams, Philharmonia Orchestra, Louis Frémaux (recorded 1983). This would have been my favorite for a long, long time and there are some interpretive things that Williams does superlatively well. He has excellent interaction with the orchestra and really understands Spanish music. But the opening rasgueado is just a bit wobbly...

4. Narciso Yepes, Orquesta Sinfónica R. T. V. Española, Odón Alonso (recorded 1969). It is far from perfect, either musically or technically, but a lot of it is pretty darn good. This is the oldest recording as is evident in the hollow orchestral sound.

5. Julian Bream, The Chamber Orquestra of Europe, John Eliot Gardiner (recorded 1982). Julian Bream was one of the great guitarists of the century, but his strengths, in my opinion, never lay in the Spanish repertoire. True, he recorded a huge amount of it, but it never sounded quite Spanish to me, partly because of the brittleness of his rhythmic treatment and a certain glassiness to the sound. Bream pretty much owns contemporary British music for guitar, but he is less good in this repertoire. And his tense, jittery interpretation seems to have infected the orchestra as well. They don't keep a steady tempo and tend to sound rather bright and flashy instead of warm and expressive.

Partly to encourage you to purchase these recordings, I haven't put up YouTube clips of them. They mostly aren't available on YouTube anyway. The live clips of performances by Pepe Romero and others are not of very good sound quality. Probably the best YouTube performance is one by John Williams as part of the Proms in 2005. A very fine performance with good sound and picture:

A note on the music: when I was studying this with Pepe Romero he told me a bit about the origin of the piece. It was a fraught time, right at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Rodrigo and his wife were living in Paris at the time and they had just lost a baby because of a miscarriage. Emotionally distraught, Rodrigo wrote the famous middle movement as a kind of tombeau to the child that would never be. At the end of the movement, the ascending guitar line goes up as high as you can go on guitar to symbolize the ascent of the infant into heaven. Then the last movement begins with an angular, two-voice counterpoint which symbolizes the two parents for whom life will go on despite everything. And the first movement? Pepe says he suspects that Rodrigo wrote that just to give guitarists a headache!


Unknown said...

Nice writeup

Bryan Townsend said...


Bird E said...

No love for Paco de Lucía? Would appreciate your comments. Thanks.
Paco de Lucía, Orquesta de Cadaqués, Colomer (Philips, 1991)

Bryan Townsend said...

A lot of love and appreciation for Paco de Lucia, certainly. But no, I'm not fond of his Aranjuez, mostly because of the timbre.

Bird E said...

Do you mean he played on a substandard instrument?
With the wrong type of strings, perhaps?
Or did you find the sound engineering left something to be desired?

Bryan Townsend said...

That was a looooonnnnnggg time for a follow-up comment. Paco de Lucia is a genius of flamenco, but I don't think that style is quite right for the Aranjuez. For example, flamenco guitars have a light, percussive timbre, partly because of the use of maple instead of rosewood. Also, flamenco players tend to make a shallow, bright, naily sound and the Aranjuez often calls for a much richer, warmer tone. So, no, none of the things you mention. It is rather the aesthetic choices of the type of sound, the kind of phrasing and so on.