Saturday, October 24, 2015

Artists and Repertoire

"A&R", according to Wikipedia is:
Artists and repertoire (A&R) is the division of a record label or music publishing company that is responsible for talent scouting and overseeing the artistic development of recording artists and songwriters. It also acts as a liaison between artists and the record label or publishing company; every activity involving artists to the point of album release is generally considered under the purview, and responsibility, of A&R.
 These guys used to have a bit of an unsavory reputation: it was them, according to the tales, that corrupted innocent young artists and turned them into commercial monsters. But of course, these days, it is the artists that set out from day one to be commercial monsters.

What I would like to do, as a little interlude between posts on Winterreise, is just take one instance of an artist and his repertoire, and use it to cast light on trends in music. The artist is Pepe Romero, whom I know pretty well. I studied with him on a couple of occasions and have heard him play quite a few concerts. I've also hoisted a few glasses with him after said concerts.

But before taking up his musical journey I need to fill you in on a bit of background. It was the great Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia (1893 - 1987) who worked his whole life to establish the classical guitar as a serious concert instrument. He said, on several occasions, that when he came to the guitar it was only played in cafés and salons and by flamenco players. It was he that took it and placed on the concert stages of the world, where it belonged. Now this is a bit of myth-making as there were other guitarists who were also important, but the basic facts are accurate. Segovia did tour the great concert halls of the world and he was the first classical guitarist to do so. The guitar was rather left out of the bourgeois expansion of music enjoyment in the 19th century, edged to one side by the enormous success of the piano.

One of the main avenues by which Segovia achieved the elevation in stature of the classical guitar was through invigorating its repertoire which he did in two ways. Along with playing the core guitar repertoire from the early 19th century by Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani (rather like watered down Haydn or Hummel) and from later on by Francisco Tárrego, he encouraged many composers to write new works for guitar, most successfully ones like Federico Moreno Torroba, Manuel Ponce and Joaquin Rodrigo. But this was not enough. In order to fill in gaps in the repertoire and, most importantly, to find more familiar names to attract audiences, Segovia embarked on a project of transcription. This was extremely successful because it showed that the guitar could encroach on the turf of the piano and do so in a convincing way. The ideal pieces for this purpose were ones written for piano, but inspired by the guitar such as pieces by Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. This turned out so well that a piece like Asturias (Leyenda) by the former, is probably better known on guitar these days than it is on piano. But these composers were still not quite famous enough for Segovia's needs.

At this point he had a truly inspired idea. I'm not exactly sure of the chronology, but Segovia had probably already been doing some arrangements of pieces by Bach when he got the idea to play the enormous and spectacular piece for violin solo, the Chaconne from the Violin Partita #2 in D minor, on guitar. After all, why not? In one respect at least, the demanding arpeggio sections, the guitar was going to have the advantage over the violin. As it turned out, Segovia's performances of this piece lent enormous prestige to the guitar. It is, to this day, probably the most prestigious piece in the repertoire for guitar.

That brings us back to Pepe Romero. He was taught by his father who was taught by a student of Franciso Tárrega himself, so his pedigree is impeccable. Apart from a very youthful album of flamenco, he has devoted his entire life to the classical guitar with an unexcelled technique. There are pieces that he plays, such as the Gran Jota by Tárrega or the Concierto para una Fiesta by Rodrigo (written for him) that no-one else plays with anything like his panache.

But Pepe, like every other classical artist, has experienced the inexorable pressures of commercialism. For most of his career he recorded for Philips (the first company to issue CDs). For them he recorded an enormous amount of repertoire of which one of the highlights was the complete Guitar Concertos of Mauro Giuliani, some of them recorded for the first time. In 1998 Philips was acquired by Universal Music Group and in 1999 was absorbed into Decca and all its recording and mastering operations in the Netherlands were shut down. Today it is nothing more than a back catalog. A recent 11-CD box from Decca has reissued a lot of Pepe's best recordings for which we are grateful, of course.

I want to point out a trend however. In 1981 Philips was releasing outstanding discs like this one of Pepe playing the Partita in D minor (which contains the Chaconne) and the Suite BWV 1009 (originally for cello), both by J. S. Bach.

This is serious repertoire, played seriously well. But as time went on, I suspect that issues like these sold less and less well. How else to explain that a performer known for projects like the complete Giuliani concertos and the complete quintets for guitar and string quartet by Boccherini was now putting out sentimental collections of miniatures like this one:

That came out in 1999, a dog's breakfast of little pieces by Bach, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms (!!) that were the kind of thing guitarists were playing before Segovia put it on the concert stages of the world. Salon or café music.

So we have seen a whole arc of repertoire starting from the inconsequential, rising to the peaks of what you can do on a solo guitar (represented by the Bach Chaconne and pieces like the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo) and now returning to the inconsequential. Of course, if Pepe were a young guitarist, he would probably be doing crossover instead of Brahms.

Milos Karadaglic is a new classical guitarist appearing on Deutsche Grammophon, but the repertoire on this disc includes The Girl from Ipanema, Besame mucho, Libertango and a collection of very short melodic pieces from Latin America. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but didn't Deutsche Grammophon used to do something a bit less, well, trivial?

But I don't want to blame Deutsche Grammophon, or Philips, or Decca, or even Universal. This is a general trend. Pepe used to play programs with a wide variety of pieces, some longer, some shorter. But every program I have heard recently has had the same Spanish potboilers by Tárrega and others that he has been playing his whole life. And, if he were younger, he would probably be doing crossover.


Very simple: this is what the audiences, or most of them anyway, want. Musicians have just been responding to the audiences who apparently want classical music that doesn't actually sound like classical music, but more like pop music, or bossa nova at least, and maybe with a nice light show or closeups on a big screen and some nice easy listening strings in the background.

You think we want to play that every night? For a classical musician, it is like having to have a dinner of nothing but crême brulé and soufflée every night.

I am sooooo sick of Piazzolla these days...

And Segovia is rolling in his grave.


Christine Lacroix said...

Really didn't like the Libertango. But I admit I didn't go to the end.

Bryan Townsend said...

You were supposed not to like it!

Christine Lacroix said...

Well good! I'm glad to hear it.