CLASSICAL GUITAR: ORIGINS AND LEGACY
Had Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms written concertos for the classical guitar, the six-stringed instrument might have developed along a rather different path. Instead, it evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries with a vibrant Spanish nationalist repertoire built on Catalan folksong, flamenco, and other regional strains.
It’s true that Berlioz and Paganini both played the Spanish guitar, as it’s commonly known, and Paganini even wrote some pieces for violin and guitar, though they lack the virtuoso fireworks of his solo violin caprices. Schubert wrote songs with guitar as well as a charming quartet for flute, guitar, viola and cello. But none of these figures left a major concerto for the instrument.
Spanish composers, however, certainly made up for this lack of guitar repertoire. Figures like Tárrega, Turina, Llobet, and Pujol embraced the instrument’s diverse personalities — its rhythmic zest, its languor and its Mediterranean charm. As critic Allan Kozinn once acknowledged in the New York Times: “the rhythms, colors and melodic twists of Spanish music are deep in the guitar's DNA: in the layout of its strings, in its tuning, timbre and technique.”
As guitarists once again embrace the instrument’s Spanish and Latin American roots — commissioning new works, arranging old ones, and uncovering neglected gems — here are five albums that tell the Spanish guitar’s story.
Alejandro Córdova: Guitar Recital
Mexican guitarist Alejandro Córdova offers an attractive starting point with a new recital album surveying five solo guitar masterpieces, which together highlight a range of techniques, expressive forms and national traits. Córdova was a first prize winner at the 2017 Tárrega International Guitar Competition and, accordingly, he shines in music by the event’s namesake, Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909).
Tárrega composed nearly 80 original works and over 100 transcriptions for the instrument, helping to establish the modern classical guitar technique (with a left leg raised on a footstool) and, in turn, influencing guitar construction. His Capricho árabe (Arab Caprice), is a contemplative tribute to Spain’s Moorish heritage, suggesting an oud, or Arabic lute, and later, the sensuous Danza mora, a traditional dance.
Córdova also offers works written for Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), the dean of classical guitarists, who commissioned dozens of works in the 20th century. Manuel Ponce’s Sonatina meridional (“Southern Sonatina,” from 1930) is a response to Segovia’s request for a piece “of a purely Spanish character.” Though it’s unclear how much time the Mexican composer ever spent in Spain, no matter: he effortlessly evokes lyrical warmth of the Iberian countryside in this three-movement, impressionist essay. Another Segovia commission, Federico Moreno Torroba’s Sonatina (1924), is a zesty and robust work whose dance-like finale is built on a machine-gun fanfare of 16th notes.
Córdova makes a detour to Central Europe with Johann Kaspar Mertz’s Elegie before concluding the album with a Guitar Sonata by Spaniard Antonio José. This substantial, four-movement score was completed in 1933 but discovered only in the late 1980s.
Raphaël Feuillâtre: Guitar Recital
French guitarist Raphaël Feuillâtre builds on a long history of cross-fertilization between the Spanish guitar and the French conservatory tradition with his debut album for Naxos, gathering original works for the instrument and transcriptions of keyboard pieces. A graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, Feuillâtre has won prominent guitar competitions in Spain and the U.S. and recently toured the States. The album’s centerpiece is the Variations on a Theme By Sor by Miguel Llobet (1878–1938), a star pupil of Tárrega who in turn taught Segovia. The work’s 10 variations run the gamut of guitaristic techniques and effects, with quick slurs, florid arpeggios and dazzling strummed patterns.
Feuillâtre also explores the diaspora of classical guitar in 20th-century Latin America. Alfonsina y el mar, by Argentinean composer Ariel Ramírez, is a plaintive, melancholy tribute to the poet Alfonsina Storni, who tragically drowned. The Paraguayan Agustín Barrios Mangoré is represented with two elegant, Chopin-esque dances. And the Prélude No. 5 by Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos is inspired by Rio’s social life, and seems to anticipate the mellow vibe of latter-day bossa novas. Completing the album are sensitive transcriptions of keyboard pieces by Rachmaninoff, Rameau, and Scriabin, as well as an original transcription of Granados from Feuillâtre himself.
Jens Franke and Jørgen Skogmo: José Ferrer Guitar DueTs
Though the guitar is mostly a solitary instrument, Catalan master José Ferrer (1835-1916) composed a number of exceptional guitar duets. This Naxos album by the duo of Jens Franke (Germany) and Jørgen Skogmo (Norway) represents the first integral recording of Ferrer’s complete duos, in both published and manuscript form.
Born on the Costa Brava, Ferrer went on to become a darling of Parisian high society, rubbing shoulders with Albéniz, Massenet, and Tárrega, and developing a performance style noted for its light, elegant touch. Included here are several languorous dances — including a mazurka, bolero and waltz — each suggestive of a lost era of Parisian soirées and Iberian salons.
The other portion of the album are arrangements of grand Italian opera excerpts. Long-breathed, lyrical melodies are not the guitar’s natural strength, of course. But Ferrer was a man of the theater, working as the official guitarist of the Comédie-Française, and his fantasias on Donizetti’s La Favorite and Lucrezia Borgia don’t underplay the big tunes. Particularly fun is the Fantasía sobre motivos de La traviata after Verdi, based on four excerpts, including the jaunty brindisi (drinking song).
Miguel Trápaga: Double Concertos
Miguel Trápaga, a Madrid-based guitarist and longtime champion of contemporary classical guitar works, offers three double concertos by present-day Spanish composers in his latest release, each in world-premiere recordings. David del Puerto’s Mistral for guitar, accordion, and orchestra (with Ángel Luis Castaño on accordion) presents driving, Stravinsky-esque rhythms that lay the groundwork for a dynamic and colorful interplay between the two instruments.
Trápaga is joined by Teresa Folgueira, a fellow teacher at the Madrid Royal Conservatory, for Antón García Abril’s Concierto de Gibralfaro for two guitars and orchestra. It’s a moody portrait of Málaga, Spain, with an elaboration of an ancient Malagan lullaby and an homage to Picasso’s bullfighting scenes. Finally, Javier López de Guereña’s Concierto ecuánime for guitar, vibraphone and orchestra (with percussionist Fernando Arias) embraces elements of jazz, flamenco and Broadway-style theatricality.
Countless other musicians are preserving and expanding the classical guitar’s legacy, including Pablo Sáinz Villegas, Joaquín Rodrigo, and Adam Levin.
In his 2004 Guitar Recital, Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas presents solo works by Tárrega, Turina, Rodrigo, de Falla, and Gerhard, plus two world première recordings: Five Anecdotes by Segovia, and Sonata-Fantasía by Moreno-Torroba.
Then, Joaquín Rodrigo - A Portrait is a 22-track survey of the prolific composer whose remarkable guitar concerto, the Concierto de Aranjuez, brought Spanish music to the attention of a wide international public.
And don’t miss American guitarist Adam Levin’s four-volume Naxos survey of previously unrecorded pieces for solo guitar spanning four generations of Spanish composers, including Leonardo Balada, Antón García Abril, José Luis Greco, Davide del Puerto and Laura Vega.
- Written by Brian Wise
Brian Wise writes about classical music for BBC Music Magazine, Musical America, and is the producer of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s national radio broadcasts.