In The Italian Tradition - Guitar Classics by Thanos Mitsalas
Available on Apple Music/iTunes
Few countries can rival Italy's musical legacy, and some of the best loved classical guitar works ever written are part of this remarkable heritage. Looking back through history at the vast body of published music, starting with the baroque guitar, and the towering figure of Francesco Corbetta, to the Classical and Romantic period masterworks by Carulli Carcassi, Molino, Regondi and especially Mauro Giuliani, and finally to the sizable body of works for the instrument from the pen of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the enduring contribution of Italians to the guitar is obvious. Even considering the significance of Paris, London and Vienna as centres of guitar activity, the leading role of Italy in the historical success of the guitar is indisputable.
One of Italy's great musical personas is the 19th century violinist and composer Nicolo Paganini. His influence was broad and intense and is evident in three of the pieces on the present disc. Paganini's op. 10 variations on the Venetian popular song Carnival of Venice, written in about 1829 and now frequently performed in truncated form as an encore in violin recitals, is the famous reference point for Francisco Tarrega's set of variations on the same theme. Paganini's piece explores seemingly every idiomatic possibility of the violin and serves as the inspiration for a similar exploration on the guitar by Tarrega. The theme here is in given in parallel 3rds and is followed by variations with tremolo, trills, arpeggios, and a famous, centrally placed variation treating the theme in extensive portamento. Both composers choose the key of A-major, which is happily convenient for the guitar.
Luigi Legnani (1790-1877) had one of the most varied careers in guitar history. Originally trained as a string player, he became a composer, (writing some 200 works for guitar including a thorough method) a virtuoso performer on the guitar, a singer of considerable repute, and finally an innovative instrument maker. He is best known for his 36 Capricci in all major and minor keys, the inspiration for which can also be traced clearly to Paganini. Being a singer, it is not surprising that Legnani generously dispenses bel canto melody in these short pieces but they also demand a real virtuoso flair from the performer, often working best at very fast tempi and presuming a perfect fluency with idiomatic devices on the instrument. The op.19 fantasy is of the same ilk, filled with virtuosic flourish but infused with a Rossiniesque melodic dialect. The piece is comprised of an introductory, overture-style opening and a roughly sonata-form fantasy with two central themes.
Cappricio diabolico is one of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's most enduring works for the instrument. The piece is an hommage to Paganini, and its title refers to the rumoured pact with the devil made by Paganini, which was posited as an explanation for his seemingly impossible feats of virtuosity and unprecedented innovation on the violin, both which seemed to spring form nowhere. It contains a quote from the Grand Sonata for guitar by Paganini, a sunny motive with a witty chromatic inflection, which stands in stark contrast to the rather dark, stormy and unsettled character of the Capriccio in general. Capriccio diabolico was written in 1934 while Castelnuovo-Tedesco was still in Italy and followed another large scale piece, the Sonata, an hommage to Boccherini (1932). A few short years later the composer would leave Italy, fleeing the persecution of Jews under the Italian Fascist government. He became an American citizen and was put under contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, writing numerous film scores for MGM's Hollywood production companies.
Giulio Regondi (1822-1872) was born in Genoa, raised in Lyons and lived a significant part of his professional life in the burgeoning guitar centre of London. A musical prodigy, he was paraded across Europe as a child performing on the guitar, by a step father. In the course of his travels, the 8 year old Regondi met the mature Fernando Sor, and Sor, clearly charmed, wrote the Souvenirs d'amitié, op.46, about the encounter.
Until recently, only a handful of works, opp. 119-123 (from which the current works are drawn) and a set of studies were widely available. These works are extraordinarily sophisticated harmonically, modulate without constraint, are broad in scope, formally wide ranging, melodically luminous and truly aligned with the esthetic of their own era. Even considering the modest number of works we have from Regondi, the unparalleled quality of his works places him at the very top rank of guitar composers of his own or any epoch. Introduction et Caprice has deservedly become a staple of the repertoire since it's unearthing in the 1980's. Rêverie (Nocturne) is perhaps the greatest tremolo piece written for the instrument, predating and easily surpassing in sophistication the more commonly played examples by Tarrega, Barrios and others.
Regondi was also a virtuoso concertina player and composer, leaving a larger body of concerted works for that instrument.
Carlo Domeniconi's (b. 1947) fascination with Turkish culture takes musical form very firmly in his famous Koyunbaba. The title refers to a legendary figure, Koyun Baba, a 15th century saintly shepherd associated with numerous anecdotes of uncommon wisdom and supernatural feats. The piece is evocative of Turkish folk music and is written in a deliberately non-western, modal vocabulary. The composition is thus unconstrained by the expectation of harmonic progression or predictability of dramatic arch in melody. The dramatic outline of the piece in fact seems to be demarcated by increased (or decreased) note density and is like a long virtuoso improvisation, evocative at times of the whirling dervish. It requires a highly complex scordatura and is scored in parallel staves, one with actual pitches, the other a kind of tablature-notation, showing where the guitarist places his fingers based on standard-tuning note location.