While I was doing some research for the liner notes of this Da Vinci Classics production, I found a thread in a classical guitar forum, discussing works for piano and guitar. One of the users had written: “Guitar and piano? Sounds sadistic”. In fact, though the piano and the guitar are possibly the two classical instruments with the highest number of amateur players worldwide (and therefore works for both instruments together might count on a very large market of possible performers, anxious to escape the soloistic solitude which dominates the lives of pianists and guitarists), the repertoire is rather limited. In a seminal article on Il Fronimo, the Italian journal about guitar and lute, Eugenio Becherucci helpfully detailed and catalogued the repertoire for guitar and piano duo, listing it under three main rubrics: first, the arrangements, potpourris and adaptations from the operatic repertoire, which were composed mainly in the nineteenth century and which did not take into account the specificities of the instruments of destination, since their main purpose was simply to allow the “re-production” of popular tunes. Second, the pedagogical works, whereby the provisional lack of accomplishment of the budding guitar players was compensated by the piano’s filling of the harmonies and musical context. Thirdly, the duo repertoire proper, which is normally complex, difficult and “professional”, both as concerns the performing technique and the compositional style.
In fact, the composer wishing to experiment with this combination of instruments has to face the very complex challenge of finding an adequate sound balance between an imposing instrument, with an extended dynamics which may successfully compete with that of a full symphonic orchestra (as happens in the Piano Concertos), and one which has a very nuanced dynamic palette, with numerous and refined effects, but whose sound may be drowned by the sheer sound-power of the other instrument. This problem was not particularly felt in the case of the nineteenth-century arrangements: first, because they were not normally intended for public performance, but just for the performers’ enjoyment; secondly, because nineteenth-century “home pianos” had a considerably lighter sound than today’s grands; and thirdly because the arrangements were not tailored on the specific qualities of the instruments, but rather generically suited for a pleasurable and not-too-difficult performance.
All of the composers represented here, instead, took the challenge very seriously, and attempted to create works in which the “odd couple” of piano and guitar could coexist peacefully. And the idea of couple was sometimes quite literal: in fact, already in the nineteenth century several of the masterpieces for the piano and guitar duo were created for married couples such as that of Anna Mrasek and Alois Wolf, who concertized together, and that of Johann Kaspar Mertz and Joséphine Plantin.
Love played a part also in the story of Manuel Ponce’s Sonata, recorded here. In the early twentieth century, two fabulous musicians such as Andrés Segovia and Wanda Landowska were championing their hitherto neglected instruments, i.e. the guitar and the harpsichord, by bringing them on the international concert stages also thanks to purposefully designed instruments which could stand the sound requirements and the physical “stress” of a touring concert career. Manuel Ponce, one of the greatest Mexican composers, met Andrés Segovia in 1923, when the latter gave a concert in Mexico City; Segovia prompted Ponce to compose guitar works, and the first fruit of this encouragement was De México, which would later become a movement of Sonata Mexicana. Two years later, Ponce, who had already a successful career in his homeland and was already 43 years old, took the major and courageous step to go to Europe in order to perfect his compositional style under the guidance of Paul Dukas. While in Paris, Ponce wrote his Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord, about which Segovia himself was very enthusiastic. About fifteen years later, in 1940, Ponce presented this work to a couple of his former students who were also his friends, as a wedding present, with these touching works of dedication: “To my dear friend Chucho Silva and his esteemed future companion Amanda Cuervo, very affectionately, hoping to hear you both play this sonata soon. Manuel M. Ponce, Mexico, Dec. 14, 1940”. However, the keyboard part was played on the piano rather than on the harpsichord; thus, the delicate and fascinating sound balance pairing the guitar with the harpsichord (which are a much better match for each other than the piano for the guitar) was radically modified. Ponce didn’t seem to be too concerned; rather, he “appeared pleased with the results and even suggested placing a large strip of paper over the strings of the piano in order to imitate a little the effect of the harpsichord”. The dedicatee, Silva, was fascinated by this work, which was, in his words, “strong because it’s subtle. It goes deep into the performer and the audience”.
Yet another married couple prompted the composition of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Fantasia op. 45, dedicated to Segovia himself and to his wife, Paquita Madriguera, an accomplished pianist who had studied with Enrique Granados. In this case, the work was conceived from the outset for the guitar and piano duo, whose possibilities the composer had already somewhat explored by rehearsing with Segovia himself a transcription of his Concerto no. 1 for guitar (the composer played the orchestral arrangement on the piano). Subtlety characterizes this work too, in which the piano adopts a light and transparent texture, reminiscent of the Impressionist language; moreover, the composer’s mastery of technique is displayed in his knowledgeable use of imitation, of thematic inversions and of a very refined harmony. The “Spanish” flavour of some individual moments, justified in particular by the performers’ nationality, is evident especially in some sections of the first movement, and in the occasional allusions to the style of Manuel de Falla.
In Leo Brouwer’s Tres Danzas concertantes we face once more a transcription; however, in this case the original is for guitar and string orchestra, and therefore, as concerns the mere aspect of sound quantity, the power balance between the guitar and its interlocutor is similar. Brouwer is a living composer, whose story and career are deeply bound to those of his homeland, Cuba, and to its cultural and institutional situation. This work, written when the composer was not yet twenty years old, belongs in the first stage of the composer’s activity, when he was mainly focused on establishing a dialogue between the musical traditions of his nation and the idioms of Western music: this operation had also a socio-political dimension, as it aimed at conquering pride of place for Cuba and for its musical heritage in the Eurocentric world of classical music. For this purpose, the prevailing style is a modern tonal framework, whereby the respect of tradition goes hand in hand with the exploration of more daring possibilities. These would result in a more progressive artistic stance in Brouwer’s second period, after the composer’s appropriation of the avant-garde idioms he had learnt to know at the Warsaw Autumn Festival in the early Sixties; whilst, in more recent times, a tendency to polystylism can be observed in his output. In the Danzas concertantes the composer alternates bright and cheerful moments to others in a more reflective style (as in the Andantino) and with an utterly virtuoso and occasionally frenzied style (as in the Toccata). In this work, Brouwer’s interest in extra-musical suggestions is already observable, in particular as concerns his use of geometry and painting as sources of inspiration.
At approximately the same time when Brouwer was composing his Danzas, the Swiss composer Hans Haug was meeting the Austrian guitarist Luise Walker at the international Geneva competition (1956); fascinated by her sensitive and virtuoso playing style, Haug wrote for her his Fantasia for guitar and piano, finished by the following year. Haug had been seriously interested in the guitar since 1950, when his Concertino for guitar and orchestra had been awarded a Prize by the Accademia Chigiana in Siena: to be sure, the figure of Segovia is to be found here too, since he should have premiered the laureates’ works (in Haug’s case, unfortunately, the engagement was not fulfilled). The piece’s style is reminiscent of other concerto-style works by Haug from around the same time, and the two instruments are on equal terms as concerns the presentation of the musical material; the composer employs a rich vocabulary of techniques and strategies including a knowledgeable use of motivic elaboration and virtuoso guitar writing.
A similar exploration of the timbral potential of the guitar is found in Carlo Galante’s Piccole serenate alla luna piena, described by their composer thus: “A few years ago I started composing a cycle of works dedicated to plucked-string instruments, i.e. the guitar and harp. I used these two instruments together in the first piece of the series, and later, in the following ones, in combination with others: piano, flute, clarinet and a second harp. All the pieces in this cycle freely evoke the classical Serenade form, felt in its original nocturnal setting; thus, they focus on the phases of the moon, the light of our nights. The Piccole serenate alla luna piena for piano and guitar are divided into five short movements, and each is a variant of a series of five matrices (five in this case, otherwise six). Some musical materials which are common to the entire cycle are constantly varied, both following the different nature of the instrument I use and keeping into account (and experimenting with) asymmetrical sound balances (such as piano and guitar). The five Serenades, each with a different character from the others, bear the indications: misterioso; espressivo; allegretto; vivace e ritmico”.
The potential of the “odd couple” of piano and guitar is therefore abundantly shown by the composers who daringly accepted the challenge: through their ability and that of the interpreters, a seemingly impossible challenge is evidently won, and we, as listeners, experience the new sound experiences flowering from their artistic enthusiasm.
Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Gianni Bicchierini: Born in 1988, Gianni Bicchierini began studying piano at the age of six. Earning the highest grades from La Spezia Conservatory, he received a Bachelor’s degree in piano in 2006. Then he was admitted to the prestigious International Pianistic Academy “Incontri col Maestro” in Imola, where he studied with maestro Piero Rattalino and was awarded with the diploma in “Alto Perfezionamento Pianistico”. In 2012 he completed his Master in piano at “L. Boccherini” Conservatory in Lucca under the tutorage of maestro Carlo Palese, receiving the highest marks with honours. First-prize winner in several international competitions, Gianni has played in concerts since he was 10 years old as a soloist and in chamber music ensembles. He has collaborated with many artists such as Robert Lagunyak, Massimo Spada, Beatrice Magnani, Giuseppe Buscemi, Daniel Rivera. Gianni has performed in theaters such as: “Giuseppe Verdi” in Pisa, the “Olimpia” in Vecchiano, the Russian Center of Art and Culture, the Romanian Academy, the Austrian Embassy and the Conservatory “Santa Cecilia” in Rome, the “Rondeau Musicale” in Bruxelles, the Philarmonic Hall in Lviv, the “Vincenzo Bellini” in Catania. He has performed with the Lemberg Simphonietta, the Lviv Symphony Orchestra and the Klk Symphony Orchestra and has been invited to the National Music Academy in Kiev to play with the academic orchestra. He played at the opening concerts of the First Windsor Piano Competition, England, where he was part of the jury as well. He has been invited to Argentina to perform at the “Auditorim Adriana Bonoldi” in Mendoza, the “Espacio Cultural Universitario” in Rosario, as well as to perform in concert and to teach a music masterclass at the “Universidad de Arte y Diseño” of Mendoza.
He recorded for Tactus the unpublished “Concertone a piena orchestra e pianoforte” by the Italian composer Marianna Bottini. He recorded for Ema Vinci Records the cd “Russian Echoes”.
Giuseppe Buscemi: Italian guitarist Giuseppe Buscemi has toured across the USA performing in venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York after winning the “IBLA Grand Prize” International Competition. He has won many international competitions performing as both as a soloist and in chamber music ensembles alongside the pianist Gianni Bicchierini and the flutist Leonardo Augello. Buscemi's repertoire largely ranges over compositions from the Baroque era to the latest contemporary works, both in solo and chamber music. In 2018 Giuseppe recorded his first solo album, entitled Come, heavy Sleep, published by the label DotGuitar. The CD is entirely focused on 20th century masterpieces composed by F. Martin, B. Britten, M. De Falla and J. Manén. The album received high praise from critics, was presented through national radios (Radio Vaticana, RAI Radio 3, Emisora del Sur) and was reviewed by many guitar magazines (Guitare Classique Magazine, Gitarre & Laute, SeiCorde). Giuseppe Buscemi has been invited by renowned concert associations to perform in notable theaters such as the “V. Bellini” in Catania, the “L. Pirandello” in Agrigento, the “G. Garibaldi” in Enna and the “D. Alighieri” in Ravenna. Giuseppe plays a crafted guitar by the luthier Guido Di Lernia. He has also been teaching since 2013 in Italian schools. Giuseppe studied with Giovanni Puddu and graduated with Summa cum Laude and Honorific Mention both at “A. Corelli” Conservatory of Messina (Bachelor degree) and at Istituto Superiore di Studi Musicali “V. Bellini” of Caltanissetta (Master degree). In addition, he also earned a Master in chamber music at the International Piano Academy “Incontri col Maestro” of Imola and graduated with honors, studying with Nazzareno Carusi. Giuseppe is a candidate for a Doctorate in Musical Arts at Manhattan School of Music in New York in the studio of David Starobin. Giuseppe is also a teaching assistant of the Manhattan School of Music guitar faculty.
Hans Haug (b Basle, 27 July 1900; d Lausanne, 15 Sept 1967). Swiss conductor and composer. He studied at the Basle Conservatory and with Courvoisier and Pembaur in Munich. Returning to Switzerland he was appointed musical director at Grange and Solothurn, choirmaster and assistant conductor at the Basle City Theatre (1928–34), and then conductor of the French Swiss RO (1935–8) and of the Beromünster RO (1938–43). Later he worked as a teacher and a guest conductor in Switzerland and other countries. As a composer he had most success with his eight operas and with various radio operas and operettas; he also wrote orchestral works, chamber pieces, choruses and film scores, all in a light style drawing something from Wolf. Avoiding contrapuntal and tonal complication, his music was designedly popular in appeal. (Manuscripts of his works can be found in CH-LAcu.)
Leo Brouwer: (b Havana, 1 March 1939). Cuban composer, guitarist and conductor. In 1953 he began his studies in the guitar with Isaac Nicola, founder of the Cuban guitar school, and in 1955 he made his performance début. In the same year, and self-taught, he started to compose (e.g. Música para guitarra, cuerdas y percusión and Suite no.1 for guitar); his first works were published in 1956. He was awarded a grant (1959) for advanced guitar studies at the music department of the University of Hartford and for composition at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he was taught by Isadora Freed, J. Diemente, Joseph Iadone, Persichetti and Wolpe. In 1960 he started working in cinema, as head of the department of music in the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC); he has written scores for more than 60 films. He was involved in setting up (1969) and running the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora at ICAIC, becoming the teacher and mentor of its members, who included Silvio Rodríguez, Milanés and other important figures of contemporary Cuban music. He worked as musical adviser for Radio Habana Cuba (1960–68) and for other Cuban institutions, and taught counterpoint, harmony and composition at the Conservatorio Municipal in Havana (1960–67). His book Síntesis de la armonía contemporánea was a core text in his classes.
Together with the composers Juan Blanco and Carlos Fariñas and the conductor Manuel Duchesne Cuzán, Brouwer launched the avant-garde music movement in Cuba in the 1960s. He has been the most significant promoter of the bi-annual Havana Concurso y Festival de Guitarra, and in 1981 he was appointed principal conductor of the Cuban National SO. He has also conducted many other foreign orchestras including the Berlin PO and the Orquesta de Córdoba, Spain, which, under his direction, was formed in 1992. He is a member of the Berlin Akademie der Künste, of UNESCO, of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes Nuestra Señora de la Angustias in Granada (1996) and Honoris Causa Professor of Art at the Instituto Superior de Arte de Cuba (1996). For his contribution to the Cuban and international music scenes he was awarded the Orden Félix Varela, the highest honour granted by the Cuban state for culture.
Three phases can be identified in Brouwer’s work: the first, nationalistic (1955–62); the second, avant-garde (1962–7); and a third in which avant garde elements diminish and, particularly after 1980, a creative process described by the composer as ‘new simplicity’ emerges. The first phase is characterized by the use of traditional musical forms, including sonata and variation form, and by tonal harmonic structures rooted in nationalism (e.g. in Homenaje a Manuel de Falla (1957), Tres danzas concertantes (1958) and, Elegía a Jesús Menéndes (1960), among others). During this phase, despite the prevailing use of tonality, a tendency to structural fragmentation may be discerned, as well as the employment of several simultaneous tonal centres, a device that has remained throughout his output.
Though never lacking formal rigour, Brouwer’s works have in general sprung more from a sonic conception: ‘I use any form to help me find musical forms: that of a leaf, of a tree or geometric symbolisms. All these are also musical forms; despite the fact that my works appear very structured, what interests me is sound’. This concentration on the sensory, and an accompanying use of extra-musical formal sources, is most to the fore in Brouwer’s second phase, which was, with the Cuban avant garde in general, heavily influenced by the Polish school; he first heard this music at the Warsaw Autumn in 1961. Variantes for solo percussion and in particular Sonograma I for prepared piano typify this phase, which also included a brief turn towards serialism, in works such as Sonograma II and Arioso (Homenaje a Charles Mingus). Basic materials frequently comprise intervals of the 2nd, 4th and 7th and chords of superimposed 6ths, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. Complex polyphonic textures dominate, with thematic independence retained within the different planes of sound, and a resultant richness in rhythmic conjunction. Other common devices include pedals, ostinatos, sequences and melodic and rhythmic echoing. One of Brouwer’s most important avant-garde works, which has become a major piece of the guitar literature, is the solo Elogio de la danza (1964). In two movements – Lento and Ostenato – it was originally composed for dance with choreography by Luis Trápaga; it makes reference to primitive dances and to mysticism, and conveys an image of stamping feet and gyrations together with other dance elements.
Between 1967 and 1969 such works as Rem tene verba sequentur, Cántigas del tiempo nuevo and La tradición se rompe …, pero cuesta trabajo approach what would now be the postmodern, characterized by sharply defined contrasts in structure and texture and employing references to various historical periods. In La tradición se rompe …, pero cuesta trabajo, for example, the interpolation and superimposition of elements of such composers as Bach and Beethoven in a suggestive heterophony borders on caricature; further, the participation of the audience is invited with a persistent ‘sh’. All this is integrated into a process of thematic and instrumental development that evolves through a powerful, controlled aleatorism.
In the 1970s Brouwer continued to work on post-serial and aleatory ideas, for instance in La espiral eterna for guitar. But by the 1980s a ‘new simplicity’ had begun to take hold, involving neo-Romantic, minimalist and newly tonal elements. There is a marked lyricism in this third period, the use of varying nuclear cells to generate development, and the return of traditional forms exemplified in works like Canciones remotas, Manuscrito antiguo encontrado en una botella and La región más trasparente.
Manuel Maria Ponce: (b Fresnillo, Zacatecas, 8 Dec 1882; d Mexico City, 24 April 1948). Mexican pianist and composer. He was the leading Mexican musician of his time, and made a primary contribution to the development of a Mexican national style – a style that could embrace, in succession, impressionist and neo-classical influences.
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (b Florence, 3 April 1895; d Beverly Hills, CA, 16 March 1968). Italian composer, pianist and writer on music.