Guitar Classics of Spain and Latin America — CD


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Liner Notes

Liner Notes

The modern classical guitar’s repertory encompasses music from a vast array of countries and cultures, yet the instrument remains indelibly linked to Spain in the popular imagination: the “classical guitar” is, for many, synonymous with the “Spanish guitar.” All players must choose how to negotiate this close cultural association. Some studiously avoid Spanish repertory—often in favor of Bach and contemporary composers—while others continue to pepper their programs with perennial crowd pleasers by Albéniz, Tárrega, and Turina, with varying degrees of genuine commitment. Only a few wholeheartedly immerse themselves in the Spanish and Latin American literature, as James Flegel has done on this recording. He reveals that this music contains riches and fascinations that have long been obscured by over-familiarity and—it must be said—countless shoddy performances. By lavishing interpretive care on each phrase, Flegel asks us to hear this music with new ears.

The father of the modern guitar, Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909) was the first player to begin extending the instrument’s repertory, transcribing music by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and others. Yet he is best remembered for his own compositions, which combine Spanish idioms with the salon style of Chopin. Capricho árabe is a captivating study in Moorish exoticism and charismatic instrumental writing. While guitarists often blaze through its virtuoso scales, Flegel lets them breathe, setting the stage for the elegantly shaped main themes, which are here given pride of place.

The guitar’s Spanish heritage extends back to the late Renaissance literature for the vihuela, a direct forebear of the guitar (and a closer relative than the lute). The vihuelists created a repertory based both on vernacular Iberian tunes and high-style polyphony in the tradition of the Low Countries. Flegel provides us one example from each style, both composed by Luys de Narváez (fl. 1526–49). The Canción del emperador is an arrangement of Josquin’s popular chanson “Mille regretz.” Its freely intertwining contrapuntal voices and flowing scales suggest an improvisation. Indeed, it is likely that vihuelists regularly improvised such arrangements at court; only occasionally—as here—were such impromptu renditions notated. Guardame las vacas is wholly different: a set of variations on a vernacular song, “Guard the cows for me.” Its repeated harmonic progression recalls the ground basses favored by so many 16th- and 17th-century composers, but the rhythmically feisty variations are entirely Iberian. Flegel plays them with evident delight, taking full advantage of the modern guitar’s wide timbral palette.

In the music of Fernando Sor (1778–1809) the guitar absorbs the sound world of Haydn and Mozart. Though Sor was born in Barcelona, his was a thoroughly cosmopolitan career, taking him as far afield as London, Moscow, and Paris (where he died). This cosmopolitanism is audible in his music, which adopts the international idiom of the high classical style. His Grand Solo begins with a portentous slow introduction—which Flegel gives a broad, orchestral treatment—before launching into a spirited sonata form. The vigorous tonic pedal that underlies the opening of the allegro theme recalls pedals at the outset of some of Mozart’s symphonic allegros. An aural comparison of the opening of Sor’s allegro with that in the “Prague” Symphony is highly instructive (especially as they share the same key—D major).

Though written for the piano, Asturias by Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909) has become the classical guitar’s signature warhorse. It is a ubiquitous recital closer, rife with temptations for the interpreter short on taste. Flegel describes his rendition as an attempt to restore the piece’s dignity: “It is a poem,” he says, “not a rock song.” That poetry emerges especially vividly in the middle section of Flegel’s account, which is spacious and evocative—a highly stylized Andalusian song. The outer sections are also treated with care: they sound like a mysterious evocation of flamenco, held back and full of nuance, not a precursor to heavy metal. Flegel brings similar subtlety to the Sevillana-Fantasia by Joaquin Turina (1882–1949), another stylized evocation of Southern Spain. Turina was of the generation after Albéniz, and his music has a strongly impressionist tint, full of harmonies that one would never hear on an actual flamenco guitar. Rather than banging out the opening chords, Flegel renders them with a clean and precise rasgueado strumming technique, preparing the ears for the Debussyan harmonies to come.

The program now moves to Latin America. Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885–1944) was one of the great guitar virtuosos of the twentieth century, and also one of its great eccentrics. A Paraguayan, he often performed in full native attire—complete with headdress—and he adopted the stage name Mangoré after a legendary Guaraní chieftain. (He also at one point took to calling himself Nítsuga: Agustín backwards.) His music betrays none of this eccentricity, however: it is exquisitely crafted, fusing Latin American idioms with Bachian counterpoint and Chopinesque harmony. La catedral is a programmatic triptych. The opening prelude is a dreamy evocation of the ambience of a great cathedral, with a high floating melody over broken minor chords; it is followed by an austere chorale (marked “solemn”). The vigorous moto perpetuo that concludes the work portrays the secular bustle outside the sacred space. Though we have crossed a threshold, the music is still pervaded by the B-minor tonality of the preceding movements: the somber atmosphere of the cathedral infuses its busy surroundings.

The Venezuelan waltzes of Antonio Lauro (1917–1986) are infectious, quirky, and irresistible. They offer a respite from the gravitas of La catedral, combining beguiling Latin harmonies with the insouciant elegance of a Strauss waltz. Flegel plays five of them here, opting for leisurely tempos that bring out the music’s witty syncopations and ear-catching harmonic turns. The Suite del recuerdo of José Luis Merlin (b. 1952) also employs popular Latin idioms, but it is far more serious in intent. The memory (recuerdo) in question is that of the political terror faced by Argentineans under Perón. Flegel hears in the music a “feeling of nostalgia for the good times of the past and the ordinary parts of everyday life that were missed in the repressive regime, or savored when they were possible.” This nostalgia is fully audible in the simple but affecting treatment Flegel gives the “Evocación,” which sounds twice in the suite: once at its beginning and again in the penultimate slot, before a jaunty “Joropo” dispels the gloom.

The recital closes with a turn inward: the poetic miniature Burgalesa by Spaniard Federico Moreno Torroba (1891–1982). Torroba is best known as a composer of zarzuelas (Spanish light operas), but he was also a prolific contributor to Segovia’s catalogue of commissions. The Burgalesa’s poignant suspensions and affecting minorward tilts conjure the wistful melancholy at the heart of so much Spanish music. Flegel’s heartfelt playing here reminds us, as it has throughout the program, why this music merits hearing again. We are well rewarded for listening closely.

Steven Rings, Ph.D. University of Chicago ©2010



Guitar Classics of Spain and Latin America features gems of the guitar’s repertoire, including masterpieces by Sor, Albeniz, Barrios, and Turina. Flegel draws on his considerable experience as a performer of classical guitar, and as a flamenco guitarist, to present this music in a fresh, exciting, and rewarding manner. His performance has been praised as “the definitive recording of these works”, “a reminder of why these works have remained popular”, and for its exquisite musicianship.

This recording may be purchased on CD above, or for download HERE.

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James Flegel, Guitar


Title, Composer Samples:
1. Capricho Árabe, Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909)

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2. Canción del Emperador, Luys de Narváez (fl 1526-1549)

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3. Guardame las Vacas, Luys de Narváez (fl 1526-1549)

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4. Grand Solo, op. 14, Fernando Sor (1778-1839)

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5. Asturias – Leyenda, Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)

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6. Sevillana-Fantasia, op. 29, Joaquin Turina (1882-1949)
La Catedral, Agustí­n Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944)
    7. Preludio Preview Track
    8. Andante religioso Preview Track
    9. Allegro solemne Preview Track
10. Yacambu, Antonio Lauro (1917-1986) Preview Track
11. Tatiana, Antonio Lauro (1917-1986) Preview Track
12. El Marabino, Antonio Lauro (1917-1986) Preview Track
13. Adreina, Antonio Lauro (1917-1986) Preview Track
14. Natalia, Antonio Lauro (1917-1986) Preview Track
Suite del Recuerdo, José Luis Merlin (b. 1952)
    15. Evocacion Preview Track
    16. Zamba Preview Track
    17. Chacarera Preview Track
    18. Carnavalito Preview Track
    19. Evocacion (reprise)
    20. Joropo Preview Track
21. Burgalesa, Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982) Preview Track