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Joaquin RODRIGO (1901-1999)
Concierto de Aranjuez
(I Allegro con spirito [6:09]; II Adagio [11:19]; III Allegro gentile [5:17])
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Guitar Concerto (I Allegro preciso [5:22]; II Andantino e andante [8:12]; III Allegretto non troppo [4:56])
Manuel PONCE (1882-1948)
Concierto del Sur (I Allegretto [12:48]; II Andante [6:54]; III Allegro moderato e festivo [6:02])
Sharon Isbin (guitar)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/José Serebrier
Recorded Right Track Studios, New York, 28-30th June 2004
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 60296-2
[67:12]


 

This programme comprises three of the most famous and best loved guitar concertos of the twentieth century. The Concierto de Aranjuez takes pre-eminence over all other guitar concertos of the period, but both the Ponce concerto and that of Villa-Lobos are fine works in their own right.

Concierto de Aranjuez

In things of the guitar, only the name of Andrès Segovia is more famous than this concerto. Composed by Joaquin Rodrigo in 1939, its inaugural performance was in Nov 1940 by Regino Sanz de la Maza, the guitarist to whom it was dedicated. The composer stated: “It is meant to sound like the hidden breeze that stirs the treetops in the park; it should be only as strong as a butterfly, and as dainty as a véronica.”

Many different guitarists have recorded the Concierto de Aranjuez, a notable exception being Segovia who suffered “nose-out-of joint” syndrome because it was dedicated to someone else. The flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia has done a uniquely different but beautiful recording [Verve 31 451 03012] quite a feat for a musician outside the classical idiom and with limited music reading capacity.

Ironically, this concerto has been transcribed for harp and orchestra: also used as background music in countless different contexts. The American poet, composer, songwriter Rod McKuen used the melody of the second movement as a source of inspiration for a poem which he subsequently recorded with the relevant part of the music as accompaniment.

Many are able to quickly identify its melodies without knowing their source. It is doubtlessly the masterpiece of 20th century composing for guitar and orchestra

Ponce Concerto del Sur and Villa-Lobos Guitar Concerto

These two concertos have a number of things in common: Famous, prolific South American composers wrote both; each was composed for Segovia, and he premiered both with the relevant composer conducting.

Manuel Ponce was the first important Mexican composer to write for the guitar. Although Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was the first 20th century composer to write a concerto for the guitar, Ponce was the first to conceive the idea. While the Concierto del Sur was not completed until 1941, earliest sketches date from 1926 during his time in Paris. On Oct 4th, 1941 Segovia played the inaugural performance with the composer conducting.

Heitor Villa-Lobos composed his “Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra” in 1951. One of more than two thousand compositions executed during fifty years of composing, it was originally entitled “Fantasia Concertante”. It was premiered on Feb 6th 1956 with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

The American guitarist Sharon Isbin began studies of the guitar in Italy at age nine, and later was a student of Segovia and Oscar Ghilia. She is also a former student of Roslyn Turek. Ms. Isbin currently gives 60-100 concerts a season and attends to an ever-expanding discography.

During live performance of the Concierto de Aranjuez, Ms Isbin broke a fingernail while playing a rasqueado (flamenco-like strumming of the strings with the right hand fingers). Most concert guitarist will testify to the debilitating effect of a broken nail on subsequent performance and completion. She now uses a plectrum in these dramatic passages claiming to lose nothing in execution and avoiding recurrence of broken nails.

The guitar playing on this recording is unfortunately outshone by the orchestral performance. For the New York Philharmonic conducted by Jose Serebrier, this is a debut recording with a guitarist and, as anticipated, they do a fabulous job.

The guitar playing is competent but uninspiring. Particularly in the Rodrigo concerto, Ms. Isbin is not convincing in the rapid single note passages that recur throughout. Timing and phrasing are sometimes idiosyncratic, and at times tone from the guitar is on the “thin” side. If reputation is any guide one must assume that the Thomas Humphrey Millennium guitar that she plays has better intrinsic tonal capabilities.

Despite these minor distractions the overall result is very enjoyable and recommended listening. The sonic qualities of this disc are quite outstanding and will particularly appeal to hi-fi “buffs” who enjoy the guitar.

Numerous recordings represent each of these concerti but it is always challenging to find one in which soloist, orchestra and combination excel. The more popular composition, that of Rodrigo, receives an almost unbeatable performance by John Williams [Sony 25648] with Louis Frémaux and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Norbert Kraft [Naxos 8.550729- including the Villa-Lobos concerto] and Pepe Romero [Philips 438 016-2] also provide very different but enjoyable renditions. In each instance the guitar playing is superior to that on the review disc.

This latest release of Sharon Isbin combines a treasured programme, fabulous orchestral backing, excellent sonic properties and competent guitar playing. The latter however does not compare with the best on offer.

Zane Turner

 



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