Fernando SOR (1778-1839)
Three Etudes, Op.29: No. 23 in G Major [2:45]; No 13 in B flat Major [5:27]; No. 17 in C Major [3:30]
Morceau de concert, Op. 54: Andante Largo [1:52]; Thème Varié [11:32]; Allegro [4:27];
Leçon, Op. 31 No. 16 [2:42]; Mazurka, Op 43, No. 4 [5:20]; Waltz, Op. 32, No. 2 [2:25]; Le Calme, Op. 50 [9:18]; Three Studies: Op.60, No. 22 [1:58]; Op. 35, No. 17 [2:55]; Op.35, No.22 [2:58]; Leçon, Op.31, No.23 [2:44]
William Carter (guitar)
rec. 17-19 May 2010, St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, UK.
LINN CKD 380 [60:10]
Historically informed performance (HIP) has spawned a whole new era of preoccupation with original scores, authentic instruments and the ways in which the music may originally have been performed. Though it is only a relatively recent introduction to the concert platforms of the world, the classical guitar has not escaped this trend in musical interpretation and performance.
The review disc presents some of the later works by the great Catalan composer/guitarist Fernando Sor, played by American guitarist William Carter on a copy of a period instrument. Carter notes the relative lack of interest by the current generation of concert guitarist in the works of Sor and believes that this, and his previous recording, represent the only all-Sor recordings to be played in period style using exclusively the fingertips of the right-hand fingers for plucking the strings.
Those familiar with the classical guitar will be aware that the modern practice of using a nail/flesh combination when striking the strings with the right-hand fingers was refined and championed by Andrés Segovia in the twentieth century. Providing greater volume, a much wider palette of tonal colours, and when perfected a beautiful, focused, sonorous sound, is the technique preferred by the vast majority of modern guitarists.
Mr Carter takes several paragraphs in the liner-notes to explain that Sor was a dedicatee of the flesh-only right-hand technique of playing the guitar, and in assessment of his contemporaries felt the use of nails produced an inferior tone. Other aspects of Sor’s technique presented include parsimonious use of the ring finger of the right hand which, relative to the others, has inherent weakness. Sor rarely used the third finger for harmony and forbade it entirely for melody. When a four-note chord, where the top note formed part of the melody appeared, Sor admitted that he departed from his own rules. In his apparent slavish pursuit of authenticity, Mr Carter does not comment on Sor’s practice of placing the fourth finger of the right hand on the sound-board of the guitar from time to time. He also confesses that because of previous training and his anatomy, the third finger is used more extensively, rather than the second as practised by Sor. We are also left to wonder whether he uses gut strings on his instruments, as Sor would have, or employs modern strings. The less informed are also not further assisted in relation to the instrument played by Carter as the photograph supplied is of a Baroque guitar not a six-string version as played by Sor.
One has only to listen to some of the masterpieces on this recording to realise that, particularly harmonically, Fernando Sor wrote some quite exquisite music for the guitar. Despite this, opinion about the music is varied which may, in part, explain its current relative absence from today’s concert guitar scene. Segovia was never ebullient about Sor’s music although he recorded some of the finer pieces. It is challenging to discern what Tarrega thought about his fellow-countryman’s music. From available evidence, he never played any of it in concert; that was not unique to Sor, as Tarrega appears to have preferred his own compositions or arrangements of popular music of the day written for other instruments. One unequivocal fact is that Sor wrote studies for the guitar which combine significant pedagogic content with great musical beauty.
William Carter was born in Florida U.S.A. and received a thorough training as a modern guitarist with Bruce Holzman at The Florida State University. He then fell under the spell of earlier plucked instruments and the world of historical performance. His initial guidance in that new interest was with Pat O’Brian in New York City. As a Fulbright scholar he travelled to London, studying with Nigel North and quickly established himself as one of the leading players on old instruments.
The performance on this disc adheres to the principles espoused by the player. It also appears that every effort has been made to eradicate individual traits of personality in the playing and confine the renditions to strict, academic guidelines. Despite the extensive information provided about Sor’s approach to plucking the strings with fingertips only, this reviewer remains unconvinced of its virtues. Irrespective of the doctrines of HIP, the sound overall is rather bland and its predictability over the entire CD becomes a little tiresome. The range of tonal colours is zero and, regardless of the music, little effort to vary dynamic range is evidenced. This is rather interesting in that Carter refers to Segovia and Bream as paradigms of excellence in Sor’s music. He also quotes Rachmaninov’s idea that music is ‘sound and colour’. The guitar’s relegation to the chamber/salon, and its decline in popularity during the nineteenth century, were influenced by the techniques pursued on this disc.
Playing with fingertips only has one other annoying aspect on this recording. The sound of fingers moving on the bass strings is an accepted characteristic of the classical guitar and better players are able to control it. In this instance the sounds of the actual notes are so subdued that every string-squeak becomes that much more relatively conspicuous and distracting; the background of much of this recording is a cacophony of string squeaks, particularly evident on high quality reproducing equipment.
There is every possibility that Sor, hearing his compositions played on a modern guitar by a virtuoso employing nail/flesh combination, would prefer that rendition over his own. We have no way of knowing how refined the nail technique of his contemporary Aguado was, but the attitude of Sor suggest that Andrés Segovia did much to advance and refine tone production on the guitar during the twentieth century.
Full credit to Mr Carter for informative and well-written liner-notes. Very touching is the story included by Don Eusebio Font y Moresco about visiting Sor in the last days of his life. It may give us greater insight into the sentiments that engulfed him when he wrote music such as the exquisite Study No. 14 from the Segovia collection.
Those with a penchant for donning period attire and driving their model T Ford on Sundays will probably enjoy this recording. Those who embrace the progress made in guitar design and acknowledge the magnificent legacy of tone production on the guitar made by Segovia in the twentieth century will probably classify it as an anachronistic novelty.