I may be wrong but it seems to me that Joaquín Rodrigo is the
best-known Spanish composer since de Falla. And I’m not wrong
to say that his fame is based on a single work: Concierto
de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra. However ubiquitous
it may be, it is an unforgettable masterpiece. I wonder
how Rodrigo’s path would have gone if he had lacked the inspiration
to write that concerto. If you only know the Aranjuez
and would like to explore this composer more, my advice is to
continue with his other concertos. Rodrigo appears to have had
a special affinity for the genre; it is there that he created
his most inventive and inspired scores. He was a great master
of elegant balance between the solo instrument and the big orchestra
– even for such shy soloists as guitar, flute or harp. His concertos
are a rich source of enjoyment, full of surprises and jovial
Rodrigo also wrote a lot of solo guitar music throughout his
long career. This music is for the most part less spectacular
than the concertos. Think about the guitar part of the first
and last movements of the Aranjuez: would these two movements
have the same impact without the astounding slow movement between
them? Rodrigo’s music is very Spanish and not especially adventurous.
Its charm is Haydnesque: the joy we can find in simple things,
in the world around us, in just being alive. The musical language
is not very varied, and even if you may not notice the clichés
over the course of one-two pieces, they become perceptible over
the span of one disc, to say nothing of three. These are some
of the common traits that you will encounter, separately or
together, in almost every work:
1. The "strange harmonies", dissonances that are always
one step to the side from the "expected" chords. Since
this effect is used so consistently, you become used to it,
like living in the world of non-Euclidean harmony. You can identify
a Rodrigo piece by his harmonies.
2. The omnipresent tamm-pararam-pam-tata-tamm, and other standard
rhythms of Spanish folk dances.
3. As you might know, the dollar sign was initially a symbolic
representation of the two Pillars of Hercules, with an "S"-shaped
ribbon around them. This symbol often came to my mind when I
listened to certain tracks. The pillars are the loud strumming
chords, like male dancers stomping in a pasodoble or a fandango.
After the men stomp, the women, lightly and gently, dance around
them, like the ribbon around the pillars. I call it "dollar
music" - not because of the value, but because of the form.
4. Slow movements often have a cold, archaic feeling that I
call "Medieval mists". They are usually static, and
often modal. Sometimes the "waterdrops" effect is
added, like slow falling of drops from branches on the still
surface of the water, with ripples going in circles. This is
arresting - the first time you hear it.
5. Another recurrent element is what I call in my mind "the
Vivaldian lightning". You know, like those great dazzling
bolts falling from the skies in the stormy pages of Vivaldi's
Four Seasons. Again, it sounds great - the first time.
The bad example of a mixture of all of these is Sonata a
la Española. It has a fandango-like first movement with
an embossed melody, which becomes really annoying in the long
run. The static slow movement is all "Medieval mists",
and the third movement is "dollar music". Only the
second movement leaves any trace in the memory - the rest is
The suite Tres piezas españolas is similar in structure,
and shares the archaic style with its contemporaneous Fantasía
para un gentilhombre. It starts with "dollar music"
that lacks enough diversity to maintain interest. The slow Passacaglia
is a different story. It is a set of variations, and the guitar
sounds like a lute. The bass line is Handelian, but the ornamentation
and harmony are definitely modern. Like any good passacaglia,
it enthralls. The third movement is energetic yet hushed, like
a gentle rain - with some "Vivaldian lightning".
Elogio de la guitarra, again, starts with "dollar
music" (and "Vivaldian lightnings"), very Classical,
light and bright. The slow movement is "Medieval mists"
with cold stones and "waterdrops". It is static and
beautiful, with echoes and long notes hanging in the air. The
finale is boring "dollar music", until it enters a
long and elaborate cadenza-like ending, which is turbulent and
virtuosic, and regains the interest.
Rodrigo was seemingly very fond of this tripartite form, and
employed it also in Tríptico. The outer movements are
"dollar music", mirroring each other. The first one
creates an uncomfortable feeling such that the guitarist does
not quite enjoy playing it, while the third has the "annoying
sanguine" mood - you know, like those perpetually cheerful
personalities that you sometimes want to hide from? It also
has references to the first movement of Aranjuez. The
slow movement is rather amorphous: "Medieval mists"
with "strange harmonies".
Another egg from the same nest, though less standard, is Tres
pequeñas piezas. The first piece is a song with "strange
harmonies": a relaxed folk-like melody similar to Canteloube's
Malurous qu'o uno fenno. The second one is "Medieval
mists" with "waterdrops". This is also a song,
sad but calm. The last piece is framed by "dollar music"
which is very Spanish and invites you to dance something like
a pasodoble. In the middle it has a beautiful "Medieval
mists" episode with distant calls and echoes.
Probably the best of these sonata-like tripartite works is the
Sonata giocosa. It shows the same tricks, but here everything
seems to work, and the result is light, cheerful and inventive,
almost Mozartean. The stomps of the "dollar music"
in the first movement are not annoying; the "Medieval mists"
of the slow movement have a wistful and beautiful melody; and
the finale is a lively dance, with good drive and full of surprises.
The suite Por los campos de España is a collection of
three independent works. Each of them is often programmed separately
by guitarists. En los trigales is an energetic Spanish
dance with a strong rhythmic component, a generally warm mood,
and a more pensive, static episode in the middle. Bajando
de la meseta starts with a stately, proud introduction,
which is followed by a lively and carefree dance, with a lot
of resonant strumming. Entre olivares is loud and happy,
with an importunate jackhammer rhythm and a short tranquil episode
in the middle.
Tiento antiguo is also from the "Medieval mists"
basket, though it has more layers. It is meditative and nostalgic.
In similar vein comes the first of Dos preludios, a tranquil
romance full of falling sighs over a wavelike motion of the
lower voice, like seagull cries over the seashore. Its companion
piece does not have the one-dimensionality of a typical prelude.
It is malagueña-like, lively and multi-faced, with few shafts
of "Vivaldian lightnings".
Tonadilla for two guitars is probably the most interesting
work on the first disc. It shows excellent writing for two guitars,
with textures that are full but at the same time lightweight.
The first movement is a busy yet quiet toccata with interesting
harmonic moves. It really grabs attention. The second movement
is a relaxed dance with Renaissance grace, and its middle episode
moves from darkness to light. The final dance has a beautiful
poetic middle episode.
The haunting Invocación y Danza is arguably Rodrigo's
most popular solo guitar work, and deservedly so. The first
part, Invocación, comes probably the closest to the effect
of the slow movement of Aranjuez. It starts with the
"waterdrops" effect and incorporates references to
Manuel de Falla's Noches en los jardines de España and
El amor brujo. The composition is a skilful mosaic of
beautiful images and leaves a feeling of strange, fragile beauty.
If Invocación y Danza is homage to de Falla, then Junto
al Generalife could be homage to Albéniz. It is a landscape
painted in pastels. In the composer's own words, his intention
was to "depict the mild, sweet breeze, to bring to mind
the distant pealing of bells and the perfume of the flowers
hidden in the myrtle. There, of course, is the guitar, dreaming
and in repose". This is beautiful, tender music. Its moves
are not predictable, and each turn opens a pleasant view.
There are some remarkable ballad-like compositions. Un tiempo
fue Itálica famosa is like a landscape where each detail
evokes images from the past. Memories rise and shift in the
cold air. En tierras de Jerez could be a song, telling
a long and sad story. Another sad story from the past is Ecos
de Sefarad from the "Medieval mists" family. It
is a sarabande with a Jewish flavor ("Sefarad" is
how the Spanish Jews called the country when they lived there).
Little birds chirrup over old stones in Pájaros de primavera.
The two layers - the sunny present and the cold past - permeate
each other. This is a rewarding piece, leaving behind the scent
of summer. The following ¡Qué bon caminito! is a merry
song that you sing while doing physical work that you like.
And since the work is long, you repeat the song again and again.
However this sanguine singing can be a bit annoying to those
who sit nearby.
The collection ends with Rodrigo's earliest guitar pieces. Toccata
has the necessary drive needed to propel through its eight minutes
while keeping the listener interested. No Rodrigo clichés here
– not yet. It's absolute music, dynamic and metamorphic, with
enough stability and variety. It's sad that this work was lost;
it's good that it was finally found. Zarabanda lejana
is essentially a prelude in a lazy contented mood. It already
has Rodrigo's "strange harmonies".
The playing is very good throughout the three discs. I would
especially praise the contribution of Marco Socías, whose guitar
is so sensitive and powerful that you forget about the presence
of a man behind it. The recording has the necessary volume and
resonance: never dry or thin, it catches the full aura of the
sound. The liner-note says only a little bit about each piece,
but we wouldn't expect more from Brilliant Classics, would we?
Still, with all the good things here, and even considering the
Brilliant Classics price, I think this collection will mostly
appeal to guitar students and teachers. There are some gems
and pearls, but you won't appreciate them so much after going
through similar, but less inspired works. A one-disc compilation
out of it would be a treat. As three discs, it's a toil to listen.
Por los campos de España (En los trigales (1938); Bajando de
la meseta (1954); Entre Olivares (1956)) [15:28]
Sonata a la Española (1969) [9:28]
Tiento antiguo (1947) [3:46]
Tres pequeñas piezas (Ya se van los pastores; Por caminos de
Santiago; Pequeña sevillana) (1963) [9:40]
Tonadilla for two guitars (1959) [13:23]
Sonata giocosa (1960) [10:54]
Invocación y Danca (Homenaje a Manuel de Falla) (1961) [8:23]
Junto al Generalife (1959) [5:16]
Tres piezas españolas (Fandango; Passacaglia; Zapateado) (1954)
Elogio de la guitarra (1971) [15:28]
Dos preludios (1977) [8:38]
Ecos de Sefarad (1987) [4:31]
Pájaros de primavera (1977) [5:14]
¡Qué buen caminito! (1987) [4:51]
Un tiempo fue Itálica famosa (1981) [7:51]
Tríptico (1978) [11:56]
En tierras de Jerez (1960) [5:00]
Toccata (1933) [7:55]
Zarabanda lejana (1926) [4:46]