in: Reviews

September 20, 2011

Stunning Sonorities, Sensitive Artistry

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The Concord Chamber Music Society presented an unusual program to a full and appreciative house at the Concord Academy Performing Arts Center on Sunday afternoon, September 18. This was music for one or two guitars or violin and guitar performed by Eliot Fisk and Zaira Meneses, guitars, and Wendy Putnam, violin and founder director of the Society. Preceding the concert, Steven Ledbetter, who also wrote the program notes, gave a wide-ranging pre-concert lecture providing some context to the works.

The concert opened with two pieces for violin and guitar by Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840).  Cantabile (originally entitled Cantabile e Valtz, 1823), was written during a slack period of recovery from venereal disease, when Paganini visited Domenico Pino, a retired general and amateur musician with whom he played duets for violin and guitar at the General’s villa on Lake Como. On these occasions Paganini reportedly had the sense to tone down his virtuoso violin technique, and the result is a strikingly beautiful, indeed “singing” piece, performed with the art of simplicity by Putnam and Meneses. Putnam’s rich, though here subdued, violin tone is breathtaking. To accommodate additions to the program, the two also performed just the last movement (Andantino variato) from Paganini’s Grand Sonata in A major. Here the opening melody is in the guitar, where, thanks to an arrangement by Fisk not noted in the program, the melody is in the violin during each repeat, an alternation that continued throughout this theme-and-variations movement. Putnam and Meneses graced each others’ performances of the same music with fluent give and take.

Meneses then returned to the stage for the first of two insertions in the program, Leo Brouwer’s stunning Paisaje cubano con campanas (Cuban landscapes with carillons), composed in 1986, and often recorded. Brouwer, a brilliant Cuban composer, guitarist, and conductor born in 1939, is said to have gone through many stylistic periods, the 1980s marked by “a ‘new simplicity’” and lyricism. By now one expects to hear a work by this composer in every concert of guitar music. In this case unusual sonorities are achieved by both hands lovingly plucking, or even striking the strings at the frets, holding at least this audience member spellbound.

Luciano Berio’s thirty-four Duetti per due violini, each named for a colleague or family member, were composed between 1979 and 1983, during a time when Berio was focused chiefly on large-scale works for opera or orchestra. These duets, however, were written as teaching pieces, mostly for beginners, to be played with their teachers. The seven selections here transcribed for two guitars (Fisk and Meneses) are from a work-in-progress by Fisk, although he is not the first to make these transcriptions. They are diverse in style; for example, “Bela” presumably refers to Béla Bartók, and the music is reminiscent of the Hungarian’s harmonies, whereas generally the music is quite tonal; “Igor,” presumably Stravinsky, generated a lullaby; “Alfredo” seems to be part bumblebee and part song. In any case, they are charming in the hands of Fisk and Meneses, who traverse the styles idiomatically.

At this point Fisk inserted his transcription of three Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti: K. 431 and 432 in G major (both marked Allegro), and K. 414 in G major (Presto). Harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, who catalogued and made an edition of all Scarlatti’s Sonatas, was Fisk’s mentor at Yale and provided his insights about the interpretation of these works to his eager student. Thus the transcriptions have a special sense of authority, clarity, and just plain fun — also characteristic of Kirkpatrick on a good day.

Fisk ended the first half of the concert with another work with close connections to a previous teacher: J.S. Bach’s well-known Ciacona in D minor, arranged from his Partita no. 2, BWV 1004 for violin, which was often performed and recorded by Andrès Segovia. Fisk was the famous guitarist’s last “direct” pupil. In this case, the arrangement was by Fisk. He performed it rather fast in the beginning, in almost square tempo, but later eased into a more flowing rubato characteristic of the original.

After intermission we heard four Mountain Songs, for violin and guitar (Ms. Putnam and Ms. Meneses) by Boston’s own Robert Beaser, a classmate of Fisk’s at Yale. These pieces are part of a set of eight written for flute and guitar in 1978; thus no arrangement was noted or necessary. “Barbara Allen” was clearly recognizable in its traditional form, with gentle countermelodies floating throughout. “House Carpenter” was played almost in a country style, while “Fair and Tender Ladies” yielded a lyrical fantasy on the melody. “Cindy” was a frolic. What a treat to hear these two instruments alone together in the simplicity of the folk concept!

By contrast, Fisk and Meneses next played Fisk transcriptions of three waltzes for piano by Frédéric Chopin: in A Minor, op. 34, no. 2; in B minor, op. posth. 69, no. 2; and E-flat major, op. 18. The sound was definitely Spanish, and what a transformation! The many difficulties were accomplished with seemingly easy aplomb by these two exceptional guitarists. Their styles are actually very different, as are their instruments. Fortunately no attempt is made to reconcile them, though they are compatible; thus the sensitive artistry of each shines through the performance.

Continuing in Fisk’s transcriptions of works for other instruments, we heard first Claude Debussy’s familiar piano piece, Clair de lune (Moonlight), in the players’ hands a gleaming jewel in which they often doubled each other, further brightening the sound while reducing the contrapuntal complexity. Finally, and by contrast again, we heard the Dance espagnole (Spanish dance) from the second act of Manuel de Falla’s opera, La vida breve (The brief life). Other transcriptions exist, notably by guitarist Emilio Pujol, but surely none as exuberant, a perfect ending for a fascinating concert.

For an encore we were treated to the Recuerdos (Memories) de la Alhambra (1899), also known as a tremolo study, by Francisco Tárrega for guitar alone. Fisk’s transcription for two guitars may have eased the fiendish difficulties, but in any case, it is a real showpiece and as performed as such.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.
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1 Comment

  1. Nice to hear that the guitar is featured with CCMS!

    Comment by Aaron — September 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm

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