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The MHS Review 400 VOL. 12, NO. 4 • 1988

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William Zagorski


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Question: What do the ocarina, guitar, and zither have in common?

Answer: Not very much repertoire.

In the case of the ocarina or the zither this is frankly understandable (and arguably even desirable). For the guitar, with its sub­tle variety of sonorities and its melodic and harmonic flexibility, this is indeed an un­fortunate state of affairs.

From the start the guitar seemed destin­ed for greatness. Its most notable precur­sor, the lute, was all the rage back in 16th-­and 17th-century Europe. Antonio Stradivari actually built a number of guitars, and no less eminent a composer than Frederic Chopin is reputed to have said, "Nothing is more beautiful than a guitar, save perhaps two ... " With all this going for it, the guitar quietly slipped into obscurity-and stayed there despite the elegant, colorful, and exciting music com­posed for it by, among others, Fernando Sor, Dionysio Aguado, Giuseppe Tarrega, and Mauro Giuliani... who?

And that's part of the problem. History has defined the guitar's champions as be­ing out of the mainstream of musical pro­gress and therefore as "minor" composers. The "major" figures apparently had little use for the guitar. Chopin, despite his en­dorsement, somehow never quite got around to composing anything for it. The prevailing trend from about 1800 on was toward public concerts for ever larger au­diences, and the quiet guitar, with its in­timate, subtle sound, had no place in all these loud goings-on. It remained, as it had always been, a favorite household instru­ment of amateur (not "serious") musicians, and not much more.

While 19th-century trends were largely the guitar's undoing, 20th-century technology has done much to rehabilitate it. Sound recording has enabled the guitar to reach the large audiences denied it by the laws of acoustics, and electronic amplification has made it a viable concert hall instrument fully able to stand up against, for instance, the orchestra in Rodrigo's wonderful Concierto de Aran­juez. The modern guitar virtuoso now has the means to reach an audience. All that's lacking is enough repertoire. The solution: play transcriptions; after all, the great Segovia did, and proved that there's much beautiful music to be mined from this vein.

This release is noteworthy not only because it contains duo guitar versions of orchestral music, but because it presents three rarities: the overtures by Spontini, Mehul, and Piccini (which the modern listener will probably never be able to hear otherwise). It also gave me a few personal surprises. I assumed the Rossini overtures would make the best showing, and the Mozart pieces the worst. Several hearings later, I find the two Rossini pieces, especially the Overture to Lagazza ladra, the least successful. This piece especially demands the quicksilver speed easily pro­vided by orchestral violins; the guitars sound somewhat strained. Pretty much the same criticism can be made of the Mozart Le nozze di Figaro transcription.

Now for the real surprises. The La clemenza di Tito Overture comes off very well. Mauro Giuliani's masterful transcrip­tion clearly reveals the wonderful har­monic progressions built into this piece. It sent me scurrying back to my recordings of Mozart's original, which I now hear with improved ears.

I also found the rarities by Piccini, Spon­tini, and Mehul an unalloyed pleasure. These three gentlemen were among the leading Parisian opera composers of their respective days (Berlioz found Spontini particularly inspiring). Now, alas, they are virtually unknown. Fortunately for them, and us, their music was routinely transcrib­ed for amateur guitarists during the 19th century. So now we have the final irony: an instrument recently saved from undeserved obscurity by 20th-century technology is now responsible for rescu­ing three, and I hope many more, pieces of delightful but otherwise 'lost music ·of a vanished age.

Review of ;age 9

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