Recommended Classical Guitar Recordings
This three CD collection is a reissue of Cuban born virtuoso Manuel Barrueco’s early Vox LPs, recorded in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Included in this set is his stunning performance of selections by Spanish composers Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. This 1978 Albéniz/Granados recording is perhaps the greatest example of what I call the “cool school” of guitar playing, eschewing color and warmth in favor of restraint, taste, and note perfect execution. One complaint: in this reissue VoxBox inexplicably spread the Albéniz/Granados selections over three CDs.
Scottish guitarist David Russell spent much of his childhood in Spain, speaks fluent Spanish, and married a Spaniard. So he brings a deep understanding and affection to the music of late 19th century guitar virtuoso Francisco Tárrega. Add to this his supple phrasing and gorgeous tone—lovingly captured by recording engineer John Taylor, himself a guitarist—and you have a recording that shows off guitar playing at its finest.
Belgium born guitarist Raphaëlla Smits has a deep interest in the guitar’s 19th century repertoire. In this recording she performs on a French guitar from about 1820, restored by the German luthier Bernhard Kresse. The music highlights two abiding interests of early 19th century composers: the concert etude and the song. The solo guitar arrangements of six Schubert lieder are breathtakingly beautiful, and Smits brings an operatic intensity to Luigi Legnani’s “Capricci.” This may be the finest available recording of music performed on an original 19th century guitar.
Born in London in 1933, Julian Bream recently retired from actively touring and performing. This CD is a reissue of landmark recordings made for RCA between 1959-73. During this time, few guitarists were more compelling champions of new music than Bream. All the music in this CD is today firmly established within the standard guitar repertoire. Included is the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturnal”—now regarded as one of the greatest works written for the guitar during the 20th century. Bream’s performance, of course, is a historical landmark.
The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet began in 1980 as a student quartet at the University of Southern California. Still going strong today, it’s the world’s best known and most successful guitar ensemble. This 1987 recording showcases the quartet’s rhythmically taut and vivid style. It also features the original members of the quartet not long after it was formed. Since then, this quartet has gone on to release over a dozen recordings and has toured to high acclaim throughout the world.
Pepe Romero teams up with members from the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields Chamber Orchestra. Though originally released in the late 1970s, this is still the best recording of Luigi Boccherini’s guitar quintets. The playing is first rate, and the balance between guitar and strings is just right. (In most such recordings the guitar is either inaudible or unnaturally bloated.) Personally I’m not fond of all Boccherini’s guitar quintets—one critic grumped that they’re more fun to play than to hear. But No. 4 with its famous “Fandango” and No. 9 “La Ritirata di Madrid” are delightful.
When I first started listening to classical guitar, Julian Bream was the one artist who, if he released a new recording, I would buy it without hesitation. With Bream in retirement, my current “must buy” artist is Jason Vieaux. It’s difficult to choose between his many fine recordings, but a particular favorite of mine is his 2001 release of Mexican composer Manuel Ponce’s guitar sonatas. And don’t be put off by the idea of a CD entirely devoted to one composer. Two of Ponce’s guitar sonatas are homages to other composers—Fernando Sor and Franz Schubert—and Ponce wrote the sonatas in the style of these composers. (In fact, he was so successful at composing in other styles that some of his music in the baroque style was for many years misattributed to 18th century composers.)
John Holmquist: Las Folias de España—Cavata CV 5001
This recording is a sort of “golden fleece” inclusion. Released only as a vinyl LP, it’s long been unavailable, and Cavata Music Publishers is no longer in business. In fact, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever come across a copy. But if you do, buy it. This is a stunning recording by underrated guitarist John Holmquist shortly after he won the 1978 Toronto International Competition. You’ll never hear the guitar played with greater vibrancy, depth, and intelligence. The five minute performance of Louis Couperin’s “Tombeau de Mr. Blancrocher” is sublime, and Ponce’s “Variations & Fugue on Las Folias de España” far surpasses recordings by more famous guitarists. That Holmquist faded from view almost unnoticed is a terrible loss to the classical guitar world.
Recorded in 1962, Bream is in his prime, playing with a passion and flair that no one has surpassed. This CD reminds us of how, in the right hands, the guitar has a voice that no other instrument can match. Too often today the guitar is played as though it’s a second rate piano, eschewing the supple shaping of sound for which stringed instruments are uniquely suited. Bream in this recording will have none of this. His approach is unabashedly sensual and prismatic. This is arguably the greatest single classical guitar recording ever made. While other recordings can claim more historical significance—for example, those that premiere important new works—none before or since has better showcased guitar playing at its absolute best.
Everything about this recording conveys Vieaux’s devotion to Bach’s music. His technique is impeccable, but that doesn’t begin to convey the care that he puts into making each line unfold with grace. One listens in vain for any hint of awkwardness or strain, belying the challenge of making multi-voiced music work on the guitar. Further, Vieaux isn’t afraid to sing—he’s no advocate of sterile Bach, so prevalent among many guitarists today. There are personal touches. Vieaux tends to ornament by rewriting passages rather than pasting little decorative flourishes here and there. But his changes are always tasteful and reserved. It’s also clear that Vieaux conceived of this recording as a continuous arc of music. In fact, the three parts of the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro (BWV 998) are performed attacca. It’s a reminder that perhaps Vieaux’s greatest strength as a musician is his sense of architecture, something seldom mentioned in reviews of his recordings.
Here’s another recording that’s not well known, but should be. This has it all: two premiere recordings of worthy additions to the guitar repertoire, passionate and intelligent playing, a rich tonal palette, and intriguing programming. O’Mara’s style might be disturbing to some—she challenges rather than soothes, as you may surmise from the forthright cover photo. Her’s is a unique voice that commands attention. To see if you agree, follow the above link to the sound samples on Amazon. To hear a complete performance of the title work of this CD, click here to visit the composer’s website.
This 195 minute documentary traces the life and career of perhaps the greatest classical guitarist of the 20th century. Like his playing, Bream himself is colorful and engaging, and this biography is packed with wonderful vignettes. My favorite is an impromptu meeting in which the young Bream tries to coax an obviously reluctant Igor Stravinsky into writing something for him.
If you’re looking for something more substantial, the complete Julian Bream boxed set is just the thing. This 40 CD set, issued in 2013 to coincide with Bream’s 80th birthday, has all his albums released by RCA between 1960 and 1991. Included is a hardbound book with a brief bio and detailed program listings of all the recordings. Also included are two DVD disks that contain concert footage of Bream in his prime, a BBC documentary about Bream, and a 1972 television interview. Watching these vintage broadcasts gives a sense of the man behind the music. It’s easy to see why he was such a compelling player. One senses that the man was incapable of being bored, such is the passion he brought to everything he did. If you’ve the perception to hear a keen mind and heart at work, you’ll be richly rewarded.