Serenata Mexicana
Alejandro BASULTO (b.1984)
Paqueña Serenata Ranchera for strings (2018) [13.51]
Jig Variations for guitar and chamber orchestra (2016) [13.18]
Arturo MÁRQUEZ (b.1950)
Dibujos sobre un puerto for tenor and harp (2001) [10.10]
Máscaras for harp and chamber orchestra (1998-1999) [25.26]
David Curtis (conductor)
Morgan Szymanski (guitar)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor)
Gabriella Dall’Olio (harp)
Shakespeare Sinfonia
rec. 2018, Saint Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

This is one of those instantly appealing recordings, and one which will give great pleasure. Its release marks the 75th anniversary of the Anglo Mexican Foundation, who also commissioned the first three pieces on the disc. The Shakespeare Sinfonia is also making its debut here. It was formed by David Curtis at the invitation of Anglo Arts to make this recording, and is a mixture of postgraduate music school students and freelance musicians – and, on this evidence, a highly competent group of players. The only Mexican-born musician on the disc is Morgan Szymanski, but much of his work and study have been based in the United Kingdom.

The first pieces are by the young Alejandro Basulto. His music is attractive, and in some ways might have been composed at any time in the last century. His Paqueña Serenata Ranchera for strings flirts with atonality, mainly in the first movement, but reveals a strong lyrical gift and a sense of forward movement. It is an overtly programmatic piece, with the focus on a woman’s reaction to macho approaches in love. I found I quickly put the narrative out of mind, concentrating instead on the way the piece was shaped. Basulto has a keen ear for string sonorities, and a confidence in technique.

The inspiration for Jig Variations was William Kempe’s famous journey in 1600 from London to Norwich, morris-dancing for much the way. The journey was devised as something of a publicity stunt, and he seems to have been well-received as he went. He wrote a book describing his journey (Kemp’s nine daies wonder). Basulto re-imagines this as taking place in Mexico, but there are nods along the way, notably in the initial theme, to Elizabethan style. None of the 12 tiny movements outstays its welcome, and one could imagine many of its notable ideas developed at greater length. After the theme, there are nine variations, each in a different dance form, before a final cadenza and 20 second quick finale. It is all great fun with some darker moments.

Arturo Márquez is a very lyrical composer, traditional – even conservative – in style and immediately engaging. Dibujos sobre un puerto (‘Sketches above a harbour’) sets six poems by José Gorostoza (1901-1973). The six poems are all brief (texts and translations are provided, together with Márquez’ commentary). They make a satisfying cycle. The mood is generally elegiac, despite moments of tension. Jamie MacDougall’s performance is similarly gentle, recognising well both mood and the eloquence of simplicity.

Máscaras, a four-movement concerto, is the one piece not commissioned by the Anglo Mexican Foundation. It has a programmatic element, as it was inspired by cultural and political events. Chiapas Indians rose in 1994 seeking just treatment. Máscaras are masks. The first movement, Máscaras flor (‘Mask Flower’) commemorates infants killed in Acteal in 1997, when 45 members of a pacifist group were killed by a paramilitary band called Máscara Roja. In the same year, a little Chiapas girl told the composer of her attachment to a flower as representative of nature.

The second movement, Máscara Son is a reflective piece, with a hint of defiance and optimism. Son refers to a genre of Mexican folk dance and music, often performed by small bands of strings and percussion. The third movement again picks up the theme of the dance – as performed in San Juan de Letrán, a street in Mexico City, once known for its strong musical tradition. The final movement, La Pasión según Marcos, was inspired by a text by a rebel leader, when he rejected President Salinas’s pardon to the rebels in 1994. Again, the music transcends the original inspirational events. We have a most attractive concerto, lovingly played by Gabriella Dall’Olio, one to which I look forward to returning.

Congratulations are due to all involved in making this recording possible. I hope it will be the first of a series.

Michael Wilkinson

Since his debut album in 2004 Morgan Szymanski has released a succession of stimulating collections (see which combine the familiar with new pieces, mostly written for him, which he plays either solo or with a small group of like-minded musicians. In El Árbol de la Vida, his 10th and latest recording Szymanski has pushed the boundaries and he has released a collection of World premieres. These are all pieces dedicated to Szymanski by living composers, with whom he has developed a strong artistic relationship, and they in turn are clearly inspired to write for him. On this latest musical journey Szymanski plays solo except on two pieces where he duets with viola player and composer, Simon Rowland-Jones (who’s name may be familiar as the past viola player of the Chilingarian Quartet) and the flautist Alejandro Escuer, who is one of Mexico´s foremost exponents of contemporary music. 

Sarabande Records SARADD006 

There is a clever compositional link on this album as many of the pieces relate to people, places and objets that are important to the Morgan Szymanski, who I am indebted to for his helpful explanation of the sources of inspiration. This deeply personal link between the writer and performer can only work, as it does here, when performer sees through the eyes of the composer and vice versa. In many respects I felt the opening opening quartet of pieces by Julio César Oliva, a long standing musical partner of the guitarist, was a perfect example of this living act of creativity as the composer takes us into Morgan Szymanski’s world: Valle de Bravo conjures up the guitarist’s home town, the streets of which are covered with bouganvilias (in Bugambilias), whilst Irene is a musical portrait of Morgan’s mother, and La Perla is the name of his guitar and features an attractive succession of ideas. The easy going and strongly lyrical style of Oliva works so well with these personalised pieces, which are quite memorable and represent a perfect entré. 

Simone Iannarelli’s music has featured on most of Morgan Szymanski’s albums, and his quite individual take on a variety of subject matters including coffee is always very interesting. In Tonada del Xolotzcuintcle we start with one of the constants in the guitarist’s repertoire, the composer Manuel Ponce, who’s Mexican songs Iannarelli uses as a springboard for a delightfully inventive fantasy.

Stephen McNeff contributed a wonderful atmospheric trilogy of pieces to 2015’s Nuevo Mundo and does so once again with the cleverly atmospheric La Catrina which explores the mythology behind the emblem of The Day of the Dead. ‘Catrina’ originally referred to a well dressed and perhaps rich woman which transmuted into the famous engraving of a skeleton wearing a large elegant floral and feathered hat. No mere ’danse macabre’, this piece is a strongly felt mediation on a subject close to the heart of Mexican culture. 

Another very important ancient cultural image is ‘The Tree of Life,’ which features as the central image on the album’s artwork (a silk painting especially made for this venture by Hilary Simon), and the title piece written by Deborah Pritchard, the recipient of a British Composer Award in 2017. this is her first work for guitar, a piece of great subtlety and virtuosity, which like much of her music has strong connotations to imagery, through her experience of synaesthesia, where “she perceives sound as colour, light and darkness.” The tree has its roots in the underworld and branches in heaven which is evoked with great drama and originality through its changing iterations on a repeated phrase, reaching up, and delving deep. This is a truly original work and draws an utterly committed and inspired performance from Szymanski. 

Hypnotic percussive effects and strummed chords on the guitar help recreate a ritualistic atmosphere in Paul Coles’ Huitzilopochtli, a brief and hypnotic dance, and a homage to the Aztec god of war. This is superbly contrasted by Banyabuffar written by Simon Rowland-Jones, who takes us to the beautiful coastal village on the west coast of Mallorca, with its extraordinary terrace hillsides and views of the mountains. This is a beautiful work, with the viola singing plangently with the sympathetic guitar in bitter sweet harmony. I pressed ‘play’ several times in succession – it is a truly lovely and memorable work. Szymanski explained that the two musicians played in the village together, where they returned to premiere this work. 

A couple of three movement pieces end the album, first the more formally titled Sonatina by Ivan Moseley, who’s music I’d not heard before. This intricate and virtuosic piece has great range of emotion and effects, with a strongly dramatic persona. Written a few years ago for Szymanski, it is undoubtedly a more modern sounding work but one with a strong rhythmic heart. It acts as a perfect foil on the collection for the finale, No estacionarse by the Mexican, Marcela Rodríguez in a brilliant and energetic piece for flute and guitar. The work is translated as ‘No Parking’ and parodies traffic in Mexico City, which is constantly moving, hence no slow movement. Rodríguez is a very well established composer, who has written a number of works for flute in particular, and this restless and energetic evocation of city traffic is executed with consummate ease by Escuer and Szymanski and closes the recital in an exuberant burst of energy. 

This album is a true voyage of discovery, personal yet reaching out as we join the guitarist and his friends on a kaleidoscopic journey of discovery through new sights and sounds. Even though it was recorded over the course of a year in Mexico, Barcelona and London, the music flows effortlessly as a well ordered recital, with plenty to hold one’s attention. Everything is played with seamless perfection and complete understanding by Morgan Szymanski and his friends and recorded to the high standards that we expect from this exceptional musician. I will leave the last word with Morgan: I always feel that if somebody believes in me, trusts his work to me and feels inspired to write something for me, then the least I can do is record it so it can be heard. That is my feeling. Ray Picot, Iberian & Latin American Music Society (

If I wanted to recommend one album of guitar music that showed the artist in total harmony with his material, it would be Morgan Szymanski’s Sketches of Mexico. Of course I am biased – I have the benefit of knowing this wonderful album since its release in 2012 and the following year interviewed the artist over its conception and development – but the wonderful praise garnered from his piers and critics would suggest that I am not alone.

Whilst Szymanski claims to have accidentally discovered Julio Cesar Oliva’s 20 Sketches of Mexico some time after they were published, it is evident from listening to the album that he found common ground with the composer’s source of inspiration – i.e. places, towns and locations in Mexico. The pieces were written with a didactic purpose, to introduce to young guitarists the manifold rhythms, dances and styles of Mexican music. They were also laid out in order of technical difficulty, but these are not technical studies in the conventional sense, and unlike most of Oliva’s works they are not written for public performance (and probably not envisaged as album material), but therein lies the cleverness of Szymanski’s response to the 20 pieces. He knows the music and he understands the relationship between different movements and the individual locations that inspired them (e.g. Jaranas, Teotihuacan) and then reorders them into a satisfying suite that takes you on a musical journey. Now the original intention has become subsumed to a broader artistic concept to which these delightful vignettes are perfectly attuned. The music flows perfectly from one piece to another with a sense of sureness that only an artist of Szymanski’s calibre could achieve. Undoubtedly there are technical difficulties but you are not aware of his technical prowess, just his musical virtuosity as he teases out the pieces’ underlying subtleties.

Realising the composer’s extra-musical inspiration of the individual pieces Szymanski provides an instant tourists’ guide with a collection of original artworks reprinted in the album booklet, accompanied by a short written description. These are pleasurable in their own right but married to the music, they really help the artist to convey a wider imaginative concept. One can only note an album like this would be enhanced as a gatefold LP record with a full size booklet! But Szymanski goes one better, and it is at this point I urge you to locate the concert videos on Youtube which show how Morgan took the concept on the road, where he enlivens the project through an enhanced collection of projections.

However, one has to consider the musical material in its own right and there is no doubt it is very approachable and often understated, but with enough incident and melodic charm, to maintain interest. Szymanski also realises that this collection would work well alongside another suite, and noting (like his own) Oliva’s empathy to the music of Manuel Ponce (see Oliva’s delightful suite, Ponciana for guitar quartet, released by Urtext), he creates an original collection entitled Six Mexican Songs, where he marries Ponce’s Three Mexican Songs, which the composer arranged for his friend Segovia, and adds three more by Ponce. These Szymanski arranges perfectly for guitar and includes the ever-popular Estrellita which shines anew under his subtle touch. Szymanski’s re-imagining of the otherwise pianistic Scherzino mexicano is utterly beguiling.

To conclude, this is an album by a musician on top of his form and for whom only the highest of standards are good enough. I look forward with keen anticipation to his next project, which I understand should be later this year.

Some very exciting projects are happening in 2015 as part of the MX/UK 2015 Celebrations. A new collaboration between Szymanski and  Mexican flute virstuoso Alejandro Escuer will lead to concerts both in Mexico and the UK. Venues include the MUAC museum and Bellas Artes Palace in Mexico City as well as the South Bank Centre, English Speaking Union, The Forge and the St. James´s Theatre in London. The programme will include UK premieres of works by Mexican composers Armando Luna and Gabriela Ortíz as well as works by Eddie McGuire and John Dowland. Szymanski will also be giving the premiere of Alec Roth´s ´Concerto for Guitar and Strings´with the Mexico City Philharmonic conducted by José Areán. Morgan Szymanski is greatful for the support of Anglo Arts.

Morgan will also be performing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the UK, Constella Festival in Cincinatti, the Kirker/Chopin Festival in Mallorca, West Dean Guitar Festival, Deal Festival, Beaminster Festival, Colima Guitar Festival, Sala Carlos Chávez,  Zihuatanejo Guitar Festival as well as concerts in the USA, Mexico, France, UK, Spain, Zimbabwe and South Africa.  Collaborations include projects with the Kosmos Ensemble, guitarists Fausto Palma and James Grace, violinists Tatiana Berman and Harriet Mackenzie,  Simon Rowland Jones (viola), Amaia Azcona (soprano) and the Carducci, Amici and Odeion String Quartets.

Morgan Szymanski´s brand new solo recording will be released in the summer 2015. ´Nuevo Mundo´ is Szymanski´s new project, involving works written especially for him by composers Simone Iannarelli, Paul Coles, Stephen McNeff, Alec Roth and Julio César Oliva.

Oliva´s ´Cuatro Imágenes de México´are four beautiful portraits of his native Mexico, including the passing of a day Mexico City – sunrise, midday, sunset and night- the magical mountains of Tepoztlán, and the beaches of Ensenada and Los Cabos. A promotional video will also be released using the astonishing aereal photography of Mexico by photographer Michael Calderwood, alongside video footage filmed in the 1980´s by Morgan´s father, Jorge Szymanski.

On his last visit to Mexico, composer Stephen McNeff was introduced by a mutual friend, John Finney, to the custom of drinking tequila, sangrita and beer as a chaser. The lethal combination is also known as the ´Tres Angelitos Mexicanos´. The effects of tequila served as inspiration and Stephen´s new work in three movements is a wonderful new addition to the guitar repertoire. Paul Coles´s ´Fantasía Tropical´ is a fun and rhythmical work that just makes one want to get up and dance.  The music of the much in demand Roman composer Simone Iannarelli has always been part of Szymanski´s recordings and this is no exception. His ´Café Jarocho´ inspired by a famous coffee stall in the Coyoacan area of Mexico City makes a wonderful addition to his ´Italian Coffee´ pieces. In 2004, Alec Roth gave Szymanski a wonderful birthday present:  ´El Frijolito Brincador´ (The Mexican Jumping Bean) it is a fun and slightly whacky dance that just had to appear in the new recording. The recording will be available on Sarabande Records through Szymanski´s website and available as CD and download from June 2015.

Sarabande Records SARACD004

This is not so much a recording of a top guitar soloist presenting music from his native Mexico, it is more of a collaboration between Morgan Szymanski and twenty visual artists of various nationalities , whose works are shown on every other page in the highly colourful and informative accompanying 48-page booklet (all the illustrations are for sale from the record company´s website).

I had the pleasure of reviewing Julio César Oliva´s excellent collection ´Veinte Estampas de México´, nearly ten years ago, and wondered at the time when this piece would get recorded in it´s entirety; well here it is receiving it´s premiere recording and being presented by one of the guitar world´s foremost players who is obviously at home interpreting music from his homeland. The twenty ´movements´are all named after towns, cities or areas in Mexico and cover a variety of styles many illustrating the traditional rhythmic and musical diversity contained in that part of the world.

The programme concludes in fine style with six of Manuel Ponce´s highly melodic compositions all immaculately played and superbly phrased. A very entertaining and enthralling new release from an excellent musician.