By RAY PICOT
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. www.morganszymanski.co.uk

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.

Recommended.