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)
rec. 2018, Saint Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
TOCCATA NEXT TOCN0001 [62.50]
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.
Since his debut album in 2004 Morgan Szymanski has released a succession of stimulating collections (see www.sarabanderecords.com) 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 (www.ilams.org.uk)
In his latest solo album, Nuevo Mundo, guitarist Morgan Szymanski presents a selection of mostly new music, written for him by a group of composers with whom it is audibly apparent he has developed a natural rapport. Some of the composers will be familiar from Szymanski’s previous albums, namely Alec Roth, Simone Iannarelli, Julio César Oliva and Stephen McNeff, but here we are also introduced to Paul Coles. This adds to the diversity of writing styles which are juxtaposed effectively and suit the performer’s playing style and personality, contributing to a very well-rounded programme. One of the hallmarks of Szymanski’s albums (this being his 3rd solo album and 5th overall released on his Sarabande label), is the care and artistry that accompanies each release, and this album is no exception.
The album opens with music by the great Paraguayan, Agustín Barrios Mangoré. Whilst most of you will know the Vals Op. 8, No. 4 and Maxixe, they are played here with great affection and bewitching elegance, providing an attractive opener, with the familiar leading to the newer pieces, the first by Paul Coles. This composer has written some very interesting guitar music over the years, and treats us to a deliciously songful piece with his Fantasia Tropical. The music exudes a delicate Carribean charm, and when played with such lightness of touch and deft rhythmic inflections as it is here, it cannot help but bring a smile to your face.
In his previous album, Estampas de Mexico, Szymanski extensively explored the music of Julio César Oliva, and here we are treated to four Images of Mexico, written in the composer’s typical understated style. This is music that eschews overt nationalist gestures, having a stronger poetic and lyrical dimension, with something in common with Manuel Ponce. The music has a beguiling simplicity, to which Szymanski is perfectly attuned, allowing the music to flow naturally as it paints vivid images of Mexico following the passage of the sun. We visit Mexico City, the mountains of Tepoztlán, and the beaches of Ensenada and Los Cabos and if this is not clear enough for you I urge you to view Szymanski’s promotional video on his website (well worth viewing in any case).
This is followed by three titled pieces by Simone Iannerrelli, another composer who specialises in music for the guitar, for which he writes most effectively. The colouristic effects in three of the twelve pieces that make up his suite, Italian Coffee, are quite different to the preceding composers, though the style remains relaxed. These are piquant songs without words, played with disarming understatement. It’s a shame that not all real coffee tastes this good!
There is little doubt that the guitar music written by Alec Roth for Szymanski has been of a consistently high standard, with many notable achievements across the genres including solo, chamber, song and concerto. Alec Roth’s contribution to this album should not be judged by its length, as the figures leap across the strings in the delightful Mexican Jumping Bean for an event-packed 1’50. This was evidently a birthday present from the composer and it is a piece of musical fun which the dedicatee plays here with great relish.
The album ends with music by Stephen McNeff, which introduces some musical and alcoholic intoxication to this eventful album. It seems that when he last visited Mexico, the composer was introduced by a mutual friend to the custom of drinking tequila, sangrita and beer as a chaser. The lethal combination is also known as the Tres Angelitos Mexicanos but the effect is distilled into a virtuoso three-movement suite, each covering the three components. These are very well-written pieces for the guitar which have a wide range of dynamic and expressive effects delivered with humour and virtuosity by Szymanski, which will no doubt work well when played live.
Nuevo Mundo is another artistic triumph for Morgan Szymanski where he achieves a fine balance between spontaneity and attention to detail. The music selected is very enjoyable and it all adds up to a highly recommendable album.
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.
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.
Morgan Szymanski (guitar) and Harriet Mackenzie (violin) at the London Classical Guitar Festival, Bolivar Hall, 13th of September 2011. Reviewed by Thérèse Wassily Saba.
The Mexican guitarist Morgan Szymanski who lives in London gave a rectal with the British violinist Harriet Mackenzie to open the fourth edition of the London Classical Guitar Festival, which is organised annually by ILAMS (the Iberian and Latin American Music Society). Their programme included arrangements of folk songs such as Estrellita by Manuel M.Ponce arranged for guitar and violin by Morgan Szymanski, Romanian Folk Dances by Bela Bartók and Spanish Folk Songs by Manuel de Falla. Harriet Mackenzie announced that she had heard the original field recordings which Bela Bartók had collected in 1915 and one could hear this in her bowing style, her use of glissandi, the phrasing and beautifully played melodic lines in the Romanian Five Folk Songs: Joc cu bata, Braul, Buciumeana, Poarca Romaneasca, and with a powerful and focused performance of the very rhythmic Maruntel.
Each of the performers played solos: Morgan Szymanski gave a very good performance of the tremolo piece Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios by Agustín Barrios Mangoré and Harriet Mackenzie gave a soothing performance of the Andante from Sonata in A minor BWV1003 by J.S. Bach as a violin solo.
Paganini was famous for writing violin and guitar duets with a virtuosic part for the violin and a very plain and simple part for the guitarist. The exception to this is Paganini’s three-movement Sonata Concertata in A Major Op.61 (1804) which has technically balanced parts for violin and guitar; Morgan Szymanski played his own small cadenzas in there as well. They finished the concert with two movements from Astor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango, building slowly to a fortissimo and with an excellent feel for the syncopations in the rhythm.
Those of you who recall the dramatic robbery of Morgan Szymanski’s (and Craig Ogden’s) guitars, under the pretence of each of them playing at a funeral in a central London church – different churches but on the same day – may be wondering what Morgan Szymanski is paying at the moment. He is now performing on a guitar by the Chinese guitar maker, Yulong Guo, which fared very well alongside Harriet Mackenzie’s historic instrument.
Morgan Szymanski and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields by Thérèse Wassily Saba.
The Academy of St Martin in the Fields was founded in 1958 by Sir Neville Marriner; it is a chamber orchestra with a long history of working with guitarists. On this occasion there was no conductor and the lead violinist, Kenneth Sillito, took on the role of leading/conducting the orchestra of 17 instrumentalists. They began with the Holberg Suite Op.40 by Grieg. The sound they produced was rich and filled the Wigmore Hall. Their dynamics were carefully planned and the contrasts between piano and forte dynamics were very clear.
The Mexican guitarist Morgan Szymanski joined the Academy for the Guitar Concerto RV93 in D major by Vivaldi. Positioned in the centre of the ensemble and although he played without any amplification, I could still hear his guitar and the changes of timbres at the back of the hall, in this solidly good performance of the work.
The Academy of St Martin in the Fields performed the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 by Villa-Lobos. The work was completed in 1945 and exists in two versions: one for choir, singing without words, and in the version we heard here for chamber ensemble (no guitar, of course). The work builds very dramatically into what Villa-Lobos described as ‘the suggestion of a large organ’.
The Concerto for Guitar and String Orchestra by the Irish/German composer Alec Roth was written for Morgan Szymanski. The orchestration was very attractive; Alec Roth used the resources of the guitar and string ensemble very well to create attractive sound colours, such as his use of pizzicato strings against strummed chords on the guitar. There is an effective and beautiful tremolo section later. One could hear the pleasure of the composer in creating these sounds. The Concerto had a distinctly individual nature and did not sound like anyone else’s composition.
The Concerto starts with the guitar playing solo in harmonics, followed by an ettouffe ostinato passage, which acts as an introduction for the string orchestra. The ostinato on the guitar continues but with a building up of ideas and thus the music is immediately engaging and easy to follow. The catchy rhythm of the first movement, March, added to this accessibility. The Serenade second movement has a more relaxed and romantic character, with gentle and soothing harmony, ending dramatically with the strings using contemporary playing techniques, such as creating the sounds of noisy seagulls by squeaking up and down their fingerboards with their bows. The Nocturne third movement has two distinctive characters: the gentle lullaby contrasted with the more frightening fears that come upon us in the dark. The final movement called Fiesta is as lively as its title suggests and ends with a very positive feel.
The Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Morgan Szymanski have been touring with the Concerto for Guitar and String Orchestra by Alec Roth since October 2010. This was its London première.
Machaca – Los Ambulantes
Morgan Szymanski (Guitar) Sarabande Records – SARACD003
‘Machaca’ is an ensemble of guitar, violin, cello, accordion, percussion, bass, flute and cuatro and is the name of an international ensemble of high-class musicians put together by Mexican-born guitarist Morgan Szymanski in 2006. Los Ambulantes is the second album made under this group name although the personnel for this one differs from the first album with the exception of the cellist and the accordionist. Apart from a work by the Italian guitarist Simone Iannarelli and one from Welsh composer Stephen McNeff, the programme consists of music from South America.
As with their first release, the track listing features many well-known musical works presented in a new manner due to the addition of other instrumentation. Hence the three celebrated solo guitar pieces by Venezuelan guitarist Antonio Lauro are heard with an up-tempo beat with the guitarist backed by cuatro and percussion and also Celso Machado’s wonderful Bolinhas de Queijo given a cool-jazz interpretation a la ‘MJQ’ style.
Of particular interest is the longest item on the programme, the title track Los Ambulantes here given its world premiere recording. This is a terrific piece written in a contemporary jazz mode and a work which uses the group to their full potential. It is a work of multiple musical layers and density travelling through a variety of moods and holds the attention for its full eleven minutes.
The disc is well recorded and performed with style from a seemingly very enthusiastic ensemble.
Steve Marsh, Classical Guitar Magazine April 2011.
Machaca – Mano a Mano
Morgan Szymanski (Guitar) Sarabande Records – SARACD001
This is subtitled as ‘Chamber Music for Guitar’ and for this Morgan Szymanski is joined by an array of other musicians performing on harpsichord, violin, percussion, accordion and cuatro plus two female vocalists.
The programme falls roughly into two broadly defined camps, one, of works where the composer’s instrumental intentions are more or less followed (ie. the Piazzolla and Ponce compositions) and the second where the music has additional instrumentation added such as in the Lauro Vals Criollo (cuatro/percussion/lyrics) and Brouwer’s Danza Caracterísitica and Canción de Cuna(respectively, percussion and vocal/percussion).
Of special interest is the word-premiere recording of British composer Alec Roth’s four movement composition for guitar and strings where Morgan Szymanski joins forces with the Sacconi Quartet. The Quintet is a lyrical and intense piece with many and varied rhythms: a multiplicity of moods are covered from sombre and morbid ones through to euphoria and exhilaration and with several twists and turns along the way. Altogether this is an excellent new work for the repertoire and hopefully one which will make many appearances on the concert platform.
All the musicians involved in this interesting project give superb performances and the recorded sound is outstanding. The programme is wide-ranging and colourful, interleaving the known with the less well-known. The Roth piece alone makes this such an attractive purchase.
Steve Marsh – Classical Guitar Magazine, April 2011.
Bob Smissen / Devon / Kenneth Sillito / Morgan Szymanski / Philip R Buttall / Stephen Orton / Totnes
It would be so easy to think that a world-renowned ensemble, touring the same programme around the country, and one which, though absolutely charming, is perhaps not excessively stressful, might occasionally switch into automatic mode.
Not so the strings of St Martin in the Fields. From their body language and interaction, it was so obvious from the very first note, that each player was still really enjoying making music, and the resulting sound, enhanced by the glorious acoustic, was simply breathtaking throughout.
Yes they can command all the best players around, with such immense strengths as violist, Bob Smissen, and the rich fruity tone of cellist, Stephen Orton.
In director, Kenneth Sillito, they could simply find no better, both in his wonderfully expressive playing, and assured, yet so persuasively unassuming leadership.
And, with such eminent crowd pleasers as Grieg’s Holberg Suite, a Villa Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras, the delicious E flat Serenade by Joseph Suk, and Morgan Szymanski’s delicately-crafted reading of Vivaldi’s D major Guitar Concerto, this was always going to be a concert to die for.
But the specially-commissioned Guitar Concerto by Alec Roth eventually stole the show, for here was a brand new contemporary work which was not only perfectly formed, but was such a delight to hear – if only all of today’s so-called composers would show such consideration, and respect for their listeners’ intellect.
PHILIP R BUTTALL