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.