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Pasquale Rucco and Douglas James, 19th century guitars. CALA VISTA Classics, 299 Creek View Lane, Boone, NC 28607
Comes now the American Douglas James and Pasquale Rucco of Italy with a disc titled Early Romantic Music for Two Guitars. We’re dealing with the period 1768 to 1868 and if I were a teenager I’d quickly write the whole thing off as one of those molto snorando aural museum exhibits my parents call “good exposure.” But here’s the nut; once the fat lady sings there’s some heroic debris cluttering the isle and the ride was great!
Actually, what we’ve got here is one of those bona fide treasures. Works by Rossini via Giuliani, Gragnani, de Fossa, and de Barco’ (first recording). Like so many sleepers there’s a lot more at work here than some toothy classic era parlor music, and I think we’d still be having fun even without considering the whole concept of ‘period performance practice.’ Right. Period instruments and weird strings too. You know, the fun just never stops.
For me the first indication of how good this disc is involved the newspaper. I found myself listening to the program over a morning routine of juice, toast and newspaper. Eventually the newspaper went away. Then I was on the couch with eyes closed. Soon I had the scores, and then I was hopelessly hooked. And this is not your conventional duo guitar feel either. It would be a mistake to compare this ensemble with contemporary touring duos. More on that later.
First up is the Sinfonia from Rossini’s opera “LaGazza Ladra,” The Thieving Magpie. It’s an arrangement by Giuliani from a set of four such operatic arrangements composed late, and published posthumously in 1830. An orchestral panorama and familiar melodies (familiar because of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, perhaps, but that’s another story) played with zest and panache – ah – I mean classic restraint. Quite irresistible.
A sensual and subdued Duo, Op 4, No. 2 by Filipo Gragnani follows. If this music sounds familiar it may be due to the fact the composer was a student of fellow Italian guitarist Ferdinando Carulli, hence the light themes and two movement format.
Next is a five-movement work of Francois de Fossa, Grand Duo, Op. 2, No. 2. Here we’re deep into the parlor on Sunday afternoon. The windows are open, the sun is shining. Based on Haydn’s string quartet in E major, Op. 2, No. 2 it is an appealing and charming excursion into an era of chamber music we can speculate must have been The Thing to do. Not only good for the ear, it sounds like fun to play.
Then we have this new work by a totally unknown composer, Antoine Baron de Barco’, birth and death dates unknown. We do know he served the Austrian Emperor, was perhaps a Viennese nobleman, and certainly an amateur musician with military service during the Napoleonic era. The Rondeau Pour Deux Guitarres, Op. 1 is light, airy, waltzy, and really does seek to venture into new harmonic territories but seems restrained from doing so right at key opportunities. This tendency brings quite a bit of anticipation as well as satisfaction to the ear. Otherwise excellent, intelligent writing and completely consistent with he era.
The program ends with Rossini, this time the Sinfonia from “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” The Barber of Seville. Again we have the familiar themes and grand orchestral scoring fully bringing the Opera’s vitality and images to life. Wonderful!
Throughout the program we have the dichotomy of large-scale writing veiled by a light touch and almost transparent sound texture. Certainly much of that is due to the instruments used; James is playing a Parisian guitar by Jacques Derazey from the period 1830-36, not a copy, the real thing. Rucco is also playing a French instrument (maker unknown) from c. 1805. Both instruments have a vibrating string length of 62.8 cm, common of the period, and hybrid string sets; Bow brand gut strings for the trebles and modern nylon-core basses. Both instruments are fitted with bone saddles and both players use RH nails.
What truly sets this disc apart is the general feel and imagery that puts you right in that fine grand parlor on Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t until I had the scores in my hand that the level of scholarship required to play this music became obvious.
For example, iconography from this period uses familiar symbols but require a different realization relative to modern scores. And then not; the early 19th c. quarter rest looks like a backwards modern eighth rest, the whole note bass in a 4/4 measure is often located squarely in the middle of the bar, and then you have the "primitive" vs. "transitional" notation methods of voicing to sort out. One compositional practice from the period, use of sustained pedals in the bass, can completely distort primary material in the upper register if allowed to boom along unchecked. The trick in this case is to use the flesh of “P” instead of the nail. Dynamic markings take a slightly different meaning also. You might read “pf” as “piano-forte” (soft then loud), but it's actually "poco forte" or somewhat loud. And the “Sf” or “sfz” should be taken within the context of the overall dynamic of the passage, not simply a sudden burst of sound.
Overall interpretation of the period requires some historical perspective also. According to Dr. James, “I've found treatises from the period use the word 'expression' to talk about the use of time, and the indication 'espressivo' means to be free with the pulse!” Therefore things like rubato might be common for taking a breath at phrase endings, but manipulating time in a larger context is the primary ‘expressive’ tool.
When the whole subject of “period performance practice” and original period instruments came into headlines many years ago I must admit being confused. It wasn’t until much later I realized that when you come through the ranks playing five centuries of repertoire you acquire a feel for all that. Of course lute and vihuela players were among my peers, and at that time one third of Michael Lorimer’s program material was performed on a baroque guitar. Later Richard Savino and David Starobin both made important discoveries and contributions, then John Williams brought our whole guitar audience on-line with a performance of the Giuliani Concerto in A major Op. 30 using a borrowed Gaetano Guadagnini guitar made in 1814. I don’t mean to omit anyone from the mix here, just give a general trend.
But we have new insight now, a new level, the bar has moved. Both of these players have won stuff, have years of playing experience, are respected pedagogues and even have jobs. But all that really isn’t important. It’s the sound, the energy and the program that is so unique and convincing. Among the hand-full of nineteenth century period duos performing world wide James & Rucco belong amid the front rank. You need brains and brawn to get this job done and the evidence suggests those dues have been paid. The delicate character, classic chamber ensemble reading and fine instrumental balance make this recording a wondrous sojourn to the era. It belongs in every public library, at least!
In the year 2092 I wonder what kind of challenges the musician will face in recreating the sound and feel of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin or Eric Clapton? Think about it. Not too far off the mark.
Roger Allen Cope ©
Mr. Cope directs the guitar curriculum at Brevard College in Brevard, NC including ensembles. For seven years he toured with Seattle flutist Lise Mann as DUENDE, releasing two recordings of flute & guitar music on the SONARI label. In a career spanning 28 years he has performed as orchestral soloist, concert artist, recitalist, lecturer and community servant. He is President Emeritus of the Classical Guitar Society of the Western Carolinas.