Join Our Mailing List



AUGUST 2017 | Ray's Round-Up: Leo Brouwer

AUGUST 2017 | Ray's Round-Up: Leo Brouwer


Fresh from our two Leo Brouwer events at the Bolívar Hall I thought it would be timely to offer an overview of the extensive discography of, arguably, the greatest living Latin American composer. My greatest challenge is that Brouwer's most celebrated and recorded music is for for solo guitar, and with many performers including a few pieces on their recital recordings, the number of available discs is quite extensive. I have therefore decided to limit my survey to several recordings which are substantially devoted to the composer's music wherever possible, and leave you, the reader, to explore further.

For those who are unfamiliar with this great Cuban musician, Leo Brouwer first made his name as a guitarist, with an eclectic repertoire that extended back to Early music composers up to the avant-garde. His music changed from a style with folkloric overtones, to become inspired by the music of Bartok and Stravinsky, and the avant-garde. However, increasingly dissatisfied with the avant-garde, he created a more tonally-based style that developed his music in small cells, or as he describes, syllables, in the spirit of ‘new simplicity’, which all grew from his early experiences of Afro-Cuban rhythms. His music conveys an acute understanding of sound and textures, and his music develops from small cells, rather than conventionally, from melody. The structures are invariably taut and defined, with rarely any sense of longeurs. Over recent years, the refining process has meant his style has become more concentrated, and no less radical, creating a very intense experience, like in his most recent Sonata No. 5 'Ars combinatoria'.

A good place to start is his concertante guitar works, with the attractive Tres danzas concertantes, written in the composer’s teenage years, a precursor to his 11 numbered Guitar Concertos. These represent an amazing corpus and variety of music, over a fascinating stylistic journey. The first concerto of 1972 formed part of a trio of concertos Brouwer wrote that year also for violin and flute. It is a truly challenging work in full avant-garde panoply, inventive and very much of its time, with the use of interdeterminancy. Whilst the composer recorded it for the Cuban label Egrem, it was John Williams who brought it to the wider world on CBS, in a truly spontaneous reading (available now as a download). 9 years later and in a changed and more recognisable style, its successor, Concerto di Lieja, was recorded by Costas Cotsiolis in 1981, in a live performance, only available now as a download. However, it was arguably in the succeeding 4 concertos that Brouwer achieved a personalised development of the guitar concerto, with each reflecting something of the performer’s personality: No. 3 'Elegiaco' / Julian Bream; No. 4 'Toronto' /John Williams, No. 5 'Helsinki / Timo Korhonen; and No. 6 'Volos' / Costsa Cotsiolis. These concertos have achieved international recognition in the concert hall and through recordings, though for this review I am recommending in the first instance the performances by the dedicatees, reflecting the somewhat personal nature of the music, and in the case of No. 3, which is only available as a download, I suggest an outstanding alternative on CD. For those that value the composer conducting his music, No. 5 was released on a Koch recording with Walter Abt as soloist. Of the later concertos only No. 9 'Benicassim' has been recorded to date and I am not aware of any downloads or performances on Youtube. Listening to this music, one is not aware of virtuoso pieces that will be forgotten tomorrow, and also the way in which the composer carefully balances the soloist against the orchestra, in the studio and in live performances. John Williams’ world premiere recording of No. 4 is also a ‘must have’ for the depth of understanding that he brings to the composer’s solo guitar music, including the magnificent El decameron negro of 1981. Timmo Korhonen’s disc includes Brouwer’s sparkling orchestration of 3 movements from Albeniz’ Iberia.

Other guitar concertante works worth exploring include Retrat catalans (music inspired by Mompou and Gaudi) from 1982, the Lennon-McCartney song transcriptions Beatlerianias 'From Yesterday to Penny Lane' and the Omaggio a Paganini (1994/5) - a Concerto for guitar, violin and strings from 1994/5 in which the composer achieves an extraordinary cross between Vivaldian-styled string writing and Paganinian exercises for the soloists. Purely orchestral pieces are much fewer but a couple of interesting works are recorded, Canción de gesta for percussion and wind instruments and Canciones remotas for string orchestra

The realm of chamber music has been no less important for the composer in distilling his ideas. Once more starting in his early years,1957/9 we have the String Trio and Quintet for guitar and strings, reflecting the composer’s prevailing influence interest in Afro-Cuban music. In 1961 the first String Quartet, whilst dedicated 'In Memory of Bela Bartok', is quintessentially music of the composer, displaying his innate understanding for string writing, sonorities and textures. The following four quartets reflect the composer’s prevailing interests of the time in which they were conceived, No. 2 - 1968, No. 3 - 1991/7, No. 4 - 2007 and No. 5 - 2011, and each is unfailingly inventive and interesting. Whilst there are some good individual performances of this oeuvre I am recommending a pair of discs by the Havana String Quartet, accompanied on the second by Carlos Barbosa-Lima, the first being a winner in the 11th Latin GRAMMY awards. An interesting aside in the realm of chamber music is the music written for multiple guitars, in which respect there are some very good recordings by ensembles, including the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, who include on their Latin disc the Paisaje cubano con Iluvia (part of an ongoing series for different instruments of Cuban landscapes) which was included in our concert. Reducing to two guitars, an excellent disc by the Brasil Guitar Duo covers music over Brouwer’s whole compositional life, including the fascinating Sonata de los viajeros of 2009, which contains a movement which is a personal homage to J. S. Bach. Still with multiple guitars, as a conductor Brouwer led some fascinating readings of music played by guitar orchestras, notably the one from Barcelona, though I’m only aware of one commercial recording of this piece by the Guitar Symphonietta for the Italian Giulia label (GS201006), a rarity now but well worth tracking down for the Paisaje cubano con rumba and Acerca del cielo, el ayre y la sonrisa, though the latter can be found on an excellent recording by the Eos Guitar Quartet.

Moving onto the solo guitar music, it is worthwhile tracking down the mostly live performances, recorded by the composer as performer on the Egrem and Frame labels, which did receive quite wide circulation, but now with limited availability. On Youtube there are some amazing live recordings dating back to the 1960s to early 1970s when the composer toured as a soloist, before his hand injury halted his performance career. Forget hi-fidelity and just marvel at the sheer audacity and brilliance of Leo Brouwer, who was one of the best guitarists in his day, and a formable interpreter. His recordings for Deutsche Grammophon in 1970-3 achieved a limited reissue on CD with Rara, which represents a fascinating conspectus of music he was playing at the time by leading avant-garde composers, as well as some of his own music and perhaps the most authentic reading of his La espiral eternal. It is a shame that the remaining recordings, of mostly Early Music, have not been reissued, as they show how well versed Brouwer was with music that was rarely touched by avant-garde musicians of his day.

Whilst some may disagree, I think that the best place to start exploring the music for solo guitar is with a collection of 4 discs issued on the Naxos label by three guitarists who are very well versed in Brouwer’s music: Ricardo Cobo (who also memorably recorded the 3rd and 4th Guitar Concertos for ESS.A.Y), Elena Papandreou and the British guitarist, Graham Anthony Devine. Each musician plays a cross-section of the composer’s styles and brings a strong sense of individuality to their performances, with a thematic connection. These may not be the last word on the individual pieces' performances but they are very good and received excellent critical reviews when they were issued between 1997 and 2007. Perhaps as a postscript to the series, Naxos released a disc of music by Brouwer for bandurria (a small 16th-century lute still popular in south America) and guitar, including two sonatas, which is also very interesting.

Finally I recommend a twin CD release from Cuba, and widely released, entitled Homo Ludens Vol. 1 (only one issued) - a twin CD curated by the composer, containing music for solo instruments and an interesting cross-section of chamber music for a variety of instrumental combinations, showing the composer at his most radical and inventive.

This is by no means a complete overview of the recordings of this great musician and composer, and contains a limited review of Brouwer’s work as a conductor and his film music, of which a few recordings exist. However, I urge you to explore this incredibly varied Cuban landscape.

Some recommended CDs and downloads:

Tres Danzas Concertantes / Remi Boucher / Analekta
Guitar Concerto No.1 / John Williams (download)
Concierto di Lieja / Costas Cotsiolis (download)
Concierto Elegiaco / Julian Bream with the composer conducting (download) & Stein-Erik Olsen/ Simax
Concierto de Toronto /John Williams / Sony
Concierto de Helsinki / Timo Korhonen / Ondine (c/w Yesterday to Penny Lane & Iberia Suite)
Concierto de Volos / Costas Cotsiolos conducted by the composer / GHA (c/w music by Rodrigo and Arnold)
Concierto de Benicassim / Miguel Trapaga / Naxos (c/w music by Rodrigo and Martin)
Retrat catalans / Eduardo Fernandez / Decca
Omaggio a Paganini / Costas Cotsiolos & Isel Rodriquez Trujillo conducted by the composer / GHA (c/w concertos by Krieger and Piazzolla)
Canción de gesta / American Wind Symphony Orchestra / rare CD and download
Canciones remotas / The Seasons Orchestra cond Vladislav Bulakhov / Doberman -Yppan (on the CD ‘Premieres’ with guitar concertos)
Beatlerianas / Guitar Quintet / Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas with Santiago Quartet / Cubafilin (c/w music by Del Aguila and Alvarez)
String Quartets No.s 1-4, String Trio / Havan String Quartet / Zoho
String Quartet No. 5, Beatlerianas, Guitar Quintet and solo guitar / Havana String Quartet with Carlos Barbosa-Lima / Zoho
Music for 2 guitars / Brasil Guitar Duo / Naxos
Paisaje cubano con Iluvia / LAGQ ‘Latin' / Telarc
Acerca del cielo / Eos Guitar Quartet / Divox
Rara / Leo Brouwer / DG
Guitar Music Vol. 1 / Ricardo Cobo / Naxos
Guitar Music Vol. 2 / Elena Papandreou / Naxos
Guitar Music Vol. 3 / Graham Anthony Devine / Naxos
Guitar Music Vol. 4 / Graham Anthony Devine / Naxos
Music for Bandurria and Guitar / Pedro Chamorro & Pedro Mateo Gonzalez / Naxos
Homo ludens / Various / Colibri 



  Site design and content copyright © 1998-2018
The Iberian and Latin American Music Society, all rights reserved.
ILAMS is a registered charity, No. 1092749