MAY 2018 | Interview | In Conversation with Fernando EspíMAY 2018 | Interview | In Conversation with Fernando Espí
By RAY PICOT
In November 2017, the eminent Spanish guitarist Fernando Espí presented for us at King’s College Chapel a programme celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-1892). Considered the greatest luthier of his day, Torres gave birth to the modern instrument with his innovative improvements to its design, which produced a louder and more beautiful tone, helping to launch the guitar out of the drawing room and into the concert hall as an increasingly 'serious' instrument at a time when it was manifestly failing to compete with louder, more dramatic instruments. So superior was Torres' craft that his design remains, to this day, the blueprint for all classical guitar production. Fernando Espí presented his programme on a Joan Pellisa 2016 replica of an original 1863 Torres instrument. He is a graduate in History and Science of Music, and specialises in early music for plucked string instruments for which his work has been widely recognised. Fernando Espí is a multi-award winner and teaches Guitar at the Superior Conservatory Oscar Esplá of Alicante; he also has his own recording label, 6x8, on which he releases a wide range of largely unknown repertoire.
RP: Looking through your discography, it is clear you have a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque to present. However, what stands out are the recordings of Spanish music from the 18th and 19th centuries, which is normally quite neglected. Apart from Sor and Tárrega, most of the composers are little-known, so could I ask what first drew you to this music and what you now find of interest?
FE: I must say my interests go back to the Renaissance: I made a recording for Verso including original music for vihuela and Renaissance guitar by Dezidle al Cavallero, which received great reviews in England! Regards 18th and 19th century music, my original idea was to rediscover new music, of enough quality to be performed in concerts and recorded. I love to play the classical repertoire and in each concert I try to include these less well-known pieces in order to change the audience’s perception of the panorama of the guitar history a little bit, especially Romantic Spanish music. It does seem that this repertoire holds less interest for many other of my Spanish contemporaries.
RP: Much of this repertoire must have been unpublished, so was it difficult to track down?
FE: Yes, some of these pieces are not easy to find. I have musicologist friends that pass music on from different libraries and private collections. Nowadays there are more possibilities than 30 years ago as more of this rare music is being published as the internet expands its availability.
RP: In the latter half of the 19th century there is interesting music written by the likes of José Ferrer, Julián Arcas, Juan Parga and José Broca, but I wonder why it is Tárrega who stands out? For example, Arcas seems to have been particularly noteworthy, but has attracted very limited attention in recent years.
FE: In the 19th and 20th centuries, classical music established a canon of great composers and great pieces. Tárrega was the main romantic composer for the significant guitar players of the 20th century that established this famous repertoire (Segovia, de la Maza, Llobet, Bream, Williams, etc.). For these guitarists the Spanish contemporaries of Tárrega were less interesting, or perhaps they didn't know them! One of my projects is a recording with music by these composers which I also play in my concerts. Among all these guitarists, Julián Arcas was the best; the quality of his music is superb and sometimes Tárrega used his ideas in some of his pieces. For example, the Fantasía on Themes of La Traviata by Verdi is an original by Arcas and not by Tárrega, which is good evidence of the quality of Arcas’ work. Scholars have concluded that Tárrega wrote a manuscript with few and minor changes to Arcas’ original, although confusion remains amongst musicians over its authorship.
RP: Clearly there was something particular about Tárrega and his methods that elevated him above his contemporaries.
FE: Obviously Tárrega had something special! He was a great musician, and could have had a professional career as pianist, but fortunately he chose the guitar. He was not only a great performer but also had a kind and warm personality and he had many students - for example Llobet, Fortea and Pujol, who were very important in their own time, and carried Tárrega’s name forward. He was also one of the first guitarists to understand the timbral possibilities of the Torres guitars and to write quality music for this instrument. He also arranged so many pieces for the guitar from the canon of great composers, including Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. A great performer, great composer, great teacher, great arranger and a kind person! What else can you ask from a guitarist?
RP: Taking up the point you raised over Tárrega’s arrangements, on your Verso recordings you play originals and transcriptions of solo instrumental music and orchestral music. Given that the guitar doesn’t have the range of the piano, which was the dominant instrument in the 19th century, this must have been a huge challenge.
FE: The main characteristic of Tárrega’s transcriptions is he thinks of the arrangement as an original and idiomatic piece for the guitar. These pieces work very well on the guitar in all aspects (harmonic, melodic and timbral) and Tárrega can take the most important ideas of the original pieces and adapt them in a new way for the guitar, which means that sometimes he changes notes, adds new voices, changes tessitura, invents cadenzas, adapts the harmony, etc. Nowadays we don't work in this way as we try to be as faithful to the original notes and ideas of the composer as possible, so actual transcriptions are very difficult. Tárrega always worked in a more creative way, adding his own personality and vision to the original pieces, so it doesn't matter for what medium these pieces were originally written, albeit piano, orchestra or string quartet.
RP: I read that the great Narciso Yepes had found that many of Tárrega’s character pieces existed in different versions. How do you resolve this challenge?
FE: Unfortunately nobody has made a serious musicologist study of Tárrega’s work, so that sometimes we have two, three or more versions of the same pieces, which may exist with different titles too. Also, there are a few of uncertain authorship. Only last month it was reported on the internet that a new piece has been discovered. Publishers have not made the things easier; for example, in one edition a study is described as a prelude and in another the number of the studies is not the same, so much depends on the edition. If at all possible I prefer to use the first edition.
RP: A composer who you have also recorded is Trinidad Huerta who appears to have been an extraordinary, innovatory and colourful figure from the early-mid 19th century, but who has been largely forgotten, compared to say, Fernando Sor.
FE: Trinidad Huerta was the most famous guitar player in the middle of the 19th century, more famous than Sor, Aguado or Giuliani, but nowadays nobody plays his music. This is probably because Huerta did not know how to properly notate music: he was self-taught and his scores are full of mistakes in harmony, construction and form, but the reviews from his concerts were amazing! I set out to discover what made Huerta so popular as a live performer and concluded he was probably a great improviser. But such material is not written into his scores. If you take the score as a classical performer - I mean in a classical way, playing only what is written - then it's impossible understand why he was so important in the history of the guitar performing. This is the reason he was forgotten: you only need to play the notes that Sor, Aguado or Giuliani wrote and the piece works, but with Huerta you need another dimension, more like a popular musician, and with this approach the performer needs to add something else to his music. What else? Just read his concert reviews: virtuoso scales and arpeggios, big colouristic contrasts, vibrato, improvised cadenzas, etc. It's a big challenge for a modern musician and not everybody nowadays wants to do that. However, I love to feel part of the creation of the music. As an older musician, it's a different approach and for me much richer.
RP: Your recordings cover a wide period and are very well contrasted in terms of composers and styles. What are the challenges of playing this music?
FE: I like to play other composers and pieces in order to challenge the idea of what we actually have in the canon. The pieces that we think are the best today were not always played in their own time; conversely sometimes it happens that unknown composers, who were famous in their day, have later been forgotten; popular music was always fresh, played and performed everywhere and for everybody. 19th-century musicologists, especially German, developed this idea of a music composer as a genius, who creates a perfect musical form. They also established a canonic repertoire comprised of mainly German music, whereas I think that the guitar with its bipolar character, being both classical and popular, had a special appeal in the Mediterranean countries and the American colonies, which resulted in another repertoire and a different musical life. It is this other panorama or point of view, that I like to show.
RP: The guitar changed a lot from Baroque times. What for you were the key technological developments to the 19th century, and that most important of luthiers, Torres?
FE: The main development was the traditional bracing that permits different colours and resonances depending the attack (nails, flesh, angles, playing close to the bridge or on the fingerboard, etc.). The guitar became a perfect instrument for the aesthetics of Romanticism and Nationalism - even in piano music Spanish composers like Albéniz created music with an idealised guitar in mind. Of course, Torres was the master, and working together with Arcas, he developed this guitar.
RP: To what extent do you think the period instrument revolution has affected modern guitar music interpretation of older music? Obviously all the music can be played on a modern guitar but are there nuances, colour and interpretative details that benefit from period replicas (assuming that few originals have survived)?
FE: I studied Early music played with original plucked strings instruments: I always prefer to play old music with the instrument for which it was conceived. It gives me more confidence and a closer approach to the original idea of the composer. Anyway, for modern guitar players they are obliged to know the style of a piece, the techniques used in that period, the strings and different tensions, the ornamentation, etc. in order to achieve a more authentic performance.
RP: It must have been a big step to start your own record label, 6X8. You’ve been able to present material that most mainstream companies won’t touch, like in The Enlightened Guitar and Trinidad Huerta, which contain some real gems. But the composers are so unfamiliar - how do modern concert audiences take to these?
FE: As you say, I feel free to record whatever I want, and to bring to light unknown music. On my album The Enlightened Guitar, the idea was to showcase the 'other' Spanish composers who preceded the famous Sor, and I intended to show what kind of guitar music Sor had to learn to create his first pieces. It's a nice period where the guitar changes from the old instrument (double orders, 5 orders, tablature writing) to the modern instrument (musical notation, 6 simple strings, first bracings). Most of this music is written for beginners, and amateurs, but there are a few nice gems. If you make a good selection of pieces, with quality, in a varied program, and you explain briefly about this music and the composers, the audience appreciates it much better and usually responds very positively, which is great for the performer.
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