on 24 May 2010
Villa-Lobos music for guitar is an epitome of guitar music, at least in the twentieth century, and should be an entrance gate to the creative music of this brazilian composer, surprisingly not so widely known as he deserves. It puts a shadow over much latin-american or spanish guitar music and this recording proves it. There are other recordings by other masters (older masters, such as John Williams) of the guitar which are probably just as good but this one is very clear and polished from first to last track, and the sound recording is also very good. One hopes Naxos will one day publish Villa-Lobos' full piano music repertoire with such high standard.
Many years ago I formed a personal idea of the perfect guitar player, and I have never shaken the idea off. The image is that of Julian Bream, and it is characterised by perfect technique, flexible but always controlled rhythm and kaleidescopic tone-coloration, to say nothing of profound musicianship. I seek him here, I seek him there, as they once sought the Scarlet Pimpernel, and this disc from Norbert Kraft comes as near as I have yet found to what I want. Whether Kraft is fully Bream's equal is probably not a very important question, especially as I have never heard Bream play these particular works in any case: what is important is that this is another class act.
Villa-Lobos is probably well enough known for detailed background in a review of a recital to be unnecessary. The liner note with the disc touches in the basics as far as the composer is concerned, but declines into waffle when it turns to the actual compositions. Villa-Lobos himself is not very enlightening about the Brazilian musical term `choro' (for some reason always used in the plural), and although I myself have two generations of descendants in his home city of Rio de Janeiro and visit it often these days I can't help with the matter either.
The first six tracks on this disc are `popular' in style. The next 12 are something completely different, a set of etudes. One of the better remarks in the liner note is that these etudes are reminiscent of Chopin's. I entirely agree. The resemblance is not in the musical idiom of course: it is in the way a musical abstract composition is shaped in each case out of a particular technical challenge. The technical challenges sound horrific to me, and apparently once appeared that way to better than me also. Segovia, no less, at first thought these etudes unplayable, but that matter has resolved itself in the way such technical hurdles have been swept aside by the new generation of virtuosi on every instrument, or so it seems. Kraft's playing has that familiar self-assurance and bravado that I am coming to know from many a young pianist possessed, seemingly, of the level of technique that a generation ago we thought belonged only to Horowitz and Michelangeli.
A less certain link with Chopin comes in the five `preludes' that close the recital. Chopin wrote preludes, but they are generally shorter than his etudes, whereas the average length of the etudes here is two and a quarter minutes as against three and a half for the preludes. More significantly, Chopin's preludes were in each of the 24 major and minor keys, like Bach's preludes and fugues but without the fugues. Chopin himself later wrote one stranded (but marvellous) prelude which set the precedent for Debussy, Rachmaninov and others to lose the Bach connexion altogether and apply the term `preludes' to short pieces having no more specific designation. Whatever. The complete guitar solos of Villa-Lobos fit neatly on to one cd, and we can ponder the origin of the term in our armchairs if it interests us enough as we listen to these wonderful performances, particularly the second last.
The recorded sound is admirable, and the disc has the familiar Naxos hallmarks of imagination, excellent quality and moderate cost. More power to what they do.