YOUTUBE RECORDINGS WITH GUITARIST JOHN WILLIAMS:
Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is simply the best- loved guitar concerto. The secret of its appeal is an imaginative fusion of 18thcentury Spanish-Italian guitar music, flamenco, and 20th century neoclassicism. The mixture of these three elements marks the trademark of Rodrigo’s style, an exoticism honed with supreme craftsmanship that gives all his works wide appeal. This concerto, with its iconic expressive slow movement, contributed a great deal to establishing the guitar as a bonafide concert hall instrument, a great irony considering that it was never performed by the guitar’s greatest proponent of the 20th century, Andres Segovia. But that’s another story.
Rodrigo was blind. Most people know that. But not everyone knows he was a musicologist with a deep love for Spanish music from the Baroque and Classic eras. His second concerto, the “Concerto for a Gentleman” (Concierto para un Gentilhombre) is completely based on themes by Gaspar Sanz. Rodrigo also greatly admired Antonio Soler, an Italian like Domenico Scarlatti who moved to Spain and was influenced by the music of that country. In fact, the themes of the outer movements of the Aranjuez concerto do invoke Soler, especially with their carefully placed dissonances and rhythmic hemiolas (accent patterns that go against the meter). But the concerto also masterfully incorporates flamenco, in one sense “taming” it into classical musical structure, and on the other hand letting the dissonance and rhythms of the flamenco style lend a special exoticism and hyper-expression to what otherwise might be ordinary material.
I should also mention that another charm of this concerto is its brevity. The first movement is less than 6 minutes, instead of the conventional 15-30 minutes in other classical concertos. The reason is that it does not have the usual double exposition (one for the soloist and one for the orchestra). Instead the guitar just introduces a first theme and then the orchestra repeats it, then both forces do a single exposition together. In fact, the entire movement—exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda— is streamlined lasting less than 6 minutes. The second movement is the heart of the work and lasts about 13 minutes, including an extended guitar cadenza. The light-hearted rondo that concludes the concerto is only 5 minutes long and has no cadenza.
The brevity of the work also speaks to its “pre-classical” aura. It has the feel of those works that bridge the early Baroque Vivaldi concerti from the fully classical Mozart concerti. Even more “charming,” however, is Rodrigo’s brilliant and careful orchestration, necessary for the guitar to be heard. The orchestra emphasizes color and lightness using mostly woodwinds. This allows for colorful and virtuosic flourishes that don’t overwhelm the guitar. The strings often play lightly, using pizzicato and bouncing their bows. Mirroring 18th century orchestras, there are only 4 brass players—two horns and two trumpets—and no percussion. Even so, there are several places where balance is always a problem, and it takes both sensitive conductor and soloist to make it work.
The opening movement presents this fusion of classic and flamenco styles at the outset. The sound is very much in the Soler and Sanz Spanish classical style, but performed first by the guitar with a soft rasgueado (flamenco strumming). The orchestra takes up this rhythmic material and only after a complete repeat does it play the actual melody that goes over this rhythmic accompaniment. In other words, the main theme is constructed on top of this other material, but only gets heard with the third repeat, sounding much like a variation.
Gaspar Sanz and Antonio Soler would both be in their comfort zones with this opening in a clear Spanish classical style, but then a transition section introduces all the wonderfully peculiar dissonances and flamenco gestures that flavor the work. The second theme, also in the classic style, is covered with this dissonance and flamenco drama. Another peculiarity is that the second theme has an archaic quality because it doesn’t do the conventional “job” of a second theme, namely to establish a new key that opposes the home key. Instead the second theme wanders harmonically. Which brings up another peculiarity: Rodrigo does not compose a closing section in the exposition; instead the second area itself is a bridge to the development section.
The beginning of the development features the first theme in minor with a beautiful cello melody. The second part of the development is a guitar and orchestra fantasia in flamenco style combining elements of both themes, with compelling flourishes in the woodwinds and guitar. This development itself is really just an extended transition section that culminates in a glorious recap of the main theme in the violins. (remember we only heard the tune once before, very unusual in a sonata movement). The transition and second area follow as expected. The coda is properly exuberant and festive. Listeners might connect it as very similar in feel and texture to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, another neoclassic work that recalls the late Baroque style. The coda concludes with the guitar and orchestra repeating the strummed chords from the opening in what is essentially a “fade out.”
Perhaps the most curious thing of this first movement is that its tonal organization is a little fuzzy. The second area never actually establishes the dominant, and when it returns in the recapitulation, it doesn’t establish the tonic either. Instead it serves as an unstable transitional device. The adjustment of the second theme to the home key in the recapitulation is usually the “definition” of what constitutes a sonata movement. Yet even though Rodrigo doesn’t follow this expectation, the sections of his piece so clearly outline sonata style that there is no confusion as to its form. The last movement has a similar fuzziness that allies both these movements closer in sound to a Baroque concerto grosso than to classical sonata form.
Speaking of the Baroque, the sublime second movement, with its unforgettable English horn solo and guitar flamenco-inspired ornaments, has a floridity and harmonic progression that absolutely references the great Baroque concertos, everything in feel from Vivaldi to J.S. Bach. For me, the florid and emotional ornamentation of the theme of Bach’s Goldberg Variations comes to mind as a possible inspiration for Rodrigo’s decorative guitar variations of the tune. The movement is filled with unique and memorable moments. Perhaps the most haunting moment is when the opening theme returns as a lamenting guitar solo. Alternating quiet strummed dissonant chords with the tune poignantly sounding on the lowest strings of the instrument, Rodrigo eerily imitates a sobbing human voice. After this semi-cadenza, a most exotic fantasy ensues with a dialogue between guitar and woodwinds. This fantasy prepares the major cadenza of the concerto. This cadenza first establishes a very intimate and quiet space, but builds gradually in dynamics and register with flamenco dance rhythms, only to suddenly quiet down into harp-like arpeggios that build again even higher to bravura flamenco rasgueado in the highest register of the guitar. The orchestra answers this virtuosic scream and an impassioned but brief dialogue ensues, only to abruptly chop off. In that moment of supreme vulnerability for us listeners (what will happen next?), strings and entire orchestra play the main theme forte. What a dramatic moment. Rodrigo is so careful to keep the force of the orchestra tamed until this moment, so that when it arrives, we are overwhelmed. After the tune sweeps us away, a coda quiets everything down into an expressive lamentation. The piece ends in a tierce de piccardy, B major to offset the tragedy of B minor. Rodrigo apparently wrote this piece directly after his wife had a miscarriage of their first child. She reported that he would play this tune on the piano in the dark night after night.