Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes (1927-1997) practically made a career of performing and recording (mostly for Decca and DG) Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. I'm familiar with several of these recordings firsthand: the HDTT remastering of his excellent 1957 Decca rendition with Ataulfo Argenta and the Spanish National Orchestra; his less-than-scintillating 1970 DG account with Odon Alonso and Spanish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra; and the popular 1977 DG recording with Garcia Navarro and the Philharmonia Orchestra reviewed here, remastered by Pentatone for hybrid SACD.
Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) wrote the Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra in 1939, and it eventually established Rodrigo's reputation as a leading composer for the classical guitar. I say "eventually" because it wasn't until Yepes and Argenta recorded it in monaural in the late Forties that it really took off worldwide.
The composer described the first movement Allegro con spirito as "animated by a rhythmic spirit and vigour without either of the two themes interrupting its relentless pace." A couple of things you notice right away about Yepes's performance, and it's indicative of his general style: First, it appears extremely well articulated, every note clearly and sharply delineated; second, he takes it at a fairly leisurely pace. The first movement, for instance, is rather more relaxed than the "con spirito" notation might suggest, so it may not exhibit quite the lively spirit some listeners would like to hear. The result, however, is a performance that is probably everything Yepes's fans love and his detractors dislike: It's a clean, well-executed interpretation, with the easygoing approach mitigated somewhat by the precision of its execution. Still, the performance may appear slightly distanced and colorless compared to other guitarists' renditions.
Rodrigo said that the second movement "represents a dialogue between guitar and solo instruments" (cor anglais, bassoon, oboe, horn, etc.). What he didn't say was how utterly beautiful it was, something audiences have been saying for close to eighty years. Certainly, it's in this second movement that Yepes scores over most of his rivals. His reading is passionate, lovely, and gracious, the mood always tranquil and fragrant.
Then there's that perky little closing tune, the one Rodrigo said "recalls a courtly dance in which the combination of double and triple time maintains a taut tempo right to the closing bar." Yepes emphasizes its delightful dance-like qualities, and, again, although Yepes and company take it at a moderately slow speed, they help it come sweetly together.
In all three works the Philharmonia and English Chamber Orchestras accompany Yepes splendidly, lending plenty of polished zip and sparkle to the proceedings.
The folks at Pentatone fill out the disc generously with almost seventy-six minutes of music, and they enclose the SACD case in a light-cardboard sleeve.
Producer Rudolf Werner and engineers Volker Martin and Joachim Niss recorded the music for Deutsche Grammophon at the Watford Town Hall and the Henry Wood Hall, London in April 1979 and June 1977. Polyhymnia International/Pentatone remastered DG's original multichannel tapes for hybrid SACD playback in 2015. You can listen to the music in SACD two-channel stereo or SACD multichannel if you have an SACD player, or you can listen to two-channel stereo using any regular CD player.
I listened in SACD two-channel stereo, where I found the guitar a tad close but nicely integrated into the orchestral framework without being too large or too far out in front. The sound has a pleasantly natural quality about it, never overly bright or dull, forward or recessed. The frequency response sounds well balanced with an especially well extended high end. The imaging places the soloist(s) and ensemble in a realistic perspective, with a moderate amount of depth and ambient warmth to give everything a lifelike feel.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: