Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez (SACD review)

Also, music by Coll, de Falla, Albeniz, Harden. Jacob Kellermann, guitar; Christian Karlsen, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Norrbotten NEO. BIS BIS-2485.

By John J. Puccio

According to Wikipedia, “The modern word guitar, and its antecedents, has been applied to a wide variety of chordophones since classical times and as such causes confusion. The English word guitar, the German Gitarre, and the French guitare were all adopted from the Spanish guitarra, which comes from the Andalusian Arabic (qitharah) and the Latin cithara, which in turn came from the Ancient Greek. Kithara appears in the Bible four times (1 Cor. 14:7, Rev. 5:8, 14:2 and 15:2), and is usually translated into English as harp.”

So the origins of the modern guitar date back thousands of years. The surprise is that Spanish composer JoaquĆ­n Rodrigo (1901-1999) didn’t write what has become quite possibly the most-popular guitar concerto of all time, the Concierto de Aranjuez, until 1939. What’s more, it wasn’t even recorded until well into the 1940’s and didn’t achieve worldwide popularity until classical guitarist Narciso Yepes made the first of his several recordings of it a few years later.

Today, practically every notable classical guitarist in the world has either recorded the work or aspires to record it. The release we’re considering at the moment is the 2019 recording by Swedish guitarist Jacob Kellermann (b. 1984), with Maestro Christian Karlsen leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

As you no doubt know, Rodrigo got his inspiration for the Concierto from the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez, the spring resort palace and gardens built by Philip II in the last half of the 16th century. The music attempts to convey the feeling of another time and place by summoning the sounds of nature.

Rodrigo 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." Kellerman and Karlsen provide the movement with plenty of the composer’s idea of “spirit,” while not going so far as to make the music sound reckless or hurried. What’s more, Kellerman conveys the temper of flamenco dance in the music, always a good move, although Kellerman refers to it in the booklet note as “a march.” Whatever, he handles it well.

The composer said 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 can be, something audiences have been saying for more than eighty years now. At its heart the music is a soulful, almost mournful dialogue between the guitar and various instrumental soloists, particularly the cor anglais. Taken too slowly, this movement can sound overly sentimental, even drippy. Kellerman takes it perhaps a shade too far in the other direction, however, losing some of the music’s poignancy along the way. It’s here, too, that the grandeur of the London Philharmonic threatens to overwhelm Kellerman’s guitar work.

Then there’s a perky little closing tune, one that Rodrigo said "recalls a courtly dance in which the combination of double and triple time maintains a taut tempo right to the closing bar." It seems to me it should be taut and lively, maybe a bit effervescent, sparkly. Here, we get Kellerman in an appropriately playful mood, and he closes out the show in good form.

Kellerman is a fine guitarist, and his Rodrigo is of a high order. However, I still think Pepe Romero’s 70’s recording for Philips (now on Decca) is the more well-rounded interpretation, and the Yepes accounts carry more authority (especially the 1959 release remastered by HDTT).

Accompanying Rodrigo’s guitar concerto are several shorter works for guitar by Francisco Coll (the contemporary work, Turia), Manuel de Falla (Hamenaje), Isaac Albeniz (Evocacion), and Pete Harden (another contemporary piece called Solace and Shimmer). I can’t say I liked the Coll music as much as I probably should have; it tries too consciously to imitate Rodrigo in a modern style I did not find attractive. The Harden work, however, shows more promise and demonstrates the influence of Rodrigo’s second movement. Still, why do so many modern composers eschew melody and rhythm as if they were some kind of mutant viruses?

Producer Hans Kipfer and engineer Jens Braun recorded the Rodrigo piece at Henry Wood Hall, London, England in October 2019 and the others at Studio Acusticu, Pitea and Sveriges Radio Studio 3, Stockholm, Sweden in 2017 and 2018. They made the recording in hybrid 2-channel stereo and multichannel SACD, the regular 2-channel stereo playable on any ordinary CD player and the SACD 2-channel and multichannel formats playable on an SACD player. As always, I listened to the 2-channel SACD layer.

I’ve always liked the sound of BIS recordings, and this one is fairly good, too. There is a modest reverberation in the hall that imparts a feeling of realism, and there is enough dynamic range to convey the excitement of the music. Most important, the guitar seems aptly lifelike, even with the modest reverb I mentioned before. If I have any concerns about the recording, it’s that the instruments loom a bit large, there is a little too much evidence of multi-miking, and there isn’t a lot of distance, air, or depth amidst the orchestral accompaniment.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa