By Bill Heck
First, the performer: Pablo Sáinz-Villegas, hardly a rookie, having some half dozen or so albums to his credit already. Judging from what I hear on this collection, he has not only the requisite technical ability but also, and just as importantly, the ability to translate technique into real music. In sampling performances by various other artists for comparisons, I was struck by how many – not all, of course, but enough – seemed just to run through the notes, concentrating on getting them out in order, but forgetting to bring the whole together, to add a sense of coherence, or even to make it sound like they cared. (I know that this last bit sounds over the top, but I must say that a fair number of number of performances seemed low on the emotion scale.) Secondly, the recording itself is excellent, with the sound of a small-bodied guitar, one built in the Spanish style, captured in a natural perspective. One would think that recording the guitar would be relatively easy, but apparently not: in sampling guitar recordings, one often hears tone that is off or excessive reverberation (even artificial reverb) or an eight-foot-wide instrument or excessive finger noise or sound that seems to be coming from another room or…you get the idea.
Despite these grumbles, there are plenty of other nice recitals with similar collections of music out there. But as I listened to alternatives, it became clear that the Villegas album combines music, musicianship, and sound engineering to deliver an enjoyable product.
To illustrate, let’s compare performances of two familiar works. In Albeniz’ Asturias (Leyenda), Villegas moves at a pace that we might call brisk but not rushed. One point of note is how well the strummed chords that punctuate the central section fit in without interrupting the musical flow. As a very low-level guitarist, I can appreciate that this is quite a trick to pull off. Villegas also uses subtle gradations of volume to bring life – may I say “sparkle”? – to the work, and his descent to pianissimo at the end of the bridging section is very well done indeed.
My second comparison work was Tarrega’s Recuerdes de la Alhambra (“Memories of the Alhambra” for those lacking a Spanish dictionary). Villegas’ account is quite slow; indeed, I think he would be better served by speeding up just a bit, as the tempo tends to emphasize the inevitable slight unevenness of the trilled notes as well as the shifting pitch as the melody notes are “bent”. Still, he exhibits wonderful phrasing and control, creating a mood of wistful longing, which surely fits the music. Moreover, he produces an actual dynamic range, not the easiest with this piece. And Villegas is hardly the slowest of quite a group: Pepe Romero and Sharon Isbin, for example, are even slower (Romero by a lot). Again, Villegas holds up well relative to these and my other comparisons (Yepes, Bream, Schulstad, Gueddes, and – of course – Segovia); in particular, a couple who shall remain unnamed just seem to be running through the notes, something that Villegas never does.
I mentioned those two works because they are particularly familiar: if you don’t remember them by title, you’ll know them when you hear them. But no need to revisit every track on the album: let’s just posit that this is a well-played and enjoyable collection.
As described above, the sound is first-rate, very clean and natural if perhaps seeming just a touch closeup on occasion. The liner notes include an essay about Spain, Spanish music, and the Spanish guitar that, if not particularly informative in regard to the music, nicely conveys Villegas’s love for his native country and its music.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: