Soul of Spanish Guitar (CD review)

Pablo Sáinz-Villegas. Sony Classical 19439786732.

By Bill Heck

When confronted with an album like this, it can be tempting to say something like “Yeah, yeah, another guitar recital with some Spanish stuff, we’ve heard it all before….” In this case, while it’s true that we have here another guitar recital, that the works played are indeed all by Spanish composers (counting an “anonymous” traditional piece), and that you likely have heard many of the works before, at least if you listen to many classical guitar albums, this one is worth a listen and should be a plausible addition to your collection. 

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 first comparison was obligatory: to Segovia, the godfather of them all. His tempo is similar to Villegas, or rather we should say that Villegas’ tempo is similar to Segovia’s; indeed, the entire approach is similar. (There certainly is no shame in being compared to Segovia!) Villegas may be slightly ahead on technique; there is no doubt that the modern recording is significantly ahead of the older one. I made notes on other performances by the likes of Williams, Isbin, Li, and Grondona, but I’ll spare you all the details. Suffice it to say that Villegas’ account holds up nicely: indeed, I thought that Villegas was in some ways the most satisfactory of the bunch.

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:

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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