GASPAR SANZ (circa 1640 – circa 1710): Sones de palacio y danças de rasgueado de Instrucción de música (Zaragoza, 1674)—Laberintos Ingeniosos: Xavier Díaz-Latorre, five-course guitar; Pedro Estevan, percussion [Recorded in Chiostro della Chiesa di S. Michele a Voltorre, Varese, Lombardy, Italy, in November 2003; Cantus Records C 9630; 1 CD, 65:16; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, La Quinta de Mahler, and major music retailers] and  ISAAC ALBÉNIZ (1860 – 1909), FRANCISCO GUERAU (1649 – 1722), SANTIAGO DE MURCIA (circa 1685 – after 1732), GASPAR SANZ, and FERNANDO SOR (1778 – 1839): La Guitarra dels Lleons—Xavier Díaz Latorre, historical guitars; Pedro Estevan, percussion [Recorded in the Sala de Teclados, Museu de la Música de Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain, in November 2011, February 2012, and February 2013; Cantus Records C 9623; 1 CD, 60:30; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, La Quinta de Mahler, and major music retailers]
Released in 1971, the American band Three Dog Night’s album Harmony contained a Hoyt Axton-penned tune with lyrics, subsequently crooned by singers ranging from Elvis Presley and Waylon Jennings to Cher and Ike and Tina Turner, that said, 'I've never been to Spain, but I kinda like the music.' Pinning down lucid meanings for the lyrics of popular songs of the 1970s can be as easy as solving quadratic equations, but the literal sentiment of Axton's song is straightforward: there are indeed many people who have never visited Spain who know and love the country's indigenous music. If one surrenders oneself to the music on this magnificent pair of Cantus recordings featuring guitarist Xavier Díaz-Latorre and percussionist Pedro Estevan, Sones de palacio y danças de rasgueado de «Instrucción de Música sobre la Guitarra Española» and La Guitarra dels Lleons, though, the listener feels transported to Spain without traveling a single mile. In the performances on these discs, presented with superbly-written (and excellently-translated) liner notes by José Carlos Cabello that provide proper historical and musical frames of reference by discarding erroneous traditions and looking into rather than beyond the music, the aromas of marcona almonds and pajarero figs infuse the air with an atmosphere of the real Spain, the Spain of proper ladies donning mantillas and peinetas during Semana santa and old men playing escoba in public parks. Among the recumbent cultures of modern Europe, their singularities subjected to the suppression of the drive towards an unified continent, the defiantly individual culture of Spain, itself an amalgamation of wildly diverse elements, remains strong, and the guitar is as emblematic of the proud history and customs of Spain as afternoon tea is of cherished English formality. Cabello’s notes are strikingly informative in their revelations of how much ‘knowledge’ about the Spanish guitar as a musical phenomenon is based upon misinformation and mistaken assumptions, but the true education offered by these discs is in the undiluted art of the instrument itself, an art now as ephemeral as legitimate bel canto. Xavier Díaz-Latorre confirms with his playing on these discs that he is not merely a guitar virtuoso: in these performances, encompassing more than two centuries of creative output for the guitar, he is an oracle receiving from the spirits of composers remembered and forgotten the concentrated essence of the Spanish guitar. The listener who hears these discs may never have been to Spain, but this music instills an invigorating sentido of Spain in the listener.
Likely baptized in Aragón on 4 April 1640, Francisco Bartolome Sanz y Celma received theological education at the Universidad de Salamanca, Spain’s oldest university and one of Europe’s most prestigious centers of higher learning, before pursuing musical studies in Italy, where his tuitional path likely led him to Naples, Rome, and Venice—if, that is, the gentleman about whom this information is recorded was actually the composer of the music on these discs. Little verifiable information about Sanz exists, and the autobiographical sketch of the author included in Instrucción de Música sobre la Guitarra Española is too flattering to be wholly trusted. During his time in Italy, whoever he was, he obviously acquired sufficient skills to qualify him as both an acknowledged pedagogical authority on playing and composing for the Baroque guitar and as master of the instrument at the court of Don Juan José de Austria, the illegitimate son of Felipe IV. With the publication of his Instrucción de Música sobre la Guitarra Española, first appearing in Zaragoza in 1674 and eventually extending to three volumes issued as a single publication in 1697, the enigmatic Sanz essentially standardized tablature for the guitar and organized the Spanish school of composition for the instrument that persists unto the Twenty-First Century. In a similarly pioneering vein of musical trendsetting, the ensemble Laberintos Ingeniosos was launched with an impetus for not only perpetuating but actively revitalizing the punteado (plucked) and rasgueado (strummed) styles of playing that guitarists such as Andrés Segovia sought to purge from Classical Spanish guitar as vestiges of undesired gypsy influences. In their performances of Sanz’s music on this disc, reissued to celebrated a decade of innovation and tireless dedication to the founding principles of Laberintos Ingeniosos, Díaz-Latorre and Estevan create an authentically Seventeenth-Century sound world that is also astoundingly modern. This duality is one of the wondrous peculiarities of Spanish music in general: works of broadly contrasted vintages can rub shoulders with uncanny stylistic compatibility.
Playing a five-course guitar built in 1997 by Australian luthier Peter Biffin, fitted with gut strings by Sofracob and d'Aquila, Díaz-Latorre exploits the instrument’s timbre to produce an entrancing spectrum of colors that finds cleverly-manipulated echoes in the battery of sounds made by Estevan’s mastery of riq, adufe, tamburello, pandereta, darbouka, dumbek, and kántharos. The contrasts among the Piezas por la E y C are realized with extraordinary dexterity by both gentlemen, the courtly formality of the opening Xácara (Diez y seis diferencias y algunas dellas con estilo de Campanelas) giving way to the brilliant flights of fancy of the Paradetas (Improvisación). The aesthetics of Seventeenth-Century Spain and Johann Sebastian Bach momentarily intersect in the Passacalles (con variedad de passages), phrased by Díaz-Latorre with an air of elegant formality that brings to mind the spirit of Bach’s familiar BWV 582 C-minor Passacaglia and Fugue. The Zarabanda española (Improvisación), reminiscent of the beautiful sarabandes in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s music for harpsichord, inspires Díaz-Latorre to playing of deeply satisfying virtuosic variety. Canario (Quince diferencias escogidas) is one of the most enjoyable pieces on the disc, here played with the unmistakable zeal of true affection.
Beginning with a galvanizing account of the Preludio y Fantasía (con mucha variedad de falsas y una sesquiáltera para los muy diestros), Díaz-Latorre and Estevan craft performances of the Piezas por la O that sizzle with energy but also permit appreciation of the wide sentimental expanses of the music. The sublime—or, in the parlance of its fitting sobriquet, serene—Alemanda (La Serenissima) is delivered with marked sensitivity and delicacy of approach, juxtaposing jarringly with the all-stops-out frenzy of the succeeding Jiga al ayre inglés. The inventive maneuvering of the principal theme of Passacalle (Veinte y ocho partidas de mucho arte)—achieved by both composer and musicians with much art, indeed—provides a dizzying display of the full panoply of the techniques espoused by Sanz. The four Piezas por la D are as ingeniously characterized as the movements of Georg Philipp Telemann’s 1733 Tafelmusik. His playing of the Pavana al ayre español (Cinco partidas con mucha novedad) reveals the great cogency of Díaz-Latorre’s articulation of melodic units, a trait also evident in his performance of Xácara. The aural canvases of both the Passeos por el cuarto tono y una giga por el mismo punto (Improvisación) and Tarantella (Improvisación) are daubed with the immediacy of Picasso’s Guernica, the colors in the music derived from interpretation of the unaffected gestures of the musicians.
The quintet of Piezas por la Cruz constitute a sequence of numbers that delightfully epitomize the heterogeneity of Sanz’s art. The Capricho arpeado y una sesquiáltera de mucho arte receives from Díaz-Latorre a reading of unflappable poise, and the alluring Alemanda (La Preciosa con Campanela) is finessed to beguiling effect by the players’ subtle but red-blooded demeanor. The Corrente and Zarabanda francesa are, like similar movements in the harpsichord suites of Georg Friedrich Händel, clever treatments of original thematic material in the guises of the popular dance rhythms of the time, and Díaz-Latorre reacts to Estevan’s rollicking percussion with his own exuberant playing. This sense of collaboration is also the lifeblood of their performance of the Giga (Improvisación), in which grace and gusto join hands and dance to Sanz’s serendipitous inspiration.
Represented by the Marionas por la B (Veinte y ocho diferencias) the Piezas por la B adhere to the same high standards of the other collections excerpted in Díaz-Latorre’s and Estevan’s voyage through Sanz’s work. The unhurried but blade’s-edge spontaneity of their playing discloses every nuance of Sanz’s writing and engenders the stimulating finale to which every similar disc should aspire.
La Guitarra dels Lleons, a true celebration of the storied history of composition for the Spanish guitar, is in its repertory, preparation, and quality of performance as magnificent an homage as has been committed to disc in tribute to any niche in music. The palpable singularity of purpose apparent in Díaz-Latorre’s and Estevan’s work on the Sanz disc is continued on La Guitarra dels Lleons with equally stunning results. Both in terms of impressively adaptable technique and the insightful use of instruments from different periods in the development of the Spanish guitar, this disc summarizes more than two hundred years of ingenuity in an hour of pulse-quickening, ear-caressing music-making.
For his performance of the music of one of Spain’s greatest composers, Isaac Albéniz, Díaz-Latorre plays a smooth-toned guitar made in Seville in 1859 by Antonio de Torres. The instrument veritably sings beneath the guitarist’s fingers in the ‘Preludio: Asturias (Leyenda)’ from the 1892 Chants d'Espagne (Opus 232), a piece redolent of Albéniz’s urbane but distinctly Spanish cosmopolitanism. The melodic figurations and smoky harmonies evoke both the immediately-recognizable soul of Spain and a slyly accessible modernism. The electrifying ‘Cádiz,’ an episode from Albéniz's 1890 Sérénade Espagnole (Opus 181), is played with the intensity that makes even an hour spent in that city an experience that the senses never forget.
Díaz-Latorre and Estevan revisit the music of Gaspar Sanz with spirited performances of four pieces that affirm that their comprehension and love of Sanz’s standard-setting idiom have blossomed with even greater beauty and histrionic authority with the passage of time. These are anything but carbon copies of their earlier interpretations. Díaz-Latorre here plays the guitarra de los leones, an instrument of Iberian origins dating from circa 1700 that is as much an artistic as a musical treasure. The same might be said of Díaz-Latorre’s and Estevan’s performances. The boundless imagination of their playing of Xácaras (Diez y seis diferencias y algunas dellas con estilo de Campanelas) facilitates a textural lightness through which the ubiquitous sounds of small-town Spain reverberate. The cloudless vistas of Canario (Quince diferencias escogidas) are complemented by the starlit meanderings of Passeos por el cuarto tono y una giga por el mismo punto (Improvisación), mesmerizingly played by both Díaz-Latorre and Estevan. The unbridled elation of their rendition of La Tarantella y Improvisación is utterly infectious.
Turning to the music of the too-little-remembered Fernando Sor with the sweet but robust timbre of an 1806 guitar by Cádiz-based maker Josef Pagés, Díaz-Latorre takes on one of the composer’s most enduringly popular and challenging works, his Variations on ‘Das klinget so herrlich’ from Act One of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (Opus 9). Published in London in 1821, the Variations quickly entered the recital repertories of virtually every guitarist capable of playing them; and more than a few not fully capable of playing them, to be sure. It is unlikely than any guitarist in the work’s nearly-two-century history played the Variations more dazzlingly than Díaz-Latorre. Good performances of Bach’s harpsichord and organ works often give the impression that the music requires more than ten fingers and, in the case of the organ music, two feet. So fleet is Díaz-Latorre’s execution of passagework in Sor’s music that it would be no surprise to discover that he possesses a few extra digits to employ in his playing. In his performance, the basic structure of Mozart’s theme never entirely disappears in the whirlwinds of Sor’s variations. The banal tune that serves as the spine of the Introduction et Variations sur l'air „Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre“ (Opus 28), composed in Paris in 1827, also remains in the foreground even when Sor’s inventions are at their most fantastical. That funny little melody was most familiar in the Napoleonic era during which Sor was active as a composer as the accompaniment for bawdy lyrics written in 1709 in celebration of the erroneous news of the death of the first Duke of Marlborough: many modern listeners know it as 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow.' In his Introduction and Variations, Sor made silk from a sow’s ear, and in playing the piece Díaz-Latorre makes delectable jamón ibérico from rather tough meat, the sunny overtones of the Pagés instrument gleaming beneath his touch.
Díaz-Latorre again coaxes from the guitarra de los leones cascades of golden sources in his playing of the music of Santiago de Murcia. The animated Zarambeque is enlivened by the bright tones of the instrument and the ways in which the guitarist channels them through the streams of melody, bolstered by Estevan’s exhilarating rhythms. Díaz-Latorre is especially successful at balancing subjects and countersubjects with naturalness that avoids allotting undue prominence to any note or phrase. Inner voices sing as cogently as primary themes in his playing, inviting the listener into the recesses of the music that often remain hidden. Díaz-Latorre’s jaunt through Cumbées is a study in wedding insurmountable technical wizardry with the inimitable joy of playing that cannot be faked by even the most talented artists.
Francisco Guerau’s Diez y ocho diferencias de Mariona are played on an Italian-crafted instrument dating from circa 1700, and it is fascinating to note the somewhat metallic, more rustic sound of the Italian guitar in comparison with the polished-ruby tones of the Spanish instruments. Even in the quintessentially Spanish patterns of Guerau’s music, the sonorities are noticeably different from those in the other selections on La Guitarra dels Lleons—different but no less ingratiating. Díaz-Latorre navigates the hairpin turns in the music with laudable concentration that focuses the prismatic rays of his own genius. Listeners for whom this selection is an introduction to Guerau’s work could hope for no better.
Veterans of the battles waged by ensembles like Hespèrion XXI to restore in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries authenticity, technical validity, and proper contexts to music of previous centuries and diverse cultures, Xavier Díaz-Latorre and Pedro Estevan devote to both of these discs the kind of demonstrative musicality that is ‘historically informed’ in performances of works of any period. These performances are anything but generic, however. From Sanz to Albéniz, the pieces on Sones de palacio y danças de rasgueado and La Guitarra dels Lleons span more than two centuries of music for Spanish guitar. The playing of Xavier Díaz-Latorre and Pedro Estevan is both a chronicle of the evolution of Spanish music and an irrefutable elucidation of its growing preeminence in global culture.