Spain, with honesty

EL VITO

Matthew Fagan

Green Jean Studios, Kansas

Having a bastardized acquaintance with some Romance languages, I thought that the title of Matthew Fagan’s CD had some reference to ‘life’. Of course, it doesn’t, mainly because of the noun’s gender but, further witness to my ignorance, this Andalusian folk-tune turns out to be a very familiar one and its pertinence seems to be to St. Vitus, a true lord of the dance. Well, it’s a melody that you can’t forget; even so, I can’t recall which writer – ancient/modern, well-known/obscure, Iberian/extra-Andalusian – has employed it to such effect that it has become unforgettable.

At any rate, the tune appears at about the half-way point of this 15-track recording which consists of much original Spanish music but holds an opening bracket from that unparalleled out-of-towner, Bizet. Fagan has arranged six chunks of the Carmen score for his 10-string guitar: the Aragonaise before Act 4, the heroine’s self-introducing Habanera and its Act 1 companion Seguidilla, the opera’s introduction up to the Andante moderato, that melting Act 3 Entr’acte, and the Les tringles des sistres trio-with-chorus that opens Act 2. As things turn out, pretty much everything on this album is a Fagan arrangement – Granados’ Oriental from the 12 Danzas espanolas, Zambalera by Jorge Strunz, the album’s Andalusian dance title, another traditional tune in Solearas, Rodrigo’s Fandango from the Tres piezas espanolas dedicated to Segovia (the only non-Fagan arrangement in the CD), the middle Sevilla movement from Albeniz’s Suite espanola No. 1, a traditional sevillanas, more Albeniz in the well-known Asturias (Leyenda), and, to finish, another traditional display in the flamenco predecessor, Zambra mora.

Such a collection makes for pleasant listening and Fagan spices his mix by occasionally indulging in some layered work, inserting a light percussion support or dubbing in himself (I assume) for ballast. Further, the interpretations reveal a straight-down-the-line style of interpretation with an often dogged insistence on a set pulse, noticeable in pieces that are familiar from delineations by other guitarists whose use of rubato and pauses have set up models that Fagan eschews. As compensation, this musician’s instrument with its rich bass strings adds weight of timbre to works that often tinkle their paths towards the inevitably light, if not the arrestingly fantastic.

You are made aware of the multi-layered possibilities in the opening Bizet Aragonaise which has an underlying percussive tap throughout that more or less follows the tambourine line in the original score. The actual guitar sound complex also operates on two levels, one part providing the accompaniment while the other follows the melody, although the two get mixed as the fragment moves on. My only bleat concerns the change in notes which first appears in bar 30, and then again whenever this piccolo-plus-clarinet upward-downward subsidiary motive appears. The overall impression is bouncy and confident.

Fagan’s account of the Habanera appears to have two layers also, one giving the pizzicato rhythm underneath the melody, the other – of course – the famous tune with its chromatic opening which moves to an octave outline pretty soon. Here again, the tempo is determined but with some rallentandi before the chorus enters to echo the singer’s lines. The Seguidilla appears to move into three guitar layers for most of its length, with a gratuitous tapping underneath it all. After the introductory eight bars, Fagan interpolates a 12-bar break that comes out of nowhere and stops in mid-sentence; presumably, it’s meant to add some gypsy colour. For the rest, Fagan follows the original pretty closely and the results are crisp and bright. More layering comes in the Prelude rendition which is very successful for its controlled bounce. And the three layers works very well for the entr’acte, Fagan keeping melody and countermelodies in play throughout; the only problem here is the lack of give-and-take, notably in the last seven bars of the original, which is followed faithfully and without any deviations, even if the pace is faster than usual.

This disc’s version of the Gypsy Song-with-extras that starts Act 2 works well, although one of the verses and choruses is omitted. But I liked the carrying power of Fagan’s acciaccaturas; unlike Bizet’s original flutes who set up the piece’s action, the guitar accidentals linger in your ear. Further in, you have to be impressed by the way Fagan’s mix takes on the character of a harp with splendid resonance during Carmen’s solos. For my taste, this is the most convincing of the operatic arrangements, despite the abridgements, and the octave work in the melody line is excellently achieved.

Oriental doesn’t sit at the forefront of Granados’ piano creations but it provides a pleasant exercise in transcription for the guitar. Fagan makes telling use of harmonics at cadential points and keeps the piece mobile, although there is no rhythmic suppleness at all and dynamic contrast goes a-begging. Finally, I think there’s a misreading in the central Lento assai segment. I believe the second G in bar 5 here is a tied note; it has undergone a new shape in this reading which tends to contradict the figure’s use in several other phrases. Strunk and his collaborator Adeshir Farah’s 1985 reading of Zambalera captures attention for its fireworks bursts of rapid play and a typically ambiguous tempo (6/8 or 3/4?), as well as bringing in pan-pipes across its last third. Fagan superimposes three layers, including a fetching tremolo at two stages and, if his fingers don’t fly as fast as those of the creator and his cobber, they’re not far off it.

With the title track, the guitarist cannot resist surrounding a simple melody with plenty of colour-rich introductions, intermissions and variations. It’s all very rhythmic and loaded with energy, rasgueado strokes serving as ideal punctuation, the whole informed by an appealing vibrato whenever the main tune emerges (which it does twice). I think Solearas is played straight, without multi-layering or additions of any type. It might be unfair to say that it appears to lack substance but a good deal of padding goes on; all very atmospheric and the flamenco level rises to a high pitch, but nothing of moment seems to happen for the first 30 seconds at least and the basic material does not keep your attention as much as Fagan’s driving passage work and hammer-blow chords.

As I half-expected, the Rodrigo piece was given an earnest airing with a fine, lucid opening; later the triplet passage work proved a struggle as the composer puts his executant through some rapid-fire hurdles, mainly testing agility of response. Despite the piquancy of those added-note chords – usually a 2nd or a 7th – the work is something of a rondo-ramble and, despite its rapid passage work, resembles no fandango I’ve heard or watched. The opening three chords are a small motive that dominates the working-out process and suggest a minuet more than anything else, albeit one with some deft Hispanic curves. Still, Fagan treats it politely although more as a study than as a score with which he is emotionally engaged; some of those triplets sag more than float.

There’s very little wrong with this version of Sevilla by Albeniz except for one recurring oddity. In bar 3, when the main melody gets under way, Fagan leaves out the third-beat 2nd (A in the piano original’s G Major tonality) which ordinarily gives the tune a vital harmonic shake; instead, he plays the bass and top note only. It’s not a big del but it removes part of the work’s charm and disappoints expectations. In the centre, Albeniz’s Meno mosso is enunciated with unexpected latitude – some bars rushed, others accounted for at half-pace – but that makes for a welcome quasi-improvisatory flight in the middle of framing segments with a pronounced rhythmic pulse.

Fagan’s sevillanas is a sort of two-strophe composition in which a series of chords alternate with a single melodic line that grows in length as the piece progresses. As far as I can tell, the chords don’t vary much – two, possibly three – and the melody is quite bare. It’s what you would identify straightaway as being Spanish in its insistence and ornamental flourishes and turns. While the stamping chords come over with persuasive zeal, the opening notes to the melodic scraps sound laboured, not as fluent as they should be. In his version of Asturias, Fagan keeps very close to the Albeniz piano original, following customary practice (I think) in exchanging semiquavers for triplets from bar 17 on. He could have made more of the pauses in every fourth bar from bars 63 to 78, rather than pushing ahead regardless. But he fulfilled the need to make this piece succeed: by contrasting nervous energy with understated lyricism.

Finally, the Moorish-inflected finale gives us a track of some excitement and a good deal of repetition. Fagan’s view of this musical style where gypsy, Sephardic, flamenco and the Near East combine. It sustains interest for much of its length, chiefly because of its modal flavour. Fagan finishes with a curtain-down accelerando which brought to mind that saint named in the CD’s title. Which is a neat way to bring us home, even if a few of the preceding tracks have little to do with dancing. It’s not a stupendous collection that sets the imagination running wild, but the music-making has a directness of speech that is often both successful and attractive.

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