William Carter's latest album is an appealing collection of works by the Spanish guitar virtuoso and composer Fernado Sor, featuring some of his most popular works. This collection demonstrates highly elaborate structures and techniques that pushed the boundaries of the instrument during Sor's time. These recordings employ a performance practice set out by Sor himself; Carter plays with his fingertips, creating an intimate sound. Carter's passion for the guitar enthuses his playing with a freshness and vitality that makes these compositions as appealing to today's listeners as it was for the original composition audiences.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
In addition to his activities as a teacher and composer, Sor also appeared in public occasionally as a soloist with musicians such as the tenor Garcia (Rossini’s original Barber of Seville), Berlioz and Liszt (who pioneered the first solo recitals from around 1840, just after Sor’s death). One of his performances in 1833 holds a special interest for me. It was a ‘Concert Historique’ devoted to music of the 17th century, organised by the eminent musicologist and critic F. J. Fetis who wrote: ‘The famous guitarist Sor had been patient enough to make a special study of the lute … Franchomme played the bass viol, and I, the harpsichord.’ There is also a persistent rumour that Sor gave a concert or two with Frédéric Chopin during these years but I haven’t been able to verify this from any 19th century source. It wouldn’t be surprising though if it turned out that they had known one another; they were moving in the same circles at the same time and Sor composed several mazurkas (one of which is included on this recording) which are very obviously intended as complements to his younger colleague.
With the sort of respect accorded to Sor by his musical peers and the triumph of his ballet music with the general public (Cendrillon was in repertory at the Paris Opera for several years and had been used to open the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow), one might expect him to have been universally successful as a guitar teacher and composer but alas, his music was seemingly often too complex for amateurs (ironic, in view of his present neglect for exactly the opposite reason). He quotes a dissatisfied customer with some bitterness in the guitar method of 1830: ‘You give us church music and counterpoint. Give us guitar music … speak to us in the language we understand …’ Scattered through the late opus numbers are a series of increasingly simple works for amateurs with sarcastic titles which tell their own story:
Op 36 – ‘Pièces de Société’
Op 43 – ‘Mes ennuis’
Op 45 – ‘Voyons si c’est ça’ (‘Let’s see if this is it’) dedicated to ‘Those with the least patience’
Op 48 – ‘Est-ce bien ça?’ (‘Is this good enough?’)
Op 51– ‘À la bonne heure’ (‘At last’), a work written only in keys which permit the bass lines to be open strings.
But at the same time, amongst these not very successful attempts to write commercial fodder are hidden wonderful miniature works (as well as a few larger pieces) in which simplicity of utterance is married to a lifetime’s skill and craft. These late works tend to look inward rather than out but they repay the player and listened alike with that wonderful hushed intimacy which is the real strength of the guitar.
Sor’s final years were not happy ones: although he had material security, the death of his wife and only daughter as well as his own health (he seems to have died of cancer) meant that his end was rather tragic. Brian Jeffery, in his biography of Sor, gives us the story as printed in a Spanish news journal. This article is so wonderfully romantic and over the top that I can’t resist quoting from it at some length:
A visit to Sor in the last days of his life (by Don Eusebio Font y Moresco)
The unfortunate Sor, when we visited him, although not very old, was already attacked by the deadly illness which was to take him to the grave … he told us how sorry he was that we had called to see him on that particular day, in which he was unable to restrain or contain the bitter pain which penetrated him; and immediately his eyes filled with tears. Indeed, on that day, one year had passed since death took from him his adored and only daughter.
She was called Julia, and she was twenty-two years old. Beautiful and young, highly intelligent and with the most remarkable gifts for the fine arts, of a peaceful and affectionate disposition and with a heart which was a model of filial love, she was the joy and pride of her father who saw in her a comfort and support in his old age. What flattering thoughts and hopes, frustrated by implacable death!
His wife had died some years ago, and Sor was inconsolable at the loss of his beloved daughter, and there is no doubt that the profound sadness which it caused him shortened his life … He accompanied us to an open window which looked onto some gardens. The window-sill supported a rectangular board that extended outwards on which there was a tiny garden. A number of exquisite white flower pots, of tiny proportions, some with flowers and some with cypress leaves, symmetrically arranged, surrounded a cenotaph of white marble, also tiny, and exquisitely and delicately worked, which stood in the centre. This garden, in which there were also other symbols of death, represented the cemetery where his daughter lay. He looked after it, watered it, and doubtless his tears fell on it more frequently than did the rain … All the objects that surrounded him, incessantly reminded him of his beloved Julia. Above the piano was fixed a magnificent portrait of her; the wall opposite was covered with oil-paintings and watercolours done by her; the harp was in the same position where she had kept it, and when the father showed it to us, he stood silently before the abandoned instrument, as though once more the skilful and delicate hands should touch it which in other times had drawn from its strings soft and sweet melodies. Finally Sor, at every moment more grief stricken, opened a cupboard, took out two or three volumes of manuscript music, and sitting at the piano said that he would play us some parts of the mass which he had composed for the funeral of his daughter. Never shall I forget the pathetic scene which we witnessed, deeply moved and feeling the tears flowing at every moment down our cheeks. Sor, wearing a loose robe, his head uncovered, raising to heaven his wide and noble brow, his gaze fixed on the portrait, his face full of the most intense grief, his hands on the keyboard, seemed to take up into himself alone, the pain of every heart that laments, at a tomb, the lost object of its love. His eyes were two torrents of tears which he made no effort to control. From time to time there appeared on his lips as it were a light smile, as though he saw his daughter open her arms from heaven to receive him. Such must be the smile of the martyr who shows tranquillity and joy at the moment of his death. Since the beginning of the visit, a menacing storm had approached the city, and burst impetuously when Sor sat down at the piano, sweeping in the darkness through the streets of the vast capital. The room which we were in became dark and gloomy. Hail and rain lashed at the simulated cemetery in the window. The noise of thunder mixed with the sounds of the piano. At the most severe part of the tempest, a flash of lightening fell with a terrifying crash somewhere near the room; we … rushed to the window thinking that we would see some neighbouring building collapse, but Sor, unmoving, did not even turn his head, and continued, bathed in tears, his sad and magnificent composition … Five or six days later he lay in bed without rising … these were his last moments …
We can contrast this wildly dramatic narrative with the more concise, and rather contrasting account given in Saldoni’s Dictionary of Spanish Musicians from 1868, ‘He died in poverty and without leaving a single centime: it seems he spent it all on ballerinas, for whom he had a strong liking, and that was why his death was horrible.’
Perhaps there is some truth to each version …
Three Études, Op 29: No 23 in G major; Allegro No 13 in B flat major; Andante lento No 17 in C major: Allegro moderato
Still taxing to today’s guitarists, these studies effortlessly combine musical interest and technical challenge. The first is a cruel study in stretches and chromatic harmony for the left hand and skips of the thumb in the right. The second, a study in barré chords, is one of those rare pieces in which difficulty increases the more slowly it is played, while the third combines imitation and fugato with the character of a comic aria.
Morceau de concert, Op 54a: Andante largo, Thème varié and Allegro
This large scale concert piece was reviewed after publication in the Revue Musicale of 1833–4.
A profound musician, M. Sor has written for the guitar as no-one had written before him … but perhaps in none of his compositions does one find such remarkable qualities as in the piece we are discussing. An introduction, broad, and if we may say so, as vigorous as it might be if it were written for orchestra serves to introduce a theme of rare elegance written with as much purity as one could achieve in piano music. Then some variations, sometimes graceful, sometimes brilliant, and always filled with that taste for harmony which one finds in all M. Sor’s compositions …
Leçon, Op 31, No 16: Moderato; Mazurka, Op 43, No 4; Waltz, Op 32, No 2
A study in sustained voices above a moving bass is followed by a mazurka which is more of a berceuse than a peasant dance. This work, with its hypnotic mood and subtly varied harmony seems very clearly to be a tribute to his younger colleague, Frédéric Chopin. The set concludes with an innocent waltz.
Le calme ‘Caprice pour guitare seule’, Op 50
A sustained lyric meditation, that seems to contain the essence of early Romanticism.
Three Études: Op 60, No 22; Allegro moderato Op 35, No 17; Moderato Op 35, No 22: Allegretto
The first étude is a little known work which explores glissandos; the following two are well known from recordings and editions by Segovia and seem to look forward to Schumann’s Album für die Jugend (which they predate by around 30 years).
Leçon, Op 31, No 23: Mouvement de prière religieuse
We take our leave of Sor with a reminiscence of his youth in the monastery of Montserrat. The monks there regularly performed Haydn’s symphonies during Mass, and this piece has all the magical simplicity of one of his slow movements.
Performance concerns: fingernails and instruments
Although I’ve lamented Sor’s absence from today’s concert halls, it would be wrong to give the impression that this has always been the case. Indeed, the two greatest guitarists of our time – Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream – both had an unsurpassed way with Sor’s music. He featured frequently in their programmes and they’ve left us many wonderful recordings. Bream has committed many of the later large scale works to disc (I still remember the electrifying impact his recording of the Grand Sonata in C minor had on me when I was a child) and Segovia played many of the early works with great panache (his recording of the Grand Solo is a classic of the gramophone). With fine performances like these readily available, why make more? The answer comes down to a simple question of ‘fingernails’.
As the guitar is played today, the strings are plucked by the fingernails of the right hand. Nails have the advantage of helping the instrument speak quickly and also create higher overtones which help the instrument’s audibility in large halls or with other instruments playing. There have always been guitarists who played with nails, but never uniformly until about the last century. In Sor’s time there were probably just as many (or more) players who favoured the tips of the fingers (the ‘nibble end of the flesh’ as Thomas Mace puts it) to pluck with, just as players of the lute and harp do. The sound is softer but perhaps more vocal in quality. While each of these methods of playing can give wonderful results (this is my opinion, anyway) they are very different in their basic sound and Sor was a fingertip player. He wrote a method later in his life which is one of the more fascinating documents on music from his time. It begins with telling how to hold and tune the instrument and finishes ninety pages later with an analysis and reduction for guitar and four voices of the opening of Haydn’s Creation!
On the subject of tone production and fingernails he is unequivocal: ‘Never in my life have I heard a guitarist whose playing was supportable if he played with the nails. The nails can produce but very few gradations in the quality of the sound … their performance is to mine, what the harpsichord was in comparison to the pianoforte …’ Strong words but clear ones! It has to be admitted that further on in the method he is slightly more generous and observes of his friend Aguado (a nail player), ‘if the nails did not allow him to give the same expression as I did, he gave one peculiar to himself, which injured nothing’. But still, his preferences are so clear that it seemed worthwhile to me to try to explore them and I found it mysterious that with so much interest in recreating the performance styles of the past that so few attempts have been made to play the guitar this way. I, of course, don’t claim awareness of every recording in the world, but to the best of my knowledge my first recording of Sor, Fernando Sor: Early Works, and this album are the first ever made devoted to Sor’s solo guitar music played without fingernails. There are reasons for this other than simple inertia – one of the most compelling is that surviving 19th century guitars are often extremely difficult to play with fingertips. The choice is often between audibility and dexterity and even with one’s best efforts, many surviving instruments (and modern copies) are so heavily built that playing them without nails feels (I imagine) like trying to eat steak with no teeth!
I was fortunate enough to play a few lightly constructed instruments that were less frustrating and a chance conversation with someone working as a curator of antique furniture gave me some useful ideas about my situation. I was given the informal ‘Law of Furniture Survival’ – ‘Surviving antique furniture is almost always uncomfortable’. A comfortable chair will be sat on until it wears out. By analogy we could guess that guitars (which as domestic instruments have rarely been cherished like old violins or cellos) which are fun to play would be played into oblivion and that ones with heavier construction (which suit nail players better anyway) would be more likely to survive. The more lightly built old instruments that I had access to were either unavailable for the amount of time needed for a recording or were extremely fragile and tired-sounding. I reflected on the fact that Sor would have never played an old guitar himself (the 6-string guitar that we know today was introduced when Sor was a young man) and decided to have a new instrument made. The result, built by Tony Johnson (to his own design but using 19th century instruments as models) is something I really love (and I’ve no doubt that Sor would have enjoyed playing it as well). It has the range of colour and depth of bass which I associate with the guitar (as opposed to a lute) but speaks easily when plucked with bare fingers.
Sor also left very precise thoughts about fingering that are at odds with today’s practice and more in line with the technique of earlier instruments. One of the maxims he gives at the end of his method presents it in a nutshell: ‘Never give work to the weakest fingers, whilst the strongest are doing nothing’. This is directly contrary to the sort of training we receive today, which is all about making the weak and strong fingers interchangeable. Interestingly, it seems to echo Chopin’s reported teaching, in which students were asked to take advantage of the different sounds made naturally by different fingers and it’s interesting to speculate about contact between Sor and his younger colleague. Playing Sor’s music whilst using his fingerings proved difficult for me at first; both my early training and my own anatomy have made me favour the ring finger of my right hand (traditionally a ‘weak’ finger) in preference to my middle finger. But the sound of the two truly is different and it has been a pleasure to get to know this music not just as something abstract but as a consequence of one’s hands working in a certain way. And I believe Sor, even though a rationalist of the Enlightenment, would have profoundly agreed with Rachmaninov’s idea that music is ‘sound and colour’.
William Carter © 2011