Narciso YEPES: The Complete Solo Recordings, works by BACH, VILLA_LOBOS, POULENC, SOR, SCARLATTI, RODRIGO, TARREGA – Narisco YEPES (guitar) – Deutsche Grammophon  

Narciso YEPES: The Complete Solo Recordings (20cds) Spanische Guitarrenmusik vol. 1&2; Fernando Sor: 24 Etuden; Musica Espanola;  Bach/Weiss;  Hietor Villa-Lobos: 12 Etuden; Rendezvous mit Narciso Yepes; Musica Catalan; Werke fur Laute ; Bach: Werke fur Laute vol. 1&2;  Poulenc/Brouwer, etc; Guitarra Romantica; Guitarrenmusik 20th Century; Gitarrenmusik aus funf Jahrhunderten; Tarrega: Recuerdos; Domenico Scarlatti; Rodrigo: Trez Pieza Espanolas; Romance de Amor; – Deutsche Grammophon  479 – 7316, (6/917); ****:

The entire solo recordings for guitar by Narciso Yepes.

Classical guitarists of my generation (b.1962) are probably too young to have registered the initial impact of Andres Segovia (or Pablo Casals for that matter). The reputation was one thing, but the old Decca records never sounded as good as they should have. By the mid ‘70s it was stereo we wanted and a label with authority and aesthetic appeal. It was inevitable that the avid fans and players would find their way (admittedly with a brief diversionary infatuation with Liona Boyd) to the Yellow Label and its preeminent guitarist, Narciso Yepes. The first of many records to appear, “Five Centuries of Spanish Music,” had an attractive centuries-to-dollars ratio and a charming picture of a traditional Spanish scene with a couple of donkeys. (Legend has it that Narciso Yepes was taken five miles to each of his thrice-weekly lessons on the back of a donkey.) More recitals of the same type would appear — indeed, two more bearing the same title. These records did more than anything to introduce a generation to the richness of Iberian music. For nearly three decades Senor Yepes and his ten-string guitar would reign unchallenged on Deutsche Grammophon, completing a complete tour of the modern repertoire in a series of recordings that enjoyed critical and popular approval.

Deutsche Grammophon has decided to reissue all of the recordings in a 20 CD box set with the original jackets reproduced on individual sleeves. For old fans, this allows for a most pleasant stroll through the museum. What discoveries these recordings represented! The first piece, a staple of the beginner’s repertoire, Mudarra’s Fantasia, is played with a deliberation that seems instructional in intent. The first two discs are in themselves anthologies, featuring the patriarchs Ibanez, Sor, Rodrigo and Tarrega, as well as 16th-century composers whose language is that of the Lute.

The defining trait of Yepes’ art is a metronomic precision, crisply articulated lines and never a muffed note. In terms of velocity and dexterity, he is unrivaled, even by the great Segovia, yet he inclines to measured tempos. The tone of his famous ten-string guitar is very fine, especially in the bell-like high notes and harmonics. However, the quality of DG recording is uneven over the nearly three decades represented here, and an early attempt to record a baroque lute goes badly awry.

After the two nearly perfect “five centuries” introductions, the set divides roughly into three categories: recitals with mixed but predominantly Iberian pieces, programs of individual composers Sor (Etudes), Scarlatti (Sonatas), Villa-Lobos, Tarrega and Rodrigo, and finally, the biggest category, Bach. These include the lute works on guitar as well as on arch-lute with the conventional transcriptions, including the taxing Chaconne.

The recitals are first rate. It is here that we see Narciso Yepes at his best. There are simply no technical limitations and the performances strive for expressive range and variety. On the final disc, he ranges from 13th-century work in a simple setting to 20th-century pieces by Pujol, Llobet and de Falla. On a third edition of “five centuries” (disc 16) we get works by Poulenc and Gombau, which impose tonal challenges on an instrument which all too often runs up and down the fretboard in staccato routine. These pieces are a refreshing departure from the mainstream repertory and we wish we had more of them. From this standpoint disc 13 is the most auspicious, containing only modern works, and it catches the guitarist in top form from a 1976 recital. Leo Brouwer, sadly underrepresented in this massive collection, arrives at last in the magical Parabola. A work that I have not heard elsewhere, Omaggio a Che Guevara, by Czech composer Vaclav Kucera is masterful essay in a mixed style.

The single-composer discs demonstrate the guitarist’s total mastery of each unique compositional world. For the Sor Etudes the challenge was to elevate the compositional simplicity to an expressive elegance, like trying to tell a shy beauty to walk with confidence. I was surprised at how pleasing these little works were. An entire disc of Villa-Lobos etudes was another matter. The virtuosity on demonstration elicits admiration, but there is much dead wood here, much that belongs in the practice room. This recital shows why Villa-Lobos is usually taken in smaller units. Rodrigo and Tarrega are terrific, and disc 17, devoted to the latter ranks high in the set especially, as it has the rarely heard Cartagenera, an exquisite piece.

The notion of reconfiguring the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti for guitar has to rank as one of the greatest ever. These original transcriptions show that Yepes was a pioneer of this venture. The extra strings and his technical reach were presumably key factors in making this project even possible. A single disc (18) features 12 of these works. There are many felicities, among which the solemn two-part invention of K 77 (8 minutes) stands out, rivaling anything for the lute by Bach or Silvius Weiss.

Those two composers share billing on (5) with the unwieldy Chaconne dominating the session. The lute suite by Bach’s contemporary Silvius Weiss is but one of 60, like Scarlatti an island continent waiting to be discovered by guitarists in the 1970’s. By now, all of them have been recorded on guitar. It should be borne in mind that this was new territory in 1971. Perhaps the recorded sound, none too flattering for the guitar in this case, reminds us of the age of the recording.

Discs 9 through 12 comprise all the Bach pieces dedicated to the solo lute. The first half features the ten-string guitar, while the second has Yepes playing the same pieces on the arch-lute. Given that these are the most played of the guitar repertoire (in spite of their difficulty) we are not surprised that they have been surpassed in one way or another by dozens of recordings made since these 1974 sessions. While Yepes handles the contrapuntal complexity of the music with consummate skill, he only rarely achieves moments of lyrical or tonal splendor. These are dry, legato-less performances, determined and athletic but scarcely endearing.

Nor do things get better when Yepes picks up the lute. It is a splendid looking instrument as I recall from the original LP box, which had a photo of the instrument with its curiously bent pegboard. Lute technique has little in common with guitar technique; it is astonishing that Yepes can navigate this cumbersome instrument with such prowess. However, the sound of the instrument and the recording in general is very poor. The revival of the lute and the emergence of the great players of our generation, Hopkinson Smith, Konrad Junhanel, Michael Schaffer, Eugen Dombois were just a few years ahead. By comparison to the recordings on the SEON and Deutsche Harmonia Mundi and Astree, these Archiv Production sessions are abysmal failures.

In the end, I do not think listeners will turn towards Yepes’ Bach, although he undoubtedly played a key role in establishing its centrality. In any case, the greatness of this guitarist is on display in the final recital, a 1989 performance which again spans the centuries, but more importantly irons out some of the earlier sound issues, introducing warmth and resonance not fully represented on the earlier recordings.

This comprehensive anthology of Deutsche Grammophon’s premier guitarist is surely a fitting tribute to a towering artist. We wish we could go back and fix some of the sound issues and also tweak the repertory, adding some Agustin Barrios and Leo Brouwer, trimming the Bach down and omitting the lute recordings. Yet in the end, we have to commend DG for putting together a rewarding exhibition of one of the two or three most important guitarists of the 20th century.

Five warm stars for the playing, three and a half for the repertory, and three for the sonics.

—Fritz Balwit

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