, August 2011
Johannes Möller, who turns thirty this year (2011), is an experienced guitarist and composer. He played his first public concerts when he was thirteen. About five years ago I reviewed his debut solo recital disc with great enthusiasm and since then I have also heard him in the flesh. The reason for his appearing in the Naxos Laureate Series is that he was the winner of last year’s Guitar Foundation of America Competition, one of the most prestigious prizes in the world. Since Naxos issues sell well and are relatively easy to find, in spite of the decreasing number of record stores, chances are great that Möller will reach wide audiences through this disc. And there could be no better way of introducing him than the first track here. Un Sueño en la Floresta (Dream in the Glade) by the very individual Paraguayan Agustin Barrios Mangoré is one of the most beautiful compositions for guitar I know and the playing is absolutely marvellous. The guitar tone in itself is a wonder of beauty, the phrasing so utterly sensitive and natural, the tremolo playing so secure and dynamically graded.
From the 1970s the music of Barrios has had a revival, not least through the advocacy of John Williams, and now his works belong to the standard repertoire. Karel Arnoldus Craeyvanger still awaits his revival, if it ever will come, but to judge from the Introduction and Variations on a theme from Der Freischütz, he was an accomplished composer. There is a long introduction before the theme is presented, Agathe’s aria Leise, leise, fromme Weise. The piece is long but not overlong. The Dutch musician, who was a virtuoso on both guitar and violin and also director of various musical societies in his native Holland, transforms the theme so skilfully that one sits enthralled throughout. And I am convinced it will stand repetition as well. This was his Opus 3 and there are also three Nocturnes in the Royal Library in the Hague—something for Johannes Möller’s next recital perhaps?
Heitor Villa-Lobos is a better known quantity and though his large output has both tops and flops most of his guitar compositions have passed the test of time and are now frequently heard. Etude No. 9 is particularly impressive and the Cadenza from the guitar concerto an explosion of harmonies and rhythms. The Etude No. 12, that follows almost attacca, is a kind of minimalist perpetuum mobile. The concerto, by the way, was commissioned by Andrés Segovia in 1951 but he refused to play it for several years because it lacked a cadenza. Eventually Villa-Lobos gave in and wrote this cadenza and the complete work was premiered in 1959 with the composer conducting.
The Canadian composer and teacher Denis Gougeon was commissioned to write Lamento-Scherzo as the set-piece for the 2010 Guitar Foundation of America Competition, so it’s no wonder Möller has a special feeling for the work. The scherzo part is rhythmically intriguing and catchy and could very well become a standard piece.
Giulio Regondi was a child prodigy, making his debut in Paris at the age of seven (!) and was known as ‘The Infant Paganini’. When he was nine he came to London with his father and stayed there for the rest of his life. His father seems to have eloped with his son’s earnings, leaving the boy in poverty, but as a grown-up he had quite a career all over Europe. After his death he fell into oblivion but more than a century later his compositions were found and edited by Simon Wynberg and published in 1981. Rêverie is a beautiful piece, technically challenging but utterly rewarding for listener and player alike. The tremolo finale surely must rank among the finest music of its kind.
Cuban-born Leo Brouwer is arguably the most important contemporary composer of guitar music. His large output of compositions includes music for other instruments as well, chamber music, including three string quartets, a symphony and several other orchestral works, but it is the music for guitar, his own instrument, that makes up the bulk of his oeuvre. Besides eleven guitar concertos and some music for guitar ensemble, there are more than forty compositions for solo guitar. The Sonata was dedicated to Julian Bream who premiered it on 27 January 1991 at the Wigmore Hall. The best description of this work is to quote Bream’s note, reprinted in the booklet:
‘The three movements take their unity from a thematic idea introduced at the beginning of the composition, a motif of eight notes with the intervals of a major second and minor third. Fandangos y Boleros begins with a short preamble which leads on to the first subject. The second subject is in dotted rhythm accompanied by a double octave pedal. Following the development section, the coda quotes fragments from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral. The theme from the first movement appears occasionally in the Sarabanda de Scriabin but with different harmonies. By re-tuning the lower string from E to F, contrasting tone colours are achieved. La Toccata de Pasquini offers the opening theme adding several intervals of the second and third. Brilliant figurations and arabesques give way to a brief return to the slow movement before the opening music is heard once more.
It is a great piece of music and Möller’s playing is absolutely stunning. Unfortunately there’s no recording of the sonata by the composer since his playing career ended in the early 1980s duo to an injury to a tendon in his right hand middle finger.
Möller’s own Poem to a Distant Fire (2010) was inspired by his return to Sweden for a summer vacation where he encountered ‘pine-tree forests and meadows wearing a dress of thick fog illuminated by the evening light’. He remembered a musical phrase, a theme, that had occurred to him a year earlier and from there he created a magical, dreamlike contemplation, immensely beautiful. This music alone is worth the price of the disc and it will be a regular companion during my late evening listening sessions.
The recorded sound is superb, as could only be expected when Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver are in charge in their regular venue St John Chrysostom Church in Ontario. Graham Wade’s liner-notes positively bristle over with valuable information, some of which I have passed on to the readers. We are only halfway through 2011 when I write this but I don’t expect to hear a better guitar disc during the remaining months. A must for every guitar aficionado!