About this Recording
8.555285 - REGONDI: Airs Varies / Reverie, Op. 19 / MERTZ: Bardenklange, Op. 13
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Giulio Regondi (1822-1872)
Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806-1856)

If the Romantic movement came as a surprise, it was only because its immediate predecessor, the Classical period, was seen as a natural development of the Baroque period, but this new development in music was a strong reaction, a swing in another direction.

Both Mertz and Regondi carried on the composerperformer tradition of Sor and Giuliani a generation before, as did their contemporaries Coste and Ferranti. It was considered the norm. Not until the twentieth century, when Segovia, Bream and others approached other composers instead of writing their own music, did guitarists have a broad-based repertoire to draw from. Another factor in the guitar’s slow development was its denial by the teaching academies of the time. The keybound nature of its fingerboard meant that only a few bright talents found the tonal freedom, the ability to change key instantaneously, that pianists have always taken for granted.

What the guitar could do, however, it did well. Regondi and Mertz found inspiration in the piano music of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann, and adapted elements of their music into their own creative processes. After the huge wave of guitar popularity in the early part of the nineteenth century had subsided, the talents of Regondi and Mertz shine like lighthouses over a dark sea.

Giulio Regondi had a disturbed early life. His German mother seems to have vanished early in his childhood, and it was his Italian father (or stepfather, by some accounts) who brought him up and, a guitarist himself, presumably gave him his first lessons on the guitar. Teaching, however, gave way to exploitation, and when this manipulator disappeared with the young prodigy’s earnings, Giulio had a hard time of it. The help of friends and his own resilience ensured survival, though we shall never know how far this early trauma contributed to his untimely death at the age of fifty from a painful cancer.

Unlike many child prodigies, Regondi matured into an artist of poetic genius. His reputation increased accordingly. In childhood he had met and played in concert with the guitarist Catherine Josepha Pelzer (Madame Sidney Pratten). Fernando Sor dedicated Souvenir d’Amitié, Op.46, to him, and he was to give concerts with musicians such as the pianist Ignaz Moscheles, the singer Maria Malibran and the pianist Clara Schumann, all musicians at the top of their profession.

Regondi’s guitar compositions reflect not only his gentle nature but also the high romanticism of his period. The discovery by Matanya Ophee of 10 Etudes, previously thought to be lost, compelled a revaluation of Regondi’s contribution. The two Airs Variés, Op.22, and Op.23, can only reinforce the new respect that ensued. Each begins with a slow introduction, followed by an Andante theme, slightly operatic in character, after which come a number of variations (four in Op.22, five in Op.23) that show off the resources of the instrument: brilliant passages of demisemiquavers (32nd notes), a minor-key tremolo, consecutive ninths and triplets.

Study No.4b is not one of the 10 Etudes referred to above, but is thought to be a transcription of one of Regondi’s pieces for concertina, which he played to virtuoso standard and for which he composed many more pieces than he ever wrote for the guitar. This surviving study has a form typical of Regondi: a high melody supported by broken chords in the bass. It suggests Schumann, but is very much Regondi’s own.

The tremolando technique is designed to give a plucked instrument the illusion of sustaining power. Regondi’s extended use of the form in Rêverie, Op.19, dwarfs even Tárrega’s later and much-played Recuerdos de la Alhambra, and makes it a favourite among guitarists. A slow introduction is followed by clusters of gossamer-like hemidemisemiquavers (64th notes) before the tremolo section is heard. The long line of an eloquent bass aria interrupts this flow before a harmonically interesting chord sequence returns the piece to its tremolando substance.

Limited knowledge of Regondi’s output led in the past to critical undervaluation, but a deeper acquaintance has revealed that his music is as worthy of attention as the majority of other works composed during the Romantic period. Few composers of the time knew their instruments as intimately as Regondi knew the guitar and the concertina. He was unique.

Johann Kaspar Mertz was born in what was then the Hungarian city of Pozsony, later Pressburg, now Bratislava. He settled in Vienna, where he had the good sense, or the good luck, to be taken up by royalty. His life was not an easy one but, unlike Regondi, his troubles came later, in adulthood. Concerts had to be cancelled through illness; and insurrection and revolution deprived him of pupils and the income they brought. To cap everything, his pianist wife Josephine Plantin nearly killed him with an accidental overdose of strychnine prescribed for his neuralgia. On the other hand, she did introduce him to the piano works of Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn, and they proved to be powerful influences in his own compositions.

Musical taste in nineteenth-century Vienna embraced music from virtually every nearby nation. The Polish polonaise was a favourite, and Schubert wrote six of them for piano duet. Mertz went one better with his seven; like Schubert’s, they conform more to the popular Viennese perception of the form - something to be played rather than danced - than to the original Polish model. Like Schubert’s, they have a contrasting trio section before a repeat to the beginning. They form part of Bardenklänge (Sounds of Bards), an immense work containing nearly thirty pieces of wide variety.

Another work in Bardenklänge is Rondino. It begins with a majestic march in A minor that is followed by a graceful section in A major before the main rondo-like body of the work, more classical in style than romantic but needing the technique of a virtuoso to do justice to the idiomatic writing for the guitar. It contains few harmonic surprises, but it does indicate that Mertz must have been, like Regondi, a guitarist of outstanding ability.

One of his admirers was a wealthy Russian, Nikolay Makarov, to whom we owe a rare description of Mertz: “A tall man, about fifty years of age, neither fat nor thin, very modest. His playing was marked by power, energy, feeling, clarity and expression”. It was Makarov who in 1856 offered two prizes for the best guitar composition. Mertz’s Op.65 was judged the winner, but the composer died before he could receive the award. Like Regondi, he had lived for only fifty years but had greatly enriched the guitar repertoire.

Colin Cooper

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