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Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, February 2008

Havana-born Brouwer has claims to be one of the foremost present-day composers for the classical guitar. He wrote his first mature composition when he was sixteen, the neo-classical Suite Antigua, which is included here alongside some of his more recent compositions. This is the fourth volume in the Naxos Brouwer series, which started ten years ago. As with volume three the guitarist is Graham Anthony Devine, a player I have admired on several occasions. With his fluent technique and musical phrasing he is an ideal interpreter of Brouwer’s music. I haven’t heard the previous volumes but am quite familiar with his works. For someone coming new to him I would rather recommend one of the earlier volumes as a starter; possibly Volume 2 with the evocative El Decameron Negro, which I count as his finest work. The present volume has a great deal to offer, too, and the little suite from 1955 is charming.

When we turn to his more recent efforts we recognize the ‘real’ Brouwer. Much of his work is permeated with a kind of harsh lyricism, which can seem like a contradiction in terms. He often creates melodies, or themes, with great immediacy but spiced with dissonances to avoid any sweetness.

La ciudad de las columnas (The City of Columns) is a nickname for Havana. The six movement composition is a portrait of his native city and it shows how much he loves the place, even the busy and chaotic life of Obispo Street (IV).

As early as 1959 Brouwer began writing Estudios sencillos (Simple Studies) for pedagogical purposes. He composed several sets that have become very popular, also as concert music. In 2001 he wrote another set of ten pieces, each of them dedicated to a 20th century composer. Here we find omaggios a: Debussy, Mangoré, Caturia, Prokofiev, Tarrega, Sor, Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, Szymanowski and Stravinsky. As can be seen this list includes several Latin-Americans, who have championed the guitar, but there are also some European composers who haven’t. My personal favourites are the last two: Szymanowski, whose omaggio has a suggestively alluring melodic charm, and Stravinsky, who sounds as jagged as he looks on Jean Cocteau’s famous drawing of him playing The Rite of Spring.

Nineteenth century Cuban pianist and composer Manuel Samuell was perhaps the most important musician in creating Cuban national music, forging together influences from French contredanse with African rhythms. Habanera, mambo, rumba, salsa, all have their origin here. Leo Brouwer arranged eight of Samuell’s dances for guitar and the whole suite is like a hors d’oeuvre of tasty melodies and rhythms. Anyone can find a favourite piece here – try, for example, the melancholy No. VII Recuerdos tristes or the lively No. VIII La Maria.

Brouwer’s Hoja de album (Album Leaf): La gota de agua (The Raindrop) is truly descriptive, with sparse drops and long silences in between. The final composition on this disc is by Brouwer’s friend and protégé Joaquin Clerch. Yemaya is a goddess from the Afro-Cuban Santería-Yoruba religion. She is described as the ocean, the essence of motherhood and a protector of children and she appears in many guises. Clerch’s composition, which is in seven short sections played without a break, starts almost inaudibly with the wind blowing over the waves. Then we are confronted with Yemaya’s many and varied personalities before we are again transported to where we started.

Devine confirms through this disc his position as one of the most accomplished guitarists now before the public and for the many admirers of Brouwer’s music this is an essential buy. Devine contributes his own highly informative liner-notes and Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver have once again produced an immaculate recording. Of the many precious jewels in Naxos’s luminous crown, their guitar collection is certainly one of brightest shining.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, January 2008

Born in Havana, Cuba, on 1 March 1939, Leo Brouwer first learned music from his father, Juan Brouwer, a doctor and amateur guitarist. He started playing the guitar at 13. His first important teacher was Isaac Nicola, and made his professional debut at 17. In 1959 he won a scholarship to study guitar in America Hartford University and composition the Juilliard School of Music.

Brouwer started composing in 1955, writing works which had roots in what he describes as the local popular – vernacular - culture but with modern harmonies and some influence from Bartók and Stravinsky. By 1962 he had discovered avant-garde techniques but he ultimately found that the kind of European modernism was too intense and lacked the ability to relax. “There is no living entity that doesn't rest” he said and he made a conscious decision to move away from experimentalism and into a style of new simplicity, a synthesis of the best elements of popular music, the avant garde and classical music.

No matter what style he was writing in the music was always Brouwer, he forged a voice for himself and his instrument and gave that instrument a repertoire.

Naxos is currently recording the complete guitar music of Leo Brouwer and we have now reached volume 4. The music presented here is, in general, relatively recent, the earliest piece being the Suite No.1, Antigua (1955), one of his earliest works, written in a neo-baroque style heard through modern ears. Very attractive.

We jump forwards forty years for Hoja de album – La gota de agua (Album Leaf – The Raindrop), a very short and intense study of one of the most ephemeral of all things – a raindrop. But despite the brevity and severity of the musical language it’s very approachable.

Viaje a la semilla (Journey to the Source) is a different matter entirely. A complicated, concentrated, piece based on an essay by Alejo Carpentier which tells the life story of its protagonist in reverse!

The two biggest works on the disk are also the two most recent, and both are multi movement affairs. Between 1959 and 1981, Brouwer wrote four sets of Estudios sencillos (Simple Studies) which are anything but simple (available on Naxos 8.553630, played by Ricardo Lobo). Twenty years on he’s added a fifth set - Nuevos estudios sencillos (New Simple Studies). Each of the ten studies is dedicated to a 20th century composer from Astor Piazzolla to Szymanowski and Stravinsky and, as before, each study explores a different aspect of guitar technique.

La ciudad de las columnas (City of Columns) (Variaciones sobre Pieza sin titulo) is probably, the most approachable of all the music on this disk. The City of Columns is a nickname for Havana and this work is Brouwer’s own homage to his home town. The Pieza sin titulo was written in 1956 and serves as the start of this tour of the town.

Manuel Saumell wrote his Contradanzas for piano and Brouwer has simply transcribed them for guitar. They make a delightfully tuneful and uncomplicated interlude between the more serious Brouwer works. They are very sultry pieces, reminding me of the kind of music which always seems to be playing when the gringo enters the cantina.

Finally Yemaya, a seven movement suite by Joaquin Clerch, a friend and protégé of Brouwer’s. Written in 1987 it won first prize, that year, in both the National Cuban Composition Competition and the Toronto International Guitar Competition. It’s a harmless little piece with little substance and little of musical interest. One wonders why it’s been put on this disk when there’s plenty of Brouwer out there waiting to be recorded.

But the Brouwer works are what matter on this disk and the excellent La ciudad de las columnas is worth the price of the disk alone – well worth investigating. Performances and recording are everything one could want.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2007

One of the few Cuban classical composers to have found international recognition, Leo Brouwer, was born in Havana in 1939, and having established himself as an outstanding guitarist while still a teenager, he moved to the United States to study composition at Juilliard. On his return to Havana he found employment working in radio and subsequently as professor of composition at the Havana Conservatory. Initially influenced by folk music, he came under the influence of Cage, Nono and Henze, his music at the cutting edge of modernity. The catalogue of compositions includes a number of large-scale orchestral works, though he is principally known for his solo guitar pieces. I have to confess that I admire rather than enjoy his output, the proactive La ciudad de las columnas (The City of Columns), having passages where the page is black with notes. That picture of Havana was completed in 2004, the disc in general concentrating on his recent compositions. Much easier to enjoy are the short pieces, Nuevos estudios sencillos (Ten new simple studies) cast in homage to ten composers including Debussy, Prokofiev, Villa-Lobos and Stravinsky. Each study addresses a fundamental guitar technique, and though they are not pastiche, you can feel the style of music used by the composer pictured therein. We turn the clock back to the 19th century for eight Contradanzas by Manuel Saumell, each shaped in the mode of a dance seen in Cuba and include the conga, habanera, salsa and rumba. Short, attractive and originally for piano, Brouwer has arranged them for guitar. The disc ends with a work by a Brouwer protege, Joaquin Clerch. Yemaya is a goddess in Afro-Cuban culture and the mother and protector of children. In seven linked sections it portrays her in many guises and he seeks out some unusual guitar effects. Throughout the playing of the young English guitarist, Graham Anthony Devine, is stunning, with remarkable agility of his left hand, shifts that at hair-raising speed all noiseless, intonation spotless, and the clarity achieved by his right hand uncommonly clean. The Canadian recording team is peerless in guitar sound, and for anyone interested in the instrument the disc is mandatory.

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