OUT NOW: Jakob Bangsø's new album 'Guitar Concertos' available on Orchid Classics!

Jakob Bangsø presents three contemporary guitar concertos: John Coriglianos Troubadours, alongside world-premiere recordings of works inspired by Corigliano's piece and written for Bangsø: the Saudade by Constantine Caravassilis and Wayne Siegel's Chaconne.

"These guitar concertos are unified by more than their instrumentation. The two more recent works by Constantine Caravassilis and Wayne Siegel, written for Jakob Bangsø, were in part inspired by John Corigliano’s Troubadours, but the connections between these works go even deeper. The themes of nostalgia and memory recur throughout this album. Corigliano’s nostalgia for the innocence of his early output drew him towards the guitar, and he explores the music of the past in the resultant work. Caravassilis’s choice of the title Saudade is an explicit allusion to this theme: ‘Saudade’ is a Portuguese word suggestive of a bittersweet memory, suffused with nostalgia. Siegel also uses past models in his Chaconne, in which he conjures up the impression that the guitarist is searching his memory for the work’s melody.

Born in New York in 1938, John Corigliano strives for a sense of inclusivity in his music, with an emphasis on respect for his performers and audiences. As a result, his style often combines appealing elements such as tonality and lyricism, as well as theatrical and virtuosic gestures, alongside more modernist devices. Corigliano has described his early style as a “tense, histrionic outgrowth of the ‘clean’ American sound of Barber, Copland, Harris and Schuman”. This was followed in the 1970s by a move away from conventional notation to an “architectural” approach, encompassing serial and aleatoric processes, abstract scores, and microtonal effects.

When the guitarist Sharon Isbin approached John Corigliano about writing a guitar concerto, the composer had serious reservations. Corigliano admits that he was not a fan of much contemporary guitar music, and that he did not possess an intimate understanding of the instrument. Isbin was undeterred, and eroded the composer’s doubts by sending him scores, recordings and letters in the hope of creating a vision of what the concerto could become. Corigliano began to focus on the immediacy and popularity of the guitar, and its ability to speak directly to audiences: “Lyrical, direct, and introspective, it has a natural innocence about it that has attracted amateurs and professionals, young and old.” This in turn reminded the composer of the youthful enthusiasm with which he approached his earlier works: “… the idea of a guitar concerto was, for me, like a nostalgic return to all the feelings I had when I started composing – before the commissions and deadlines and reviews. A time when discovery and optimistic enthusiasm ruled my senses.”

The title and conception of the work stemmed from one of Isbin’s letters, in which she enclosed articles about troubadours and, in particular, famous women troubadours (known as trobairitz): medieval poet-musicians based in the south of France. This image inspired Corigliano to contemplate the act of serenading or singing to someone, and the concerto has a lyrical quality to it as a result, although it is not a direct emulation of the music of the era. As Corigliano explains: “By writing for chamber orchestra, with some of the instruments placed offstage, I was able to achieve the balance I desired between soloist and orchestra… While this work utilises some of the flavour of that time in the solo writing and percussion, it is more concerned with the idea of the troubadour rather than a display of early techniques.” Even so, the main theme varied during the work is “an original troubadour-like melody” that includes, at its end, a quotation from the song A chantar by La Comtessa (Beatritz) de Dia, a 12th-century trobairitz.

Troubadours (1993) is in three sections: two slower sections framing a quicker central episode. During the ethereal opening passages the guitar and ensemble ebb and flow, overlapping and exchanging material, the melody wafting between them until the soloist alone plays the theme, joined by the ensemble for lyrical variations. Offstage percussion heralds the start of the rhythmic, evocative second section, with double reed instruments used to mimic medieval shawms (precursors of today’s oboe). There is a spontaneous, vivid quality to this section, as though we are in the midst of a bustling medieval marketplace overhearing snatches of different conversations and activities, culminating in offstage horns leading into the guitar cadenza. This cadenza diffuses the boisterous atmosphere, drawing the listener into a more introspective mood. At the end of the cadenza, the soloist reprises the troubadour theme in a slower, decorated guise. It is supported by a set of seven chords, taken up and repeated by the orchestra in the manner of a chaconne, before dissolving into the misty, chromatic opening sonority. Although distinct, the chords are derived from the main theme, enabling the two to meld together seamlessly, ending the work with sinuous, mysterious fragments of sound receding into the distance.

Both Constantine Caravassilis and Wayne Siegel took Corigliano’s Troubadours as a model for their works composed for Jakob Bangsø. When Bangsø approached Caravassilis about writing a guitar concerto for him, the composer responded by suggesting that he first familiarise himself with the instrument by writing something smaller-scale. Like Corigliano, Caravassilis was acutely aware that there was much to learn about the instrument before embarking on a full-size concerto, and he gained a more intimate knowledge of the guitar through the composition of his solo Prelude in 2016. Caravassilis then set about composing his Saudade, a through-composed concerto in four, seamless sections, premiered by Jakob Bangsø in Tallinn on 19 May 2018.

Caravassilis explains of the work’s title: “Even though there is no exact translation of the original Portuguese word, Saudade represents the deepest of desires for something that cannot exist in the present. It is a journey through the yin and yang of the emotions one experiences when a memory of the past resurfaces.” Caravassilis builds the work from two main themes, one a simple motif inspired by lullabies sung to the composer by his grandmother, and the other based on a Greek folksong entitled Kaneloriza. Both themes are explored in the opening movement, Teneramente, with the guitar articulating the motifs and commenting upon the orchestral material, in what the composer refers to as a curatorial role.

In the quick-fire second movement, the guitar and orchestra take on combative roles, at odds with one another, the two motifs either disguised or heard simultaneously in counterpoint. The third-movement Adagietto is perhaps the most overtly connected to the work’s title, evoking “feelings of reminiscence, separation, emptiness, absence”. This is most vividly apparent in the first part of the movement, after which the guitar takes on what the composer describes as the role of “brother’s keeper” – someone responsible for taking care of a friend or relative. In this case, the guitar soothes the orchestra with positive memories of the main motifs, before establishing an ostinato of increasing momentum, heard in parallel with the repetition of the first motif. A guitar cadenza follows, summarising the moods and material of the concerto so far and setting the scene for the finale, in which the motifs are treated contrapuntally, bringing the work to a resounding close.

John Corigliano’s evocation of earlier styles, including the chaconne, in Troubadours, inspired Wayne Siegel to explore similar terrain in his Chaconne of 2016. The work is dedicated to Jakob Bangsø, with whom Siegel collaborated closely during its composition. A chaconne is a type of ever-extendable variation form comprising short units, each of which usually ends with a cadence before moving immediately onto the next. A recurring bass-line provides the foundation of the work, whereas in a passacaglia the recurring theme may be used in the upper voices as well as in the bass. These forms had their roots in the 16th century, when there were several chaconne styles across Europe, germinating in Spain and Italy and blossoming in Germany, France and England. A hybrid style of chaconne combines aspects of these traditions.

Siegel’s one-movement Guitar Concerto is a strict chaconne, and the composer describes the piece beginning “with the soloist searching his memory, trying to recall a forgotten melody. Once he has ‘remembered’ the 10-bar melody, it is repeated consistently and regularly as a ground bass with changing instrumentation and varying textures”. He adds: “I found it both challenging and inspiring to compose a work with only one simple melody, recalling the words of Igor Stravinsky: ‘My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings.’” "

© Joanna Wyld, 2020


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