Monday 30 November 2020

Revolving Rondo: Nils Klöfver's engaging recital explores the work of virtuoso guitarist composers from the 16th century to the present day

Revolving Rondo; Nils Klöfver

Revolving Rondo
; Nils Klöfver

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 November 2020 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
The Swedish guitarist's latest disc showcases not just his alto guitar, but the work of guitarist composers from the 16th to the 21st centuries

I was first introduced to the 11-string alto guitar in 2015 when Swedish guitar player Nils Klöfver released an album celebrating the instrument's 50th anniversary. Nils Klöfver's latest album, Revolving Rondo, uses both the alto guitar and the six-string classical guitar in a programme which is designed to showcase some of the 'most game changing compositions written by the instrument’s greatest virtuosos.' The recital begins with the 16th century Luis de Milan and then continues chronologically with Alonso Mudarra, John Dowland, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, Fernando Sor, Francisco Tarrega, Agustin Barrios, Andres Segovia, Roland Dyens and ending with Klöfver's own composition, Revolving Rondo.

The alto guitar developed in Sweden over 50 years ago because guitarist Per-Olof Johnson was looking for a way to play lute music using guitar playing technique. He and luthier Georg Bolin developed an 11-string instrument which provided conventional lute tuning by tuning the first six strings a minor third higher (hence the name "alto guitar") and added five extra strings to accommodate low notes. The name for the guitar in Swedish is Altgitar. On this new disc Klöfver uses the alto guitar for the early pieces, bringing a lovely mellow tone and rich timbre to them. He switches to the classical guitar when he reaches Fernando Sor's Introductions and Variations on a Theme by Mozart and returns to the alto guitar for his own piece at the end.

We begin with the 16th century composer and vihuela player, Luis Milan who published the first collection of music for the vihuela (an early form of guitar) and from this collection Klöfver plays three pavans, elegant and graceful pieces with harmony redolent of the Renaissance, and which benefit from the sonorous sound of Klöfver's alto guitar. We stay in the 16th century for Alonso Mudarra's Fantasia No. 10. Mudarra was the author of another important collection of music for vihuela, and his Fantasia No. 10 has become a staple of the guitar repertoire. It is a surprisingly perky piece, with a modern freshness to the harmonies.

We then move from Spain to England, and from the vihuela to the lute, for John Dowland's Lachrimae Pavan. Dating from the 1590s, the work was highly popular in Elizabethan England and Dowland's song Flow my tears was created by adding words to the instrumental piece. Here Klöfver plays it with freedom and mellow tone. Sylvius Weiss was one of the most important and prolific of composers of lute music of his day; a contemporary of JS Bach, he was a friend of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and met JS Bach. Weiss' Fantasia in C minor begins quite freely, but then moves into formality and we can hear the sort of structures that JS Bach used in his music.

With the Spanish guitarist and composer Fernando Sor we move from guitar-like instruments to the guitar itself. The introduction and variations uses an aria from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte as its theme. First published in 1821, it was clearly intended to showcase Sor's virtuoso technique. He starts with a remarkably serious introduction, followed by the rather silly charm of the theme and then some dazzling variations. 

Francisco Tarrega is often known as the 'father of the classical guitar', as he laid the foundations for the classical guitar as an instrument though his own compositions are somewhat conservative in style. His Recuerdos de la Alhambra, written in 1896, is his best-known piece with its use of impressive guitaristic effects to create a highly romantic atmosphere, yet if you analyse it the piece boils down to an atmospheric melody over an alberti-type bass. The Capriccio Árabe features a lovely melody in which Klöfver makes the guitar sing.

Paraguayan composer and guitar virtuoso Agustín Barrios was one of the most prolific 20th century composers for guitar. Barrios was heavily inspired by folk-music which imbues much of his work. His La catedral is one of his major pieces. In three movements, it started life in 1921 but Barrios adjusted and revised the work throughout his career. We start with a striking prelude, simple and elegant, followed by the slow 'Andante religioso' and then followed by the 'Allegro solemne' with its impressive use of Spanish guitar-style techniques which enables Klöfver to play with great bravura.

The problem with the classical guitar in the 20th century was that few of the major Spanish composers wrote extensively for it, if at all. Neither Granados nor Albeniz ever wrote for the guitar, whilst Falla wrote a single, very great, piece for guitar. Andres Segovia, the greatest 20th Spanish virtuoso, who effectively created the 20th century classical guitar style, had very conservative tastes and the music he commissioned was from composers who fitted into this conservative tradition. On this disc we hear a pair of Segovia's own pieces, Es udio sin Luz which is quite conventional but with some intriguing harmonies, and Impromptu which combines an engaging melody with beautiful guitar technique.

Post-Segovia, there are various different routes that a recital could take. Klöfver gives us another guitarist composer, the Frenchman Roland Dyens. His Saudade No. 3 is an intriguing piece, it starts off rather rhapsodic before the main, dance-based structure, yet Dyens brings a dark edge to his harmonies and the conclusion to the work is positively exciting.

The final work on the disc is Klöfver's own Revolving Rondo, an attractively melodic piece which allows the melodies to unfold over an incessant thrum which thrusts the work onwards and onwards.

This is very much an exploration of the work of guitarist composers, musicians who were able to write well for their instrument and bring imagination to their music, without perhaps always that touch of genius that some major, non-guitarist composers might have. Whilst non-guitarist composers can often write clumsily for the guitar (or need help), they can sometimes push and extend the way composers write for the instrument.

The disc is recorded quite closely, so we hear Klöfver's hands slide and the detail of his playing, making it a very real experience. And the recital is a fine showcase for Klöfver's technique, and his alto guitar. Klöfver pays the music in an engaging manner, and for those interested in the guitar it makes for a highly attractive recital with the sound of the alto guitar giving it added depth.

Revolving Rondo
Luis de Milan (1500-1561), Alonso Mudarra (1510-1580), John Dowland (1562-1626), Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750), Fernando Sor (1778-1839), Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909), Agustin Barrios (1885-1944), Andres Segovia (1893-1987), Roland Dyens (1955-2016), Nils Klöfver (born 1982)
Nils Klöfver (guitar, alto guitar)

Available from Amazon.

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