Baroque guitarist Hopkinson Smith reveals a little known era of Spanish music in exquisite recital

Hopkinson Smith playing a five-course baroque Spanish guitar

Music by Gaspar Sanz, Francisco Guerau, Antonio de Santa Cruz

Wesley Church, Taranaki Street, Wellington

Monday 24 February, 6:30 pm

This was Hopkinson Smith’s second performance in Wellington; the previous day he had played at Pataka, the museum and cultural centre in Porirua. I gather there was a full house, and a highly appreciative one.

His rather memorable name has been around for many decades: I confess to thinking he was English (he was born in New York, was educated at Harvard, and long resident in Switzerland) and so there were several surprises and even more delights to be found at this recital by a refined, quietly witty, unpretentious American who seems to command every kind of plucked string instrument (apart from the harp): his extraordinary discography on the Internet is worth a look.

Though he opened the recital without making any comments  about the music or the instrument he was playing,  he did speak at the end of the first bracket of three pieces by Gaspar Sanz  (1640-1710, from Aragon), thus a contemporary of such composers as Lully, Buxtehude, Stradella, Charpentier and Biber.  In terms of Spanish history, the 17th century had seen the decline of its military and political greatness, having squandered the superficial wealth that gold from the Americas had brought them.  But great empires in decline often continue to produce art of lasting quality.

These ‘Three Spanish themes’ which came from a collection published in Zaragossa in 1674, Instrucción de música sobre la guitarra española, suggested a refinement of taste, somehow in contradiction to the grandeur and pomposity still exhibited by the Spanish court and the nobility. There was little chordal writing or employment of rich harmonies; rather, a hesitant quality in the Pavanas with variations, colouring by lots of runs, subtle decoration and rhythm changes. Folias displayed a sort of flamenco character, with strumming across the finger-board.

Before playing the next group, entitled ‘Europe in Miniature’, Smith spoke about his guitar, a replica of a 17th century Spanish guitar with five courses (that is, pairs of strings tuned to the same pitch or at the octave); he noted that his instrument was tuned according to Sanz’s directions, with the two lowest courses tuned an octave higher so that no bass notes could be produced. The result is ethereal, transparent and, in the artist’s own words, the instrument was ‘liberated from the bass, thus the tonality has a unique poetic aura which in its best moments creates a magic of its own’.

It is perhaps more attuned to a venue rather smaller than the church; the space somewhat reduced the feeling of the refined character of this small instrument as well as making Smith’s words hard to hear. But a smaller venue would have meant turning many away.  While the guitar might have been minimally amplified, his voice was not.

There were six pieces in the bracket ‘Europe in miniature’. The first impression was of a certain lack of variety, particularly of key, though they may have been closely related keys; until the final piece, Tarantela which shifted dramatically with much more vigorous strumming, occasional hitting the body of the guitar, creating a very lively musical fabric. The earlier pieces were drawn from various parts of Spain and Europe in general, though always infused with a character that seemed essentially Spanish; varied in rhythm, duple to triple back and forth, lively dotted rhythms that were sometimes difficult to distinguish from quaver triplets. The delicacy and refined taste of the music steadily made itself familiar to me as the concert proceeded.

The two pieces by Francisco Guerau (1649 – 1717/1722, from Majorca) came from a famous publication of 20 years later (Poema harmonico, 1694). The Passacalles del primer tono, one of some 30 passacalles in the volume, proved a longish work, perhaps the most substantial and characteristic in the programme . There was a subtlety of invention and expression, a variety of rhythms and tempi, of unobtrusive counterpoint where, in its central part, its melodic evolution became increasingly intriguing and difficult to follow and appreciate. Towards the end, a meandering, fluid character emerged, in a more marked triple time, that was neither a minuet, a sarabande nor any kind of German Ländler.  Smith’s own notes described Guerau’s music as ‘some of the most sophisticated  writing for the guitar from the entire baroque era’.  Further exploration will be rewarding.

His Canarios (from the Canary Islands), less elaborate but more sparkling and delightful, involved a lot of strumming  that suggested the flamenco style of Andalusia.
The first half ended with a Jácaras, a lively dance by Antonio de Santa Cruz who seems to be a more obscure figure, comparable with Guerau in style, and dated around 1700.

The second half was devoted to five pieces by Sanz: a flowing Preludio based around scales and arpeggios. Then a Marizápalos which emerged as the source of the slow movement from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, a lovely set of variations.  A jig followed, and then another Passacalles, this time ‘del segundo tono’: bold strumming  and more dense clusters of chords, creating a more ‘modern’ impression than many of the other pieces.

Finally Sanz’s Canarios which proved to be the source of the last movement of Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un gentilhombre; as expected, it was delightfully lively and attractive.

The entire recital, exquisitely and brilliantly executed by Hopkinson Smith,  opened a window for me to a period of music that I was fairly unfamilar with. From a period that is contemporary with the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution in England, of Purcell and Blow, Jeremiah Clarke and Eccles; or Louis XIV’s France of Lully, Charpentier, Campra and Couperin, it evokes a society of perhaps greater refinement and sophistication, though it is pertinent to recall that this was also the era in Spain of the emergence of the baroque Zarzuela, the early form of comic opera that re-emerged strongly in the 19th century.


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