Gulyás Plays Villa-Lobos

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VILLA-LOBOS: 5 Preludes. Suite Populaire Brésilienne. Choros No. 1, “Choro tipico.” 12 Études / Georg Gulyás, guitarist / Proprius PRCD 2094, also available for free streaming in individual bits on YouTube

Heitor Villa-Lobos was an excellent but rather strange composer whose music was influenced by 1) his native Brazilian music, 2) the innovations of Bartók, and 3) the intricate structures of J.S. Bach—and all of them, you might say, in equal measure. In these, his complete works for guitar, he was more strongly influenced by Nos. 1 and 3 than by No. 2.

Many of these pieces have been recorded by other guitarists, but I’m not going to cross-reference most of them because I don’t have to. A cursory sampling of Swedish guitarist Georg Gulyás’ playing will tell you that he is a superb guitarist who combines virtuosity, a clear understanding of this material, and, perhaps most importantly of all, an energetic, emotionally involved performing style. In my view, this is what all classical guitarists should sound like, but unfortunately the majority of them are more strongly influenced by the wimpy, over-delicate style of Andrés Segovia than by the meatier playing of Julian Bream of Pepé Romero…even though several of these works were written for Segovia.

Like the Rautavaara CD I also recently reviewed, this CD “slipped out” onto the market. In fact, since it is produced by a really small label, it has had virtually zero promotion, and I couldn’t find a single review of it online, thus in practical terms, it doesn’t exist. Had I not tripped across it by accident on the Naxos Music Library, I wouldn’t have a clue of its existence.

But as I said, Gulyán is a superb—not just a run-of-the-mill—guitarist, and he clearly understands these pieces. This is particularly apparent in the slow pieces, even more so than the fast ones. This is where too many guitarists indulge themselves in over-Romantic goop whereas Gulyás plays then with backbone, combining elegance of phrasing with well-judged changes in dynamics and sometimes strong, sometimes subtle rhythmic stresses, as in the very first Prelude (“Andantino expressivo”). Indeed, his balance of elegance and energy keeps the listener fully engaged. You never feel your attention wandering as he plays, and that is very important. He even imparts a touch of flamenco style in the midst of the second “Andantino” Prelude, which is wholly appropriate.

The music itself is, for the most part, fairly straightforward for Villa-Lobos despite channeling his Brazilian roots. Interestingly, it was the 12 Études, with their strong Bach influence, which he wrote for Segovia in 1929, whereas the five Préludes, which sound much more like Segovia-style music, were in fact written for his wife, Arminda Neves de Almeida in 1940. The one outlier on this recording, the stand-alone Choros No. 1, along with the Suite Populaire Brésilienne, was composed between 1908 and 1912, using the then-popular urban music of Rio de Janeiro as its basis.

In the end, however, I really only found the Études to be really meaty music, meaning music that would stand up to repeated listening. Here, I did make a comparison between Gulyán and one of my idols, Julian Bream. To be honest, I preferred Gulyás. On his recording, Bream rushed the music too much, blurring notes that were clearly intended to be heard separately whereas Gulyás gave them their proper duration and clarity. Recommended primarily for these pieces.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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