Ricardo Gallén and the Bach Lute Suites
I believe Ricardo Gallén is one of the most important classical guitarists in our world today. He is a font of knowledge, a master teacher, and a virtuosic musician who shows virtue in both technique and musicianship. When I found out that he has released a recording of the complete lute suites I was excited and curious to hear what he would offer with his interpretation.
The recording does not disappoint, it is a wonderfully refined and personal interpretation that conveys a deep connection with the music. In addition, the recording stands out with Gallén’s use of a classical romantic guitar, its distinct sound renders an ethereal lute-like sound.
Please enjoy the following interview with Gallén, and enjoy his recording of the complete Bach lute works.
Why have you decided to record the lute suites at this point in your career?
This is something I was planning to do for many years, since I first played the four suites for lute in a concert. Back to my times as a student in Salzburg and Munich, when I learnt throughout bass and ancient music, I was encouraged to do the recording, since people realized that my approach to those pieces on the guitar was not of the usual. My departing point was always my knowledge of early music and how this music worked on period instruments, without thinking the typical modern guitar limitations. So, I was playing this repertoire for some years, until one day, after my friend and great guitarist Diego Barber visited me in Weimar in early 2010 and we both visited Bach’s born place (Eisenach) and death place (Leipzig), I suddenly felt inspired to do it. I have to say that I had stopped playing this repertoire for some months prior to Diego’s visit and this made me change and consolidate many of my points of view about the performing of those pieces. Then, I made a call to the great producer and close friend, Norbert Kraft, to fix a date for the recording. We did it on September 2010 and the double cd was released with Sunnyside Records (New York) by June 2013.
What research have you done on the suites, and what were some of your discoveries?
One of the things that I was doing was about analyzing as many works by Bach as possible in order to establish connections between his lute music and the rest of his catalogue. Many things were discovered about Bach’s hidden texts and melodies behind the notation, rhetoric, improvisation, a single piece arranged for different instruments by Bach himself, transcriptions, instruments used (the problem of most of the cantatas, for instance) or the idea of suggesting the dynamics by the direction, up or down, of the beams and so on. I don’t know if I consciously discovered something, but what I tried to do is to bring all those directions to the lute works and make them coherent to the style and the spirit of what Bach would have done. Maybe, that sounds too pretentious, but I am not the owner of the truth. Since we are just performers of his music we can just make presumptions about it, and our personal taste after all has also much to say. Anyway, this is just an attempt to approach an Era which doesn’t exist anymore. We don’t have recordings to imitate (just some Carillon rolls) and we don’t think and live in the same way than back then, so we can only conjecture about it.
In the recording you perform on a classical romantic guitar by Arnoldo Garcia, why did you choose this instrument and what do you think it brings to the suites?
Since I am not playing the baroque lute yet, I decided to use this awesome instrument by Arnoldo (copy of Fabricatore, circa 1820), with Savarez Alliance strings for old instruments, because of its “lute like” sound, warm, deep and singing. There is always a kind of controversy about my choice of instrument for this recording. People often ask me: “Why do you play Bach on that instrument instead of the modern guitar?” -For the same reason you would have never heard a rock concert inside a church instead of a theatre or a soccer arena, I answer. Anyway, this instrument is closer to Bach in terms of time than the modern one, dated 250 years later. Overall it’s a matter of aesthetics. Of course, I can do the same things on that instrument as in a modern one, but the instrument its self is somehow also speaking to us. The tone, the sustain, the resonance, how comfortable it is… All those characteristics have the ability to change our playing, tempo, character, the way we improvise the ornaments, accentuation… It’s a matter of psychology. Music is psychology. You hear a sound and you “translate” it into a meaning according to your knowledge, your taste and the physical capability of your auditory system. So getting this “good mood” for playing is one of the targets of all of us as players. It’s a good departing point to start with. And this instrument gives me this point the most.
How does your facility on the piano affect your concept of the guitar repertoire? Do you think that this broadens your perspective of the guitar repertoire?
As I said above, approaching the pieces from a different point of view than that of the guitar, makes me understand the kind of fingerings that were used to play those pieces and its natural phrasing according to that. Let’s point out that the works for lute, though they are supposed to be played on a lute, were not written for lute. Bach used what is called “Lautenklavier”, which is, a harpsichord with gut strings and a lute body shape, but it’s a keyboard instrument. Thus, the difficulty of playing those pieces on a lute is obvious, since lutenists are playing in different keys than the ones written in the original pieces and also skipping some notes, due to the impossibility to be played. Understanding the keyboard fingerings of that time made me approach the guitar in a different way, not only on fingerings, but also in sonority, articulation, breathing points, etc. If you apply this way of thinking to pieces written by those non-guitarist modern composers like Ponce, Rodrigo, Antonio José, Tedesco, Ginastera, and many more, you’ll find out a new world of sonorities lost because of a limited and easiest approaching to fix-position guitar technic.
Are there any aspects of your playing or musical approach that you recognize as uniquely your own compared to the majority of other guitarists?
Maybe the capacity to “complicate my life” by finding and using those -not typical- fingerings to imitate the piano or the orchestra sound . 🙂 I do use the harmonics as real notes when the dynamic allows me to, in order to avoid breaks on musical phrases, my left thumb plays single notes or even barree, and my nose also as much as I need for harmonics and real notes too!! I try to use all the possible tools to be coherent with music.
There seems to be a very strong focus on technique for techniques shake in our classical guitar community, more so than other instruments. How do you think this attitude could be changed amongst students.
In this case I will point out something that the great Paco de Lucía once said (unfortunatelly not litteral): “Classical guitarists usually hide behind the musicality or sensitivity to avoid difficulties.” This was said about Paco’s video playing Concerto de Aranjuez where he wanted to demonstrate that it’s possible to play “a tempo” in places where we – classical guitarist invent a musical “rubato” because it’s difficult to keep it fast. I think we are in fact more worried about not making ugly noises with the nails plugging the strings, or playing fortissimo all the time in order to be heard in a concert hall or while playing with other instruments, while concepts like Tempo, Harmony, Rhythm, Improvisation, etc., are just things that we once heard about but do not use in our daily praxis routine.
What importance do place on chamber music in the career of a classical guitarist and what impact does it have on the educational process?
I think that solidarity is one of the most important things I learnt by doing chamber music. We spend most of our time between four walls – alone and this is one of the poisons of our educational process. By playing chamber music, apart of learning new repertoire beyond the solo guitar, we become more rhythmical, we learn to breath according to the music and to the difficulties of the different instruments we play with and we can also share different points of view and change our playing in real time, which means that we develop the tools to adopt a new way of playing without the need of spending three months to change one fingering.
What advice would you give to young guitarists who would like to pursue a career in music?
Honesty. I don’t have a recipe for success, but what I do, I do it honestly. I believe in what I am doing and this makes me happy and confident and if I have this mood maybe great things will come… By the way, my new cd with the Four Guitar Sonatas by Fernando Sor is going to be released within the next two or three weeks with Eudora Records (Spain). I hope you will enjoy it too!
Thank you very much and good luck!!!
-Bach: Complete Lute Works. Ricardo Gallén. 2013 Sunnyside SSC1348
-Guitar Sonatas by Fernando Sor. Ricardo Gallén. 2014 Eudora EUD-SACD-1401