«Without doubt, this is the finest classical guitar sound I have heard on disc so far.»
By John Miller ©2014 SA-CD.net

Review of Fernando Sor: Guitar Sonatas [2014]

This is the first disc from a new Spanish company, Ediciones Eudora S.L. under the label Eudora (“good gift” in Greek). Eudora was one of the Hyades nymphs in Greek Literature. At the time of writing, the company’s web-site is not completed but the main thing is that they seem to be devoted to producing SA-CDs of the highest quality. Their recording equipment includes Sonodore and DPA microphones, feeding into a Merging Horus pre-amp and AD/DA converter, which is one of the world’s most transparent of Mic preamps. Recordings are captured with DSD256 at 11.2MHz Direct Stream Digital and finally down sampled for SA-CD mastering. Interestingly, as well as mastering on speakers as usual, they also use Audeeze and Sennheiser headphones on a custom-made preamplifier by Rens Heijnis.

Their first issue is an apt one, of course, for a Spanish company. The Guitar Sonatas of Fernando Sor (1778-1839) are less well-known than his smaller pieces for Spanish (acoustic) guitar, and certainly less recorded. After some searching, I couldn’t find another disc with all four of them together. They could be considered as the most significant elements of his guitar music. The sonata form’s “father” was Joseph Haydn, whose work was carefully followed by Sor, and he developed his own branding on the medium while still preserving the Mozart-Haydn Viennese classicism.

In the booklet, Julio Gimeno writes an illuminating essay on how Sor approached and modified not just the sonata form, but the compound structure of movements into an instrumental Sonata. He quotes some of the musicological research papers on Sor’s sonatas, and as in academic literary procedure, gives references to these in footnotes, all 21 of them, a feature of very few company’s booklet texts.. While these may be of little interest to the average listener, they indicate that Eudora may have a solid educational aspect in their future productions.

Unusually, nothing is said in the booklet about the artist on this disc, Ricardo Gallén (b. 1972), so I’ll supply some notes on his career here. Since the 90’s he has been a world-renowned guitarist, giving highly acclaimed solo recitals throughout Europe and America and performances in concerts under the direction of well-known conductors. He has made a number of CDs, mostly for Naxos and has received over twenty international prizes. Apart from his concertizing, he has had a number of teaching positions, and now teaches guitar at the Hochschule für Musik “Franz Liszt”, Weimar, Germany.

Gallén’s overall approach to the four sonatas in the Viennese classical style (with Spanish flavours) is wonderfully idiomatic. He understands the kind of Enlightenment rhetoric which Mozart and Haydn used, and brings superb clarity as well as sympathetic expression to the music’s progress. You are never quite sure what Sor is going to do next, changing textures and harmonic sequences, and Gallén never fails to display the dramas which result. Sor’s scores are nearly bereft of instructions other than initial speed indications, apart from the odd ff or pp in the later works, so the weight of interpretation lies squarely on the artist. Gallén makes these movements flow so naturally that it seems he has been studying them for a lifetime. They are bestowed with classical gallantry, elegance, wry humour and make irresistible listening.

Gallén’s tone, adduced from his guitar (a copy of a Fabricatore circa 1820) is rich, varied and resonantly beautiful . In the upper voice he can change the timbre to a sharp-edged, penetrating tone or to a soft-edged, warm tone, the foundation of his expressive interpretation. In the lower voice his dynamic control is remarkable, changing the volume of accompaniments from loud to soft with innate skill. I was also very impressed with his ability to make complex polyphonic passages sound as if several instruments were playing. Even when playing fast, virtuosic passages, he makes a minimum of string whistles or fingerboard noises. He can, however, deliver fast, soft low note rows at the same time producing an underlying pecking noise on the guitar body, just as Sor wrote, and swelling fast-repeated deep notes as if an accompaniment by timpani. Very impressive – and he plays all the repeats, which in this case is a real benefit.

The first word which came to me on listening to this disc was “intimate”, such is the controlled intensity of Gallén’s artistry. The word also applies to the sonics of the disc. Made in Iglesia de San Miguel, Cuenca, Spain, the thirteenth century building adds a luminous aura to the guitar, while still preserving the feeling of intimacy. Without doubt, this is the finest classical guitar sound I have heard on disc so far. In multichannel, the sense of being inside the building intensifies the impact of the music-making, while the excellent stereo is as usual less realistic regarding positioning of Gallén in the sound stage, as well as loosing much of the three-dimensional feeling. Congratulations to Gonzalo Noqué, producer and sound engineer.

This disc provided me with unalloyed pleasure, and I urge all collectors of classical guitar music to acquire this first disc from an evidently highly professional team. Eudora certainly gives a “good gift” indeed! I look forward with high expectations to see how the company develops its repertoire and if it can manage to include some biographic information in its accompanying literature. In this case, a few sentences about Sor’s life which have a bearing on the development of Viennese sonata form would have been useful – his learning the guitar at the age of 8, his profession in the army mixed in with musical studies; his suffering the Napoleonic occupation of Spain, his withdrawing with the French to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life and where he published all his music. Context for a wide variety of listeners is perhaps more important than bristling with footnotes.

My final words: a splendid set of performances which could almost be regarded as authoritative for the Sor sonatas, captured with startling realism in 5.0 high-resolution sound. Highly recommended.