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Music Review: Azusa Shimizu – La Belle Epoque, Guitar Music Of Ponce And Tansman

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'La Belle Epoque', or 'beautiful era', was a period in European history that evolved during the late nineteenth century and lasted until the outbreak of the First World War. It is regarded as a creative pinnacle for the arts.

During this period Paris positioned itself as the very centre of the artistic world. Its timeless café scene became the haunt and gathering place for painters, writers, poets, and musicians alike. It truly was a golden age for French composers such as Debussy, Ravel, and Roussel. Even composers from further afield such as Stravinsky, became highly influenced by the music being created in France.

La Belle Epoque, Guitar Music Of Ponce And Tansman by Azusa Shimizu (MSR Classics, MS 1301) is a new CD that pays homage to two composers, both of whom were heavily influenced by the rich creative atmosphere during La Belle Epoque.

Leading classical guitarist Azusa Shimizu moved to Nice, in southern France to study music in 1984. She later attended the Royal Academy in Copenhagen, and was a Laureate artiste from the Palme d’Or in Italy. Her reputation is such that she regularly performs solo recitals throughout her native Japan as well as France, Belgium, Denmark, and Taiwan.

Azusa begins by selecting five wonderful pieces written by Manuel Ponce (1882-1948).
First, she performs “Variation Sur ‘Folia de Espana’ Et Fuga”, which was written in 1929. It is a lengthy and technically demanding piece, rich with Spanish flavour and spans just over twenty glorious minutes.

A performance of “Tres Canciones Populares Mexicanas” dates from 1924-1925, just prior to his move to France. It leads her to “Theme Varie Et Final” written two years later by which time he had settled in Paris.

Ponce was in fact born in Mexico City but by 1904 was living in Europe where he studied music in Bologna and Berlin. In 1925, after a spell back in Mexico, he was inspired to make the move to the French capital. It was a stay that was to last seven years and was arguably his most creative period.

He is perhaps best remembered for his Estrellita, his Piano Concerto of 1912, and his Concerto del Sud for Guitar in 1941. It was when he met Andres Segovia in 1923 that he began to compose music for guitar. Two further works are included “Valse” (1937) and lastly “Sonate” (1927).

Azusa Shimizu has also selected two pieces by Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986), “Mazurka” from 1925 and “Cavatina” from 1950. Alexandre Tansman was born in Lodz, Poland but like Ponce made the move to Paris in 1919. Once there he was noticed by none other than Maurice Ravel who mentored his developing compositional skills. 

He also received recognition from Igor Stravinsky and other members of ‘Les Six’, a group of composers who worked largely from the Montparnasse area of Paris. From the mid nineteen twenties he began to write music for the guitar.

When war threatened Europe in the late thirties, Tansman moved to the USA where he became a friend of George Gershwin. By the time he returned to Paris his star had faded a little and music was beginning to move towards the Avant-garde. 

Part of the vibrant spirit of Paris runs through this album. This is the case, not only for the Parisian connection of some of the music and the influence that the city had on its composers, but also through the very guitar used.

The instrument that Azusa plays is a Robert Bouchet guitar (No.153) built in Paris in 1985. Bouchet (1898-1986) was originally a painter and art teacher. Whilst in the French capital he met a maker of Spanish guitars and started to build his own at the relatively late age of forty-five.

He made a total of 154 during his lifetime. Azusa Shimizu first met him in Japan in 1982, towards the end of his life. She describes him as ‘intelligent and cultured’, a ‘wonderful man’, and is clearly fond of his memory.

In 1986 she saw him again, by chance, in his guitar shop in Paris. The guitar played here, number 153 of 154, honours that memory with a faultless, immaculate style set above the wonderful tone of the instrument itself.

There is a tangible calmness radiating from this album. Azusa has chosen a sequence of music that captures the work of both Ponce and Tansman, their cultural influences, and the flavour of life in Paris following one of its most inspirational phases.

Expression and melody abound throughout. It is performed by guitar playing that sounds almost effortless, natural, and at times impossibly light, yet dexterous, bright, and truly inspirational. The result is all rather exquisite and this album would represent a wise choice for anyone reading thus far.

Please visit MSR Classics on their official website. Also there is a fascinating website exploring the techniques of guitar builder Robert Bouchet.

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