If like me, you were unfamiliar with the music of composer Leo Brouwer, shame on us both. Even a cursory glance at his resume will make clear that this is an artist who belongs at the top of the playlist for anyone at all interested in contemporary classical music, or music in general for that matter. And Beatlerianas, the new album release of his work with the Havana String Quartet and guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima is a good place to start.
Born in Cuba in 1939, Brouwer is no newcomer. He began studying the guitar with Isaac Nicola, and moved on to the Juilliard School in New York and then the Hartt College of Music where he specialized in composition. Although perhaps best known for his works for the guitar, he is also widely recognized for his orchestral and choral works, and has composed film scores (including Like Water for Chocolate) as well. In 1987 he was selected for membership in Unesco in honor of his musical contributions. In 2010, he won a Latin Grammy for Best Classical Music Album, and last year was nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for his String Quartet #4, both for his work with the Havana String Quartet.
The new album opens with a suite called “Beatlerianas.” Originally written for guitar and string orchestra, it is here adapted for guitar and string quartet. The suite is an arrangement of seven Lennon-McCartney tunes beginning with “Eleanor Rigby” and including “She’s Leaving Home,” “A Ticket to Ride,” “Yesterday” and ending with “Penny Lane.” The idea of using such popular material as a base for serious classical music is in keeping with some of the composer’s ideas about the direction serious music was taking, as expressed in a Guitar Review interview back in the ’80s.
Serious music “was failing to communicate, and becoming more and more abstract, more and more hermetic. I think that music is for everybody, for the public … Of course, with education, with culture.” “The ’50s and ’60s brought the climax of a dry, mathematical, structuralist approach to a language that was becoming more and more abstract with time. This was similar to what happened with free jazz. It grew so sophisticated, so personal and individual that the jazzmen were enjoying themselves, but the public wasn’t. The same thing happened at that moment to art music, and I felt it. Somehow I caught the feelings of people and their needs.”
“Beatlerianas” is followed by three short solo guitar pieces and the two-movement String Quartet #5. Interestingly the album’s liner notes indicate that the second movement is a “reworking” of “Paisaje Cubano con Rumba” written in 1985 and originally scored for five recorders. It also notes the “technique of melodic and rhythmic minimalism” which defines this rumba. “Micropiezas for two guitars” consists of five short duets, the first four written in 1957 and the fifth added in 1958. This last one is a variation on “Frere Jacques.” Barbosa-Lima is joined here by New York-based Larry Del Casale.
The album concludes with a Quintet for guitar and string quartet in three movements from 1957. It opens with a dynamic allegro movement filled with dramatic tension. The slow movement is more melodious and the piece ends with another lively allegro. It is chamber music at its most exciting in the interplay between the guitar and the rest of the strings, and a fitting climax to a truly exciting album.
If you don’t think you like classical music, listen to this album and think again.