Just two months ago, classical guitarist Adam Levin and mandolinist Jacob Reuven released Music from the Promised Land (as Duo Mantar), an album of music by Israeli composers from the mid-20th century to the present day. But Levin has been even more deeply immersed in another culture (though not an unconnected one). He has just released the fourth and final volume in his “21st Century Spanish Guitar” series.
Disc 1 of 21st Century Spanish Guitar, Volume 4 is devoted to a thrilling performance of a striking work for guitar and orchestra by Eduardo Morales-Caso. The Concierto de La Herradura features the Orquesta de Extremadura accompanying Levin in a remarkably integrated blending of orchestral colors and six-string pyrotechnics.
The “Allegro brillante” includes a pensive interlude that allows Levin to express a rich tonal palette without indulging in unorthodox techniques. When the movement ends with a powerful orchestral stab, I wanted to hear the whole Allegro again right away, feeling unready for more music. But strange harmonics continue when the orchestra introduces the “Larghetto malinconico” (melancholy) middle movement, which offers solo passages and chorale-like string interludes that reconcile the ear-challenging with the heartrending.
Toccata-like rhythms and insistent repetitions alternate with smoky chromatic passages in the smoldering and fiery final movement (“Vivo con fuoco”).
Disc 2 is filled with contemporary Spanish music for solo guitar. It begins fittingly with a recent work by Catalan-American composer Leonardo Balada, an eminence grise of postmodern Spanish-heritage music. Dedicated to Levin, his “Capriche No. 4: Abstractions” is “abstracted” from Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, the iconic work for classical guitar and orchestra. A fresh listen to the latter (you’ve likely heard at least its famous second movement even if you don’t realize it) will help in appreciating this rather cerebral Capriche. (Levin recorded others in Balada’s “Capriche” series, including “Abstractions” of Albéniz and Granados, on previous volumes.)
In “Portraits from the Heartland” (also dedicated to Levin), Jorge Muñiz – who, incidentally, studied with Balada – engages with the American Midwest by filtering the folk tune “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” through three avant-garde Spanish guitar movements. The second, marked “Bluegrass,” gives Levin the chance to show off a banjo-like technique, and the final “Agitato” demands sizzling agility that Levin makes sound easy.
The culture of the Sephardic Jews – those rooted in North Africa and Iberia – comes into focus with the “Sonata Sefardita” by Salvador Brotons. This piece, too, is dedicated to Levin, who as previously noted has a strong interest in Jewish music. Its three movements based on Sephardic songs constitute the album’s most traditionally beautiful music, though the final movement is seamed with modernist harmonies and nontraditional progressions.
The album’s purest form of abstraction comes with the single-movement “Arboretum” by José Luis Turina, inspired – though exactly how is obscure to the listener – by the characteristics of a number of types of trees. On first hearing it I found the piece unfocused, but on further listens, its themes and sections became distinct and its emotional language grew clearer through Levin’s sensitive dynamics and timbral adjustments. And guitars are made from trees, after all.
As Javier Suárez-Pajares writes in the liner notes, “For all the words which we apply to music, there forever remains a mystery to its language.” Some of the music on this album is intellectually demanding, all of it intellectually rewarding, much of it emotionally gripping. It completes what is both a survey and a flowering of contemporary Spanish music for guitar, a major accomplishment by one of our most urgently creative masters of the instrument.
21st Century Spanish Guitar, Volume 4 is available for purchase at Frameworks Records. All four volumes are also available at Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and other platforms.