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Kyle Sampson surveys the ‘golden era’ of the guitar repertoire

1841 lithograph portrait of guitar virtuoso Giulio Rigondi
by Josef Kriehuber, from Wikipedia (public domain)

Late yesterday afternoon at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, Kyle Sampson, currently a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, presented a recital entitled The Golden Era of Guitar. The title referred to the nineteenth century, when the guitar grew away from its popular and “folk” origins and became a popular instrument for chamber music in salon settings. The composers that Sampson selected to represent this period were Anton Diabelli, Mauro Giuliani, Johann Kasper Mertz, Dionisio Aguado y García, and Giulio Regondi.

Sampson structured his program in such a way that the first half reflected heavy influences of the eighteenth century, while the composers in the second half pursued some of the stylistic changes associated with the Romantic movement. The composers in the first half were Diabelli and Giuliani, the former represented by a three-movement sonata in F major and the latter by a set of six ariettas setting Italian texts. Diabelli’s sonata was one of a set of three published as his Opus 29; and, in many respects, it is more of an homage to the keyboard sonata tradition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart than an acknowledgement of how things were changing in the nineteenth century through the efforts of (among others) Diabelli’s friend Ludwig van Beethoven. Nevertheless, the slow introduction to the concluding Presto movement offered an interesting twist; and there is no shortage of wit in Diabelli’s rhetoric, particular in the outer fast movements. This is very much the same sort of wit that can be found in the little waltz he composed for his “variations project.” Sampson gave that wit all the attention it deserved in performing this sonata, providing an affable introduction for the remainder of the program.

Giuliani, on the other hand, was the virtuoso guitarist of his day and was a major figure in the Viennese musical scene (until 1819, when he fled the city to escape his creditors). However, by choosing a set of his songs (sung by mezzo Danielle Reutter-Harrah), Sampson presented a side of Giuliani that does not get as much attention. Here, too, there was a strong sense of Mozart’s influences, which would be detected by anyone familiar with the modest collection of songs for voice and keyboard that Mozart composed. However, because this was Giuliani, the interplay between guitar and voice was as engaging as the accompaniments Mozart had conceived for his songs.

The second half began with two selections from Mertz’ Opus 13 collection, which he called Bardenklänge (bardic sounds). It is unclear how much Mertz, who was born in an area of Hungary that is now part of Slovakia, knew about bardic practices in Eastern Europe (or anywhere else). However, in terms of influence, the two pieces that Sampson selected showed a clear departure from Mozart in favor of some of the shorter character pieces that Robert Schumann had composed for piano.

Aguado, on the other hand, was born in Spain but visited Paris in 1826, where he became friends with Fernando Sor. In 1827 he composed his Opus 2, published as Trois Rondos Brillants, with each of the three rondos introduced by an Adagio or Andante. Sampson played the first of these, which is actually a Polonaise. What is particularly interesting is that this composition predates by a year Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 3 in similar form for cello and piano. Aguado’s piece is far less flamboyant than any of Chopin’s efforts; but it still imposes impressive technical demands on the guitarist and, as was the case with Mertz, captured a significant departure from eighteenth-century traditions.

The recital concluded with one last display of technical virtuosity in Giulio Regondi’s Opus 19, which he called “Reverie-Nocturne.” Regondi was much younger than Aguado. He also met Sor in 1831, but he was nine years old at the time. However, he was such a successful child prodigy that Sor dedicated his Opus 46, “Souvenir d’amité” (memory of a friendship) to him. Regondi’s Opus 19 may have reflected his awareness of Chopin’s keyboard nocturnes; but the result was one of solid guitar rhetoric with impressive technical demands, particularly in the use of tremolo.

Taken as a whole, then, this recital was a journey from affectionate retrospection about Mozart into a “new age” of both demanding technique and rhetorical expressiveness, thus justifying that the guitar had, indeed, come into a “golden era.” Whether it involved the keen perception of Diabelli's delicately subdued with or Regondi's determination to match Chopin's technical keyboard skills with a parallel set of skills on guitar, Sampson always seemed to grasp the motivation behind the music he performed. He then conveyed that motivation to the listener with the utmost clarity, which, at the end of the day, is what brings the most satisfaction to a recital performance.