Fernando Sor and Johann Kaspar Mertz, two of the most eminent nineteenth century virtuosi, not only revitalised the solo repertoire but also developed the possibilities of music for two guitars. Over recent decades the guitar duo has become a well established favourite in the concert hall, with a formidable array of contemporary compositions to choose from. But the lyrical grandeur of the early masters still sets standards of musical integration and expressiveness which have never been surpassed.
Johann Kaspar Mertz, a virtuoso performer on both guitar and flute, was born in Pressburg (now Bratislava, Slovakia). He moved to Vienna in 1840 and made his concert debut at the Court Theatre of the Empress Carolina Augusta. In subsequent years, Mertz toured Moravia, Poland and Russia, gave concerts in Berlin and Dresden, and also played at the court of Ludwig of Bavaria. Shortly after his death from a heart ailment at the age of fifty, Mertz was posthumously awarded the first prize for his composition Concertino at the Brussels Competition of 1856.
From the 1840s onwards Mertz performed on various types of guitar, including eight and ten stringed instruments. His prolific compositions include didactic and easy pieces, concert works, pieces for two guitars or guitar and piano, and fantasies based on famous operatic themes. Nikolai Makaroff (1810-1890), the eminent Russian guitarist, described his playing as ‘marked by force, sweep, sensitivity, precision, expression and assurance’ and praised his skill with ‘every secret and effect of the guitar’.
Despite his output of over one hundred compositions, Mertz was neglected by guitarists for many decades, a revival of interest in his music being achieved with Simon Wynberg’s ten volume edition of his works.
Johann Kaspar Mertz’s guitar duos were written for the regular guitar and the terz-guitar (an instrument of a higher pitch than the classical guitar). Thus his duets, in the absence of a terz-guitar, can nowadays be performed by placing a capotasto (a device for raising the pitch), on the third fret of the first guitar. The result is a lucid transparency of sound and fascinating tone colours.
Mertz was fond of picturesque titles, often establishing the atmosphere for his works as if offering a song without words. Simon Wynberg remarks that the composer wrote a number of Nänien Trauerlieder (Funeral Laments) for guitar duo. Am Grabe der Geliebten (At the Grave of the Beloved), the first of these, is characteristic of Mertz’s romantic expressiveness. Marked Adagio, in the key of C minor, and in three-four time, the piece presents a poignant opening theme replete with sweeping triplets, descending chromatic runs, dotted rhythms, and dramatic dynamics. At one point the music imitates bells, the word ‘Cloches’ having been written above the score.
The charming Mazurka consists of an opening dance (itself divided into three episodes), and a contrasting Trio.
Unruhe (Restlessness), played Allegro molto in six-eight, sets its compelling melody over an arpeggio accompaniment. A middle section, più lento, offers a new melody and stately chords over the groundswell of a similar accompaniment. The piece concludes with a coda featuring fortissimo chords before the quiet ending.
Vespergang (Going to Vespers), moderato assai, begins with straight chords, four to a bar, evoking the walk to the church. An Adagio religioso central episode creates the atmosphere of the vespers themselves before the return to the first theme, extended by some serene final moments.
Ich Denke Dein (I Think of You), con dolore (with sorrow), is the second Funeral Lament, this time in C major and again with a three-four rhythm. After a hymn-like opening of sixteen bars, the work continues with an aria of the same length. A middle section, marked tristamente (sadly), in two places, expressed mainly through intricate triplet figurations, leads on to a recapitulation of the opening, and a coda of great intensity.
Trauermarsch (Funeral March), in D minor, the third Funeral Lament, is structured in eight bar sections, full of unexpected modulations and (within the limits of the March form) a surprising amount of rhythmic variety. Before the recapitulation of the opening theme, Mertz provides arpeggio effects evoking a sad drum roll.
Barcarole opens with a short introduction over a richly arpeggiated accompaniment. This leads to the delightful theme of the Barcarole itself, its boat-like rhythms enhanced by a gentle repetitive pattern from the second guitar.
Following the eighteenth century neglect of the guitar, Fernando Sor set out to establish a new repertoire, aspiring to emulate the great composers of his epoch such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, by writing sonatas, fantasias, and sets of variations, as well as studies and songs. Born in Catalonia, Sor was educated at the choir school of Montserrat before attending a military academy. After Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, he became sympathetic to French ideals and settled in Paris in 1813. He also lived for a while in London (1815-1823), becoming a musical celebrity there. But having fallen in love with a ballerina, he travelled with her to Russia and Poland. He returned to Paris in 1826/7 where he composed many pieces in his final years.
Sor’s L’Encouragement, Op. 34, was published in Paris in 1828. The work was originally printed in two separate parts, one for each player, labelled ‘l’élève’ and ‘le maître’, the ‘pupil’ being given the more difficult melodic elements while the ‘master’ played a chordal accompaniment. One of Sor’s most well known students, Napoléon Coste (1805-1883), later edited the work, dividing these two aspects more evenly between the players, and this is the way it is usually performed nowadays.
L’Encouragement opens with an exquisite Cantabile introduction, presenting one of the most seductive themes Sor ever composed. A short bridging passage then leads into a set of theme and three variations, the last of these being a virtuosic study in rapid triplets. The final movement, Valse, was described by the composer, Tom Eastwood, as ‘a delightful Ländler’ containing ‘some of the most astonishingly Viennese music ever written by a foreigner’.
Fantaisie, Op. 54 bis, published around 1833, was ‘composed expressly for Mlle Houzé’ (a lady to whom Sor also dedicated his Six Waltzes (guitar duet), Op. 39, (1829-30), and Six Little Pieces, Op. 42). The piece begins Andante allegro with another of Sor’s superbly flowing melodic lines, its lyricism moving freely through intricate rhythmic patterns set against accompanying chords. This section gives way to an Andantino movement which develops some of the musical implications of the opening and concludes with a romping triplet episode recalling the same exuberance at the end of the variations in Sor’s earlier masterpiece, L’Encouragement.
The final part of the work is written dans le genre espagnol (in the Spanish genre). At the end of the piece, Sor commented that it was ‘impossible to achieve the effect or even simply play the notes without knowing the Spanish manner of playing the right hand in the style called rasgueado (strumming)’. Though Sor was a native of Iberia, he seldom wrote in a full-blooded Spanish style, preferring to assume a classical approach modelled on northern European music. But this movement represents one of his finest compositions, an extended exercise in rhythmic dance-like vitality and melodic inventiveness.
Program notes by Graham Wade