Friday 20 January, Philadelphians gathered at the Perelman Theater to hear the illustrious guitarist Pepe Romero perform a recital of Spanish music. The selections, which covered five centuries of the instrument's history, were chosen from the familiar Segovia repertoire, a canon of works selected by the late master that have overshadowed the guitar repertoire for many decades. Romero's allegiance to this music is not only an individual artistic choice; we are told that is more significantly a tradition that transcends multiple generations of his family. The story of the Romeros, a mythical narrative of the passage of a technical and artistic gift from one generation to the next, is inseparable Mr. Romero himself. It has always left me bemused. The evocative prose of Mr. Romero's lengthy biography reads like Spanish folklore, describing him as one of the "few true living legends" who has "sustained greatness and grown throughout" his life. Yet last evening's program belied this statement, as Mr. Romero demonstrated only that his style of playing and choice of repertoire has remained inordinately consistent.
The program suffered from the vast preponderance of Spanish repertoire. To be sure, the pieces formed a sampler of aural delights, and at certain moments Mr. Romero performed them with real artistry, but generally his playing was inconsistent: the Andante of the 1926 Sonatina by Federico Torroba was performed with sincerity and poetry; the Fandango by Joaquin Rodrigo, written in 1954, lacked the necessary contrasts of violence and grace.
Mr. Romero's biography indicated that the venerable guitarist has championed "lost" works by the well known composers Sor, Giuliani, and Carulli, and the lesser known composers Johann Kaspar Mertz and Francesco Molino; it is a shame, then, that these works did not appear on Friday's program. Included, however, was Fernando Sor's most famous salon piece, the Variations on a Theme of Mozart, op. 9. Here, Mr. Romero displayed a mature artistic sense by reserving rhetorical pauses and tempo rubato for special moments of poignancy, and the variations themselves were wonderfully contrasted by a wide palette of tone colors and tempi. Yet as the evening progressed it became clear that Mr. Romero's technical prowess may be greater than his ability to artfully communicate something beyond us.
His gift lies with his heartfelt appropriation of a nineteenth century aesthetic, at which he is, among contemporary players, nearly unsurpassed. But issues arise when such an aesthetic blurs his interpretive ability with repertoire from other centuries: Gaspar Sanz's Danzas españolas (c.1700) were characterized by a predominant lyrical melody with rich tone color and excessive vibrato; this would been lovely had they not been a set of eighteenth century dances. Would that he had incorporated some of the lively rasgueado and percussive effects—techniques that he deployed exquisitely elsewhere in the program—found in modern, historically-informed interpretations of this repertoire.
The Chamber Music Society, which is offering more choices of plucked strings this season, was no doubt pleased by Mr. Romero's appreciative and adoring audience; after all, the core guitar repertoire established by Segovia is beloved by many. Yet there remains a vast array of guitar music of fine quality left unheard by most audiences: few know of the guitar's rich nineteenth-century tradition, and many living composers have written effective and compelling pieces for the instrument. If Mr. Romero were to advocate for these works, as others do, he could indeed claim a career of "sustained greatness and growth", and another recital in Philadelphia would be most welcome.
By Robert McClung
Photo Credits: University of Southern California Thornton School of Music