Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A summer night's dream in Spain

When you hear the phrase "string quartet," you probably don't think of the guitar. Even though the Romero dynasty (at left) has spent most of the last forty years trying to change that - after all but inventing the format themselves. By all rights, by now they should have succeeded in their aim; certainly the enthusiastic crowd at their Celebrity Series appearance last Saturday night thought they had. And it was hard to disagree; the Romeros were virtuosic as ever, the program (derived almost entirely from the Spanish tradition) was exquisitely seductive, and the warm, familial atmosphere engendered by the group - now in its second and third generations - was palpable. Briefly, I believed the snows outside Jordan Hall must be melting, and I would emerge from the concert into the violet glow of a twilight in Spain.

Alas, I didn't; but that's not the Romeros' fault. It's also not their fault that, despite years of transcription and contributions from many of the past century's leading composers, there's still not an overabundance of seriously ambitious guitar music for them to play. The most structurally complex piece on the program, by Boccherini, was interesting (and actually drawn from a guitar quintet) but was hardly on the same plane as the best chamber music from Brahms or Beethoven; one longed for - but was disappointed by the lack of - some fascinating combination of the instrument's seemingly-opposed capabilities of contrapuntal detail and fluid rhythm. Indeed, the Romeros are that rare case in which you can sense a latent, untested ability in the performers; they're actually more virtuosic than their music demands.

Still, this matters little when the pieces themselves are so consistently charming or haunting, and actually often so fresh. Of course the Romeros played Albéniz's "Granada," (how could they not?) but among the usual dances and scenes of rustic life by the likes of Rodrigo and Tárrega there were scattered finds by lesser-known composers such as Torroba and Jiménez. The program was divided into solos and various groupings of the four Romero men - Celin and Pepe, sons of founder Celedonio, as well as Celin's son Celino, and nephew Lito (son of former quartet member Angel). Celino is something of the group's matinee idol (and seems to know it), but displayed exquisitely delicate playing in Sanz's Suite Española; his cousin Lito's solo was the more rhythmic "Farrucas de Sabicas" (composed by Pepe Romero himself), which he gave a nice, slowly-gathering drive. The showpiece of the evening, however, was probably Tárrega's Gran Jota, in which Pepe (still the central force in the group) drew a startling variety of sonic imagery - everything from chimes to stomping boots - from the body of his guitar. Although as always, Romero maintained a certain chivalric restraint from the passion of the music, even when banging on his guitar with light ribaldry - something very much in the Spanish character, and which only made the music's melancholic sensuality tremble all the more.

Yet charming as all this benign patriarchy is - and the Romeros are utterly charming - one does wonder where the Romero women are. Are their no mothers or daughters or wives with guitar talent in the family? No exemplary female students? The addition of a female voice to the "royal family of guitar" might bring a piquant and refreshingly modern note to their celebrated repertory.

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