Camargo Guarnieri - Violin sonatas

Guarnieri CD coverSeptember 1996
This month's Villa Lobos CD of the Month includes no music by Villa Lobos; rather, we have a CD by a Brazilian composer of the next generation: Camargo Guarnieri. 
The CD is from Marco Polo, a company that has done such a super job of bringing Latin American music to a wider audience. Lavard Skou Larsen, violinist, and Alexander Mullenbach, pianist, bring three of Guarnieri's violin sonatas (#4-6) to disk, in accomplished, idiomatic performances, very well recorded. 
The relevant information on the CD: 
    Camargo Guarnieri, 1907-1994
    Violin Sonata #4 (1956)
    Violin Sonata #5 (1959)
    Violin Sonata #6 (1965)
    Lavard Skou Larsen, Violin
    Alexander Mullenbach, Piano
    Marco Polo 8.223703
    Recorded at the Clara Wieck Auditorium, Heidelberg, November 1993 

Guarnieri was born in 1907 in the province of Sao Paulo. His family, like Villa Lobos', was musical. Also like Villa Lobos, the young Guarnieri had an early interest in folk music. In Guarnieri's case this was furthered by his teacher Mario de Andrade. Following in Villa Lobos footsteps, Guarnieri became a choral and orchestral conductor, and made a pilgimage to Paris. He studied there, in the late 30's, with Charles Koechlin, who had been one of Villa Lobos' strongest supporters in the 1920's. Guarnieri returned to Brazil when war broke out, and in 1945, was one of the first life members (and later president) of Villa Lobos' Brazilian Academy of Music. 
Guarnieri's music hasn't received a great deal of attention from the recording companies, though occasional works for piano, chamber music or orchestra turn up. On June 24, 1996, pianist Ricardo Peres was a guest on Kate Remington's program on Vermont Public Radio. The topic was Camargo Guarnieri. Peres played a number of Guarnieri's Ponteios - his very short, usually folkloric piano pieces that each make a musical point. In their discussion of Guarnieri's music, Remington and Peres explored the relationship between the composer, whether Guarnieri or Villa Lobos or Bartok, and the music of the people. As Remington states "These pieces are really interesting, because they preserve the integrity of the folk music, rather than trying to create something naive and simplistic." Peres agrees, saying that Guarnieri preserves the music's integrity to the extent that he interjects his personal, subjective input, what Peres calls "subjective nationalism," which he contrasts with Villa Lobos' more "objective nationalism." I think that these comments are relevant to the violin sonatas, perhaps even more relevant than to the often more folkloric Ponteios. 
The 5th Violin Sonata, for example, begins with a Comodo movement that sounds very neo-classical, but with just a hint of Brazil. The following Terno (tender), a lovely piece, brings an added note of the same nostalgia I noted in discussing Villa Lobos' late chamber music. The final Gingando brings more obviously Brazilian rhythms and energy (the title means "swaying") to the sonata. Together, there is a strong personal music identity in this sonata, and in the other two, and expression of "subjective nationalism." 
Here are some further excerpts from the VPR program: 
KR:Tell us a little bit about the composer whose works you're going to share with us this afternoon. 

RP:Camargo Guarnieri was born in 1907, died in 1994. Actually, his complete name is M. Camargo Guarnieri. He was always referred to as Guarnieri, which is one of the last names - Camargo is also a last name, not a first name. It was only very recently that we came to know what the "M." stood for - it stood for Mozart! He of course tried to hide that.... The point is that if you end up to be a composer, with the name of Mozart - that is a position that I wouldn't want to be in. "Horowitz Ricardo Peres." 

KR:A big name to live up to... 

RP:A little too big.... So he was born in 1907. His tradition is the best example of musical syncretism in Latin America - the combination of European traditional ways of writing music and utilizing musical mechanisms, marvellously combined with the roots of Brazilian folklore - the popular music of the day. And also with his own very subjective, very unique, very personal perception of that musical material that he was dealing with. It's the main aspect that separates him from Villa Lobos...

KR: What sort of popularity did he have in Brazil? Was he a nationally known composer? 

RP: That's an interesting question. I met Guarnieri in 1988 - he was already 81 then. Everybody knew Camargo Guarnieri, but he wasn't a popular composer, like, say, Tom Jobim, or Egberto Gismonti, people who dealt in a more accessible format of music writing. He was writing ideas, such as the one we just heard [a Ponteio]. It's beautiful music, but it's probably never going to be widely spread. Still, maybe it will; that's why I'm here on this program today - to make it more widely known. So he didn't have that kind of popularity, but he was widely known and respected by everybody - Jobim himself was in constant touch with Guarnieri, for, you know, just chatting, and getting ideas...

Listen to Guarnieri's Ponteio no. 24, as played by Ricardo Peres on his CD "Odeon."
KR: It must have been wonderful for you to meet him... 

RP: Wonderful, but also very instructive. What happened, was - I was 21 years old, and I was already living in the States, and I had just started playing concerts and so on, and he was Camargo Guarnieri, the greatest living Brazilian composer. My piano teacher knew him well, and he took me there, to his home. So I was very shyly trying to get an insight here or there, and all the guy could talk about was ... everything except for music! His favourite topic in the world was women! 

KR: [laughs]

RP: He loved women... I tried getting him to talk about music - he would say "oh, yes, I wrote that composition, and there was this beautiful women, she had beautiful black hair..." - totally digressing. A half an hour talking about women - he would start talking about books, poetry, all about this wonderful creature called woman. Incredible - he kept going on and on - I tried to get the conversation back to music, but finally I gave up. At one point he started talking about how he had met many famous pianists of the past - he was very good friends with Alfred Cortot, the French-Swiss pianist - (he died in 1962, Cortot - very big in his day - I've always had great admiration for Cortot) - he said, "I used to go to all his concerts, and one day, I played for him, one of my pieces, to show him..." And Cortot asked Guarnieri, "how do you get this soft, delicate touch?" And Guarnieri said, "My technique is this - I think I'm caressing this beautiful girl!" The man was just... and that was when he was 81! 

KR: Ricardo, I'm curious how you came across this pieces. 

RP: My piano teacher was his student, and in Brazil his music is big, it was always there.

The syncopation and folk quotations, even Samba rhythms, of a number of the Ponteos make Guarnieri's interest in folklore quite obvious. The last three violin sonatas date from 1956 to 1965, and show a much more classical, European, face. Perhaps the date of the fourth sonata is important - 1956, the Mozart bicentennial. Guarnieri's namesake is evident in much of his music (as it certainly is in his piano masterpiece: the 3rd Sonatina.) Also lurking in these pieces is the music he played with his French teachers Koechlin and Nadia Boulanger. Remington remarks in the interview how much some of the Ponteios sound like Debussy, and I can hear a great deal of Debussy in these violin sonatas as well. 
Peres emphasizes in the VPR interview how central colour is to Guarnieri - "He uses alot of chromaticism, it's true. But chromaticism only in the sense that it is a function of colour. And he uses colour in a structural way. You can identify consistent patterns of colour that he uses in consistent ways in the music - the emotional level that he's dealing with. The chromatic intervals are a function of colour, in a consistent way. 
RP: Everytime I play this music, I think of someone - you know who would play this music really well, especially the colours - someone like Bill Evans, the jazz player. I'm a fan of Bill Evans, I listen to him all the time - his voicing is incredible, you know. This is the kind of music that he would do great, because he really thrived on colour. 
This brings us back to our discussion of the last few CD of the Month features. In June I referred to Bill Evans' notes to a classic Miles Davis recording. This was before I heard Ricardo's tribute; there is obviously something relevant here in the music and thought of this great musician. I look forward to hearing more Guarnieri piano music, in Ricardo's next CDs, and in the long-term, look forward to Guarnieri's music becoming something more than a curiosity. 
Thanks to Kate Remington and Vermont Public Radio for permission to use excerpts from the Ricardo Peres interview, and thanks as well, of course, to Ricardo. 
Dean Frey, Red Deer, September 1996