How Romantic

posted by Marc

How Romantic

One can imagine that Mauro Giuliani was quite the star in his day. At the age of about 25, the Italian composer moved from his native Puglia to Vienna, and he fast became the city’s most acclaimed guitarist. He hobnobbed with Beethoven, and even participated (on cello, no less) in the premiere performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. (He was also a favorite of Napoleon’s second wife, who bestowed several gifts upon him.) By the time he returned to Italy in 1819, little more than a decade later, he’d basically changed the way the guitar was viewed (and utilized) in European music.


Giuliani’s guitar concertos are still firmly entrenched in the repertoire--Pepe Romero has recorded a noteworthy set with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields--but equally as intriguing are his works for solo guitar. Of particular interest are Le Rossiniane, six extended fantasies, written after he’d returned to Italy, based on melodic themes from Rossini operas. (Giuliani met Rossini in Rome in around 1820, and they hit it off; in fact, the Giuliani/Rossin /Paganini “supergroup” might have even performed together.)


What makes these pieces so remarkable is that their considerable technical demands don’t ever seem to interfere with their melodic beauty and stately charm. Giuliani deftly adapts Rossini’s vocal and orchestral passages, illustrating the dynamic range (sonic and emotional) of his beloved instrument. Put another way, they are challenging to play, but rather easy to hear.


Most of the big names have taken a crack at these pieces, but the version I’m currently enjoying is by French guitarist Frédéric Zigante. Zigante revels in this delightful music, much as we do, and his genial, tasteful readings (sincere but not overly stern) seem perfectly calibrated to reveal the subtle splendor of the melodies.


I’ve seen these works dismissively described as “light,” but it’s precisely the sort of breezy virtuosity and gentle dramatic tug that make them so engaging--understated and somehow intricate at the same time. Serious music isn’t always serious; it is, after all, supposed to be entertainment, and Zigante seems to understand that, as surely did Mauro Giuliani.