Lawrence Johnson | The Solo Guitar Works of Fernando Sor (1778-1839)

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The Solo Guitar Works of Fernando Sor (1778-1839)

by Lawrence Johnson

Classical Guitar, Student of Andres Segovia
Genre: Classical: Romantic Era
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  Song Share Time Download
1. Grand Sonata in C, Op. 22: I. Allegro
9:51 $0.99
2. Grand Sonata in C, Op. 22: II. Adagio
10:02 $0.99
3. Grand Sonata in C, Op. 22: III. Minuet - Allegro
3:35 $0.99
4. Grand Sonata in C, Op. 22: IV. Rondo - Allegretto
4:01 $0.99
5. Nine Etudes, Op. 6, No. 2
1:39 $0.99
6. Nine Etudes, Op. 6, No. 10
3:17 $0.99
7. Nine Etudes, Op. 6, No. 1
1:53 $0.99
8. Nine Etudes, Op. 6, No. 9
2:43 $0.99
9. Nine Etudes, Op. 6, No. 5
3:02 $0.99
10. Nine Etudes, Op. 6, No. 8
1:51 $0.99
11. Nine Etudes, Op. 6, No. 7
3:04 $0.99
12. Nine Etudes, Op. 6, No. 3
2:41 $0.99
13. Nine Etudes, Op. 6, No. 11
3:36 $0.99
14. Variations in C, Op. 11a
13:24 $0.99
15. Three Minuets, Op. 11b, No. 1
3:10 $0.99
16. Three Minuets, Op. 11b, No. 2
2:25 $0.99
17. Three Minuets, Op. 11b, No. 5
2:41 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
The following review appeared in "Guitar Review" No. 79 written by the famous New York Times classical music critic, Allan Kozinn.

"Lawrence Johnson, A guitarist who lives in Rochester, is at work on a series that will document all of Fernando Sor's solo guitar music. He began the series in 1983 and has so far issued five cassettes on a private label. I have not heard the tapes but Elan, a CD label whose recordings are more widely distributed, has issued a compact disc containing 72 minutes of music from the series, including the Grand Sonata, Op. 22, a group of etudes from Op. 6, the Variations, Op. 11a, and three of the minuets that are also part of the Op. 11 set (Elan 2204). Johnson's story is unusual. A participant in a Segovia Masterclass in 1966, he teaches at Roberts Wesleyan College. He has said, however, that he doesn't like teaching enough to do it full-time and that he derives a substantial part of his income from driving a bus. The story calls to mind a now frequently repeated anecdote about the composer Philip Glass, who supported himself as a cab driver even after the success, in Europe and New York, of his first opera, Einstein on the Beach."

"On the evidence of this CD sampler, however, Johnson is clearly not a Sunday afternoon dabbler but a thoughtful, sensitive player with a distinct, defined point of view about Sor's place in the musical continuum. Sor, like Beethoven could be regarded as a late classicist or an incipient Romantic. The music's contours in many places suggest an approach with Classical contours, and the guitar's condensed palette supports that approach well. Johnson, however casts his vote for a Romantic interpretation of the works collected here. His approach is so personalized that few listeners are likely to endorse his every interpretive move, and some can seem extreme; yet there is no denying the musicality and logic that the performances embody."

"In their original published forms (available from Tecla editions) most of these works are essentially blank slates: The notes are given, there is often an approach to stemming that indicates balances in chord voicings, and there are rudimentary dynamic markings. But expressive markings as such are scarce. Johnson has not been shy about adding his own. He expands upon the dynamic markings, interposing crescendi and diminuendi between the more Spartan piano and forte markings of the printed editions. He rolls chords (even, at times, chords built of only two notes); and he uses an extreme rubato that, in the Allegro of the Grand Sonata (Op. 22) for instance, makes for an irresistible forward thrust."

"In the Variations he varies his timbres, dynamics and sometimes his voicing details on repeats. Among the complaints one might make is that his minuets (both in Op. 11 and in Op. 22) are interpreted with such rhythmic freedom that they stray greatly from their dance movement roots. Granted, Johnson offers them in the context of highly inflected concert music, but even so, the original impulses should govern the readings to a greater degree..."
Allan Kozinn

"Instead of interpreting Sor's music from the classical perspective shared by most players, Johnson takes a romantic approach that favors expression and freer playing. Although this departure from tradition has involked the ire of some critics, Johnson's eloquent and soulful playing speaks for itself."
Jim Ferguson, Guitar Player, Sept. 1989

"Johnson's eloquent performances make an end product of considerable general interest."
John Wiser, Fanfare, May/June 1989

"Johnson holds your attention with intriguing musical ideas and superb playing."
Guitar Player, June 1989


SOR LIVES! Although the 19th-century virtuoso/composer's music is considered the cornerstone of the classical guitar repertoire, ironically only a small percentage of it has ever been performed or recorded - but 47 year-old Lawrence Johnson is changing all of that. In 1983 he began the massive project of recording Sor's hundreds of solo guitar works. One compact disk and five cassette tapes later, he is well on his way of accomplishing his goal. Recording Sor's complete pieces is not unprecedented - controversial virtuoso Kasuhito Yamashita documented the composer's works on a set of compact disks issued in Japan. However, instead of interpreting Sor's music from the classical perspective shared by most players, Johnson takes a romantic approach that favors expression and freer playing. Although this departure from tradition has invoked the ire of some critics, Johnson's eloquent and soulful playing speaks for itself.

A longtime resident of Rochester, New York, Lawrence Johnson participated in Segovia's 1966 master class in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and he has also studied with Christopher Parkening, John De Rose, Sophocles Papas, and Oscar Ghiglia. Although he teaches at Roberts Wesleyan College, most of his living comes from his day job driving a bus in the Rochester area. "I have a family to think about." he says, addressing one of the realities of being a musician. "I don't like teaching enough to make a career of it, so driving a bus is a good alternative. My wife Salena is incredibly supportive and I find time to be an artist in my spare time." Johnson's five volume (to date) tape series Solo Guitar Music of Fernando Sor, is issued by CRG (Box 11132, Rochester, NY 14611 $11.95 per cassette, $13.95 foreign). His CD. Solo Guitar Music of Fernando Sor, features selected works from the tape series and is available from Elan (P.O. Box 748, Adelphi, MD 20783)

Regardless whether you agree with Johnson's interpretations of Sor, it's difficult to not at least admire his commitment to exploring a new approach to 19th century music. While all too many players drift away from the guitar as time passes and life's responsibilities increase. Lawrence Johnson has found a unique way to make an important contribution to the instrument.

Jim Ferguson
SEGOVIA AND CHRISTOPHER PARKENING - Two of your teachers - are known for playing short pieces. How did you gravitate toward the extreme of working on a complete body of work?

Lawrence Johnson
I've always loved Sor's music. In fact when I played for Segovia, I mostly did Sor's works. I don't care what a guitarist plays, as long as it's well done. It doesn't matter if it's a bunch of three-minute pieces, or a full Bach lute suite. I don't find it ironic that I studied with Parkening, because it's his expressive playing that touches me. I'm not doing Sor because it's fashionable. One of the first things that turned me on to him was a Segovia recording of the Mozart variations [Opus 9], after which I started working with some of Sor's early studies to see what I could make of them.

How did you get into doing the complete works?
One day I decided to take a detailed look at Opus 11 [Deux Themes Varies Et Douze Menuets ], and find if there was enough quality there to merit playing the entire thing. You can't get a good idea of a composition just by sight-reading it; you have to work on it for a while. Too many guitarists judge a piece of music based on a superficial read-through. I was amazed at how much I loved Opus 11, and the more I played other works, the more I wanted to record everything Sor wrote. So the series started back in '83, when I recorded Opus 11, parts of Opus 6 [Twelve Studies], and a few other things. At first I didn't have the idea of recording everything myself. I knew that I wanted to do a lot of Sor, and I wanted to do a complete opus number at a time to do justice to the music's quality. Not surprisingly, I couldn't find a company interested in doing a project that expensive, so in 1985 I decided to do it myself.

Many concert guitarists like to work with a piece for a year before they play it in public or record it.
I pretty much don't record anything until I've played it for a year, off and on. I approach a piece by learning it, dropping it for a few months, and picking it up again. That way, my mind subconsciously works on the piece during the off periods, which gives me a chance to practice something else. How to perfect a piece is very difficult to pinpoint. Of course, when you're doing an entire body of work, you can't be too picky, or you'll never complete the project.

Is your expressive approach to Sor inspired by Segovia?
Yes. There has been a trend to get away from Segovia's influence, but l don't think that's a good idea. Maybe he did some things that weren't good, but he was a great musician who knew more about playing the guitar expressively than anyone I've heard. Segovia played a very large body of music from different centuries. People either like Segovia or they don't; there doesn't seem to be a middle ground, which is ridiculous. Of course he was human and had his faults, but he was one of the greatest artists of the period.

Do you think there is too much emphasis on perfection, and not enough on expression?
Yes. Segovia had such a long career because he communicated with an audience. I have a tape of him playing at the White House in 1979 when he was in his eighties. If you compare it to the recordings made during his prime, then you're liable to think that it's pretty bad; however, you have to remember that it's a performance and not a recording. Today, people expect your playing to be just like a recording, which removes the human element and makes it very difficult for you to communicate with an audience. For example, playing for a guitar society is especially difficult, because the members tend to listen to your technique rather than the music. Non-guitarists have more realistic expectations.

What source material are you using for the Sor project?
Brian Jeffery's facsimile editions are the basic source [Ed. Note: Jeffery's Fernando Sor: Complete Works For Guitar is available from TECLA Editions, ( P.O. Box 7567 London NW3 2LJ) Over the years I've collected a lot of different editions. I generally agree with Jeffery that the earliest edition is the best, but not always. For example, a later version of Opus 11, No.4, is much superior to the earlier edition. The early edition was by Meissonnier, and the later edition comes out of Buenos Aires. It's very difficult to tell what is authentic Sor and what isn't, since the original manuscripts don't exist.

Isn't combining performance and musicology a little risky, especially if there are no original manuscripts?
Sure. Whenever you begin to favor one edition over another and develop an interpretational approach, you open yourself up to criticism. For example, I agree with Jeffery that the earliest version of Opus 14 ["Grand Solo"] is the best, and I played that version on my first cassette. To generate sales, I sent tapes to about 100 members of the Guitar Foundation of America, and I got some letters back complaining that I was disobeying Sor's notations and this and that. Apparently, they'd heard Julian Bream or someone play it from a different edition, and assumed it was definitive. I couldn't believe that people had such strong opinions about something they hadn't bothered to investigate.

Have you experienced much bias against Sor's music?
Yes, but it's based on ignorance. Most people are familiar with only the Mozart variations, a few of the studies, the "Grand Solo," and a couple of other things that represent only a very small percentage of his total output. Some of the reviews I've gotten have displayed a lot of ignorance. For example, a reviewer in a British classical guitar magazine stated something to the effect that there were only six good works by Sor. Ten years down the road, that statement is going to come back to haunt him.

How easy is it to be authoritative about such a large body of work?
It isn't. I certainly don't know all there is about Sor's music. I've read through just about everything that Sor did, but there is no way I could know it without studying it. There are probably some pieces that I wouldn't recognize even if I heard them.

Do you get tired of playing Sor?
His music has incredible depth, but sometimes it is good to take a break and do something else. Recently I've been playing music by the 16th-century vihuelist Fuenllana, which I read directly from the tablature. He was such a great contrapuntalist, which makes me wonder why his music isn't played very much. I've also been doing some of the pieces that Segovia wrote, such as Five Anecdotes, "Neblina," and "Oracion" [Belwin-Mills]. They're exquisite little pieces that are deeper than some of the short things he did by Tedesco and Ponce, but they probably aren't fashionable right now because they're miniatures.

Have you considered playing the Fuenllana or Sor on period instruments?
I prefer the modern guitar, although some period fanatics think you're a fool for playing old music on a contemporary instrument. I have a 19th-century German instrument, and sometimes I pull it out to hear how certain pieces sound on it, but if you're playing for an audience, a modern guitar projects so much better.

What instruments do you play?
I did my earliest recordings on a guitar built in 1964 by Jose Mercado, a Puerto Rican who lived in New York. Recently I acquired a 1986 Jesus Marzal, who worked at the Ramirez workshop in Barcelona, and then opened his own shop.

How did Sor evolve as a composer?
Most people are familiar with his early works. As he evolved, he adopted a freer approach to form, for one thing. Opus 59 [Fantasy Elegiaque] is a fairly good example of a later work. It's big, and it has nothing to do with the sonata form of his early period. But none of his sonatas follow the classical sonata form, except Opus 15b ["Sonata Seconda"]. If you compare Opus 22 [Grand Sonata] to Opus 25 [Deuxieme Grand Sonata], which evidently is a later work, you'll notice that Opus 25 is more like a fantasy.

What observations have you made about Sor's use of harmony?
He never got away from a classical sense of harmony, although once you make a generalization like that, you'll find a work where he goes all over the place. He obviously knew modulation, as well as how to do unusual things. For example, Opus 14 suddenly goes into Db. If you interpret it right, it's very effective. He does things like that when he wants, but not with the freedom of say, Schubert; however, it's not fair to make comparisons like that. In Sor's own terms, he's a masterful composer. If you compare him in terms of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin, you're going to say they're better, since they're already recognized. It's easy for people to criticize Sor, since most people haven't heard his music and there isn't a performance tradition, but that will change.

Did Sor's works change technically?
Yes. For example, Opus 52 ["Fantasie Villageoise"] features 6th-fret harmonics. Although they're out of tune compared to equal temperament, he used them to create an almost impressionistic atmosphere that's very effective. I haven't heard anyone bring that piece to life so far, but I think that's because Sor hasn't been approached from a romantic perspective. The Romantic period [1820 to 1900] was well underway during the later part of Sor's life, and by the time he died in 1839, Chopin had written half of his works.

Many players aren't aware that Sor wrote over 100 studies.
He wrote 121 studies, to be exact. Many of them haven't been played. For example, Opus 31, No.18, in B minor, is exquisite; I like it a lot better than the B minor piece referred to as "Study No.5" in Segovia's Studies For The Guitar By Fernando Sor [Edward B. Marks Music, dist. by Hal Leonard, 7777 W. Bluemound, Milwaukee, WI 53213]. Sor's studies have a high degree of musical content. Of the 121, only about three of four don't pass muster.

Segovia's editions of Sor often don't coincide with Jeffery's facsimilies. What is your attitude regarding changing a piece of music?
I use my instincts. I like some of the changes represented in Segovia's editions, and I play them. Since there are no original manuscripts, the subject of authenticity is vague anyway, so if I feel like doing something, then I go ahead.

How much do you intellectualize your interpretations?
Mostly I play from the heart. Although I feel that Sor's dynamic and tempo indications should be followed somewhat, if I feel that something else works, then I do it. I try what's indicated in the score, but if I feel it doesn't work, then I go in another direction. For example, Opus 35, No.22, which Segovia calls "Study No.5," is marked Allegretto; however, the piece doesn't make much sense that way. To me, it should be played lento, and very smoothly and lyrically. I don't expect everyone to accept my interpretations as gospel, but I don't think that Sor's dynamic and tempo indications should be taken all that literally. Some of the things I do could be wrong, but they feel right to me.

What advice can you offer to help someone develop an interpretation?
Listen to music for violin, piano, chamber group, and orchestra - non-guitar music. It's difficult to teach interpretation and how to play with feeling. Segovia taught by having his students imitate him, which I think is a good way. After all, jazz guitarists learn by copying players such as Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. Of course, you have to have an excellent example to pattern yourself after. It seems as if it's almost unfashionable to play with feeling these days, which has led to things being very mechanistic. If Segovia felt like rolling a chord or sliding up to a note, he'd do it; but if a guitarist does that today, then the critics get up in arms.

How would you assess the technical demands of Sor's music?
To play Sor, you have to have a terrific left hand; in that regard, his music is as difficult as anything. And he didn't avoid certain keys because they're difficult on the guitar. For example, he liked the key of C minor, and included long passages in Eb that are hard to play. Giuliani was a fine composer in his own right, but his music is much more guitaristic, in that it falls into certain patterns that work well on the instrument and are very flashy. However, Sor was interested in achieving his musical ideas. Some of Sor's slow music is tough. For instance, the adagio section to Opus 22, which is in C minor, has to be played very flowingly, which isn't easy. Sor evidently could handle it, so he wrote it that way. He included a lot of arpeggios and harmonics, and he used etouffe [a muting effect]. On the other hand, he doesn't use a lot of fast scales. One of the trickiest aspects of playing Sor is being able to bring out the important lines. Basically, you have to be a darn good guitarist to play his music.



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