An encounter with guitarist Christoph Denoth to talk Schubert, Dowland, Palomo, and much more

INTERVIEW – Saturday, 28 February 2015
Feb 2015

The Swiss guitarist Christoph Denoth has a new album out, Homages (on the Signum Classics label), exploring Spanish guitar music written in homage to someone. An intriguing idea forming the backbone of a strong programme including Manuel de Falla's Homenaje pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy, Villa Lobos' Preludes plus music by Joaquin Malats y Marons, Luis de Navarez, Liguel Llobet, Fernando Sor, Joaquin Turina, Isaac Albeniz and Joaquin Rodrigo. Denoth's main base is in his native Switzerland, but I was able to meet him in his West London studio to talk about his new disc and how a Swiss boy who spent much of his life in the mountains chose to become a guitarist.

Christoph does not regard the guitar as a choice, it always felt very natural. From an early age he played music in Basel and hearing the drums and pipes of the Basel Fasnacht (carnival) inspired him to try drums and flute out by ear. His family was not specially musical though his father, a military man, played the trumpet, and his mother listened to classical records, so there was the music of Artur Rubenstein and Dinu Lipatti in the house. But hearing the great guitarist Andres Segovia (who revolutionised guitar-playing and the attitude to the guitar in the 20th century) on the radio made the young Christoph fall in love with the sound of the guitar, and with Segovia's very particular sound. He now regards Segovia as some of his earliest memories of sound and describes his younger self as being addicted to the guitar.

Of course, the young Christoph had other phases including an interest in rock music and in fact wrote songs for a time. Growing up in the Swiss mountains, finding a good guitar teacher was difficult. He did not just study guitar, he included piano and conducting and in his early 20's studied with Celibidache. Sergiu Celibidache not only taught conducting but the phenomenology of music which Christoph regards as an essential subject to understanding music and being able to go deeper. At its core, the phenomenology of music is the concept that all the different parameters (articulation, balance, phrasing and so forth) will come together in a performance. We talked at some length on this topic, which clearly appeals to Christoph and underpins much of his thinking about music.

Christoph Denoth's guitar - photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

Christoph Denoth's guitar - photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega But it all became too much, the twenty-something year old Christoph could not cope with balancing piano, guitar and conducting, and so he specialised in the guitar, deciding that he could always go back to conducting later in life. This led to him taking a number of competitions and developing his guitar technique.

His new disc Homages was in fact an old idea. In Basel he has a very large music library, including great deal of guitar music and he came across many homage pieces. For the disc, he assembled Spanish pieces plus the Villa-Lobos Preludes which Christoph was pleased to discover were also homage pieces. The concept of using the homage pieces, with their direct references to something in the composer's background, allowed Christoph to put together pieces of different styles. But he feels that all the works speak a very direct language, because of the very personal feeling behind them and the sense of private declaration. Christoph finds all the pieces on the disc authentic, they are ones which spoke to him strongly. In a sense the programme is an emotional one rather than a musicological one, and Christoph hopes the works will touch people.

Christoph's previous disc for Signum could not have been more different. Mister Dowland's Midnight is a disc of lute music by John Dowland in Christoph's own arrangements and he thinks the music works well on the guitar. He has loved Dowland's music since he first discovered it when young. He heard a record of tenor Ian Partridge singing Schubert and enjoying it, found more of Partridge's discs including Julian Bream and Partridge in Dowland. It was a repertoire he loved and further explored via Bream's other recordings with other tenors, like Peter Pears, and with Bream himself playing the lute. He describes Dowland, 'So old, so far away', as a long-standing love and he was encouraged in the love by a professor while studying in Basel and he took lute lessons. At first he was too shy to play Dowland on the guitar, 'All the lutenists will kill me if I do it', but now there is no question and he always starts recitals with some Dowland. Having had lute lessons he has endeavoured to transfer this Renaissance knowledge to the guitar, talking about the lute having a silver sound, with the guitar having a golden one.

Another composer we talk about in the context of guitar music is Franz Schubert. I heard Christoph in recital performing Schubert songs with Ruby Hughes (at Kings Place) and from this I discovered that Schubert had in fact been a guitarist. Christoph explains that for some periods of his life Schubert did not own a piano, but he always had a guitar, and his friends Mayrhofer, Umlauff and Schober both had guitars. There are programmes for Schubertiade with songs done with guitar (one in 1828 refers to the guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani). Schubert's publisher Diabelli produced editions of Schubert's songs with guitar (and Chistoph then goes on to show me copies of some of these).

He also has a copy of an original manuscript by Schubert for three male voices and guitar and Christoph has given the premiere of this piece, on BBC Radio 3. Christoph describes Schubert's writing for the guitar here as more than OK. Schubert and the guitar is a subject about which little is widely known, and certainly there is a tendency to ignore it. The guitar was a popular instrument in middle-class houses in the 19th century. Like the piano, it was regarded as suitable for young ladies and often houses that did not have a piano would have a guitar.

Christoph Denoth at the BBC Proms at the Cadogan Hall

Christoph Denoth at the BBC Proms
at the Cadogan HallThe period produced two major figures, the Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829) and Fernando Sor (1778-1839). Both composed as well as playing the guitar and Christoph describes some of Sor's pieces as wonderful miniatures but adds that only around 20% of the composer's output could be described as really good.

Despite its popularity during the 19th century, the guitar was ignored by most major composers and Christoph admits that the repertoire is quite limited. From the earlier period the guitarist can play Dowland's music and Bach's lute suite, but in the classical and romantic periods a player must rely on transcriptions. The first popular guitar composer, was Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) who was no Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn.

Even nowadays composers find the instrument too difficult and non-guitarists need help when writing for it. Unfortunately there have been few guitarists who were great composers, so there is a strong need for composers to understand the instrument more. But the 20th century was a fruitful period with works by Henze, Ginastera, Britten besides composers like Leo Brauer whom Christoph admits is probably not so interesting for the classical music public.

This divide between the general classical music loving public, and those that specifically love classical guitar is one of which Christoph is very aware. The former are keen devotees of composers who are generally unknown to the latter. And it these latter, the ordinary classical music lovers, to whom Christoph aims his programmes. He regards himself as thinking more musically than like a guitarist. For him how you achieve things on the guitar is not a subject of interest, and he thinks more about sounds and colours, the natural beauty of the instrument's sound. To enable the repertoire to grow Christoph is working with a number of contemporary composer. The Swiss composer Hans Martin Linde has written a work for him, and he is talking to Brett Dean, to Barrington Pheloung and to Sally Beamish. Christoph's intention is to have really great contemporary composers writing for the instrument.

Part of the problem with guitar repertoire is that Segovia had a rather poor track record when it came to selecting composers. Ravel was prepared to write for Segovia, but Segovia said no. Frank Martin wrote a piece (Quatre pièces brèves (1933)), but Segovia would not touch it (and Christoph describes it as a great piece of music). Segovia was more interested in lesser known composers like Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Moving into the later 20th century things got better. There is an important guitar part in Pierre Boulez' Le Marteau sans maitre and fine works by Benjamin Britten. Christoph describes Britten as a great composer for guitar; he wrote the folk-song settings with guitar, the Songs from the Chinese  and the Nocturnal after John Dowland. And in fact Christoph and James Gilchrist gave the first ever BBC Proms performance of the Songs from the Chinese.

Christoph is a great lover of songs with voice and guitar, though he says that it does need a bit of sensitivity and that the colours have to blend together. But he feels that the intentions of the words come out, and the result is more intimate than with piano, allowing for real expression.

His next recording is going to be of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, plus Palomo's Nocturnos de Andalucia and Malats's Serenata with the London Symphony Orchestra. I was curious to get a guitarist's view of the Rodrigo concerto, particularly about whether to use amplification. Christoph thought that balance in Concierto de Aranjuez could be difficult, it required the hall acoustics to be good and the orchestra willing to play differently. In the first movement you often don't hear the scales in the guitar part, and amplification is often a solution ('not the worst thing'). But Christoph insists that it must not be apparent.

Christoph is pairing the Rodrigo with a concertante work that he regards very highly. Nocturnos de Andalucia is a six-movement suite by the Spanish conductor/composer Lorenzo Palomo, written in 1996 for Pepe Romero and though it uses a very large orchestra Palomo's orchestration is designed to allowed the guitar to be heard. Christoph is enthusiastic about the piece, 'people love it', and besides recording the work, he will be playing the piece on a short tour in Cordoba with the orchestra there.

He is perhaps a little less enthusiastic about the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez, finding the piece's extreme popularity puzzling, but it is a work that he gets asked to play often. In fact, Christoph prefers Rodrigo's well-known work, the Fantasia para un gentilhombre, which he finds more beautiful and rewarding.

Christoph Denoth - photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

Christoph Denoth
photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

I ask about his favourite piece of music, but he cannot come up with just one and lists a whole range from Schubert's Du bist die Ruh to Wgner's Tristan und Isolde by way of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony whilst not forgetting Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. He admits that when he is listening to something then he can often find that this work is his favourite, but the list testifies to his wide tastes well beyond just the guitar repertoire. For guitar he mentions Falla's Homenaje pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy and Benjamin Britten's Nocturnal after John Doland which he regards as the greatest pieces in the guitar repertoire, but goes on to mention Bach's Lute Suite and the music of Dowland.

Christoph is an engaging conversationalist on all sort of musical matters, and our encounter ranged widely and by the end the table in front of us was littered with scores of the works about which we had been talking. Not just the Schubert manuscript, but the huge conducting score of Palomo's Nocturnos which Christoph brings out when I finds that I do not know the work.

His future plans include performances of the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez with the Alba Orchestra, and the Palomo Nocturnos de Andalucia with the Arch Sinfonia. He will also be performing the same two works with the Orquestra de Cordoba in Cordoba and on tour. When he has finished the forthcoming recording he will start working on his next one, a project which is already well planned for music from South America.

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