Leo Brouwer, Sonata No. 1

Leo Brouwer (b. 1939)

Sonata No. 1

One of the leading contemporary composers for guitar, Leo Brouwer melds folk elements, African rhythms from his native Cuba, neo-Romanticism, and avant-garde techniques into a distinctive and colorful style all his own.  In this sonata, Brouwer further enriches the collage of meaning by weaving in allusions to famous composers.  In addition, he creates a cyclical element by deploying the same motto theme, characterized by repeated notes on the bass strings, in each movement.

The first movement, “Fandangos y Boleros,” begins with an improvisatory introduction featuring ethereal harmonics that fade in and out of more florid gestures, along with the motto theme.  Eventually a fragmentary fandango rhythm emerges, followed by a faster section with an increasingly insistent double-octave pedal.  Just as this music seems about to climax, it breaks off and gives way to a gentle, hypnotic version of the fandango, developing in a repeated pattern that accretes additional notes every three repetitions.  This in turn is interrupted by a quotation from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”), which Brouwer labels Beethoven visita al Padre Soler. (Antonio Soler was an eighteenth-century Catalan composer whose works include a famous fandango for harpsichord.) One imagines Beethoven opening Soler’s door rather brusquely as he fantastically intrudes on this Spanish-inflected sound world.

The second movement, “Sarabanda de Scriabin,” is in the slow triple meter of the traditional sarabande dance form. Brouwer does not quote a specific work by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, but the combination of whole-tone and modal scales evokes the mysterious atmosphere of Scriabin’s music.  The motto theme appears in various registers over a drowsy ostinato, building colorful harmonies before returning to the opening calm.

The final movement, “La Toccata de Pasquini,” is a brilliant toccata in a rondo form.  Here Brouwer tips his cap to (or maybe thumbs his nose at) the Italian Baroque composer Bernardo Pasquini and his Scherzo del cucco, in which the falling-third “cuckoo” motive is omnipresent.  In a texture full of kaleidoscopically shifting arpeggios with unrelenting rhythmic drive, the “cuckoo” motive, the motto theme, the double-octave pedal from the first movement, and the opening bars of the second movement all make their appearance before the piece drives to a splashy conclusion.


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