Written in 2005 as the booklet essay for the Bridge disc Works for Guitar
José Rey de la Torre (Dec. 9, 1917-July 21, 1994) was one of the greatest classical guitarists of the 20th century. This is the first CD issue of any of his thirteen LPs which, recorded from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, are treasured by connoisseurs but long out of print. It also includes a previously undiscovered live track.
Born in Gibara, Cuba, like many virtuosi Rey got off to a fast start as a child prodigy (“El Nino”). When the family moved to Havana, he took up the guitar at age ten under the guidance of Severino Lopez ((1907-1978), a “young and shy” former pupil of the Catalan Miguel Llobet (1878-1938), who was the foremost guitarist of the era. Rey made fast progress: his first solo recital in Havana, at age twelve, included Sor’s variations on a theme of Mozart, “Granada” by Albeniz, Tárrega’s “Capricho Arabe” and “Recuerdos de la Alhambra.”
In 1932, at fourteen, his family sent him to Barcelona to study with Llobet. Rey wrote a detailed portrait of the master and a tender account of those two and a half years in Guitar Review (Winter 1985). What he left out was his own success there just before returning to Cuba, when Llobet presented him in concert—his programme included a work still at the outer limits of guitar technique, Alfonso Broqua’s “Ritmos Camperos.”
Rey received raves from the tough Barcelona critics, who compared him not only to Llobet but to Casals; composer Jaime Pahissa declared Rey the most complete guitarist he’d ever heard, with “a sweet but powerful tone and an extraordinary technical perfection that permits him to play the most difficult passages with ease.”
The composer and pianist Joaquin Nin-Culmell (1908-2004) recalled meeting Rey back in Havana just after his return. “As a young performer he was astounding. His playing was aristocratic and exact, quite different from the romantic, improvisational school of Segovia. He had a truly purist mind; this purism went into his concept of technique, which he got from Llobet but which he took much, much further. He was one of the very few guitarists with a respect for the musical text. And I’ve met very few musicians as well read as Rey, a man of extraordinary culture and interests. Even when he was twenty, he had a tremendous literary, cultural, philosophical, and political point of view.”
When Rey began his career, the present worldwide popularity of the classical guitar, so easy to take for granted, was still many years away. The guitar was, as Rey wrote, “practically unknown to musical audiences and. . . largely ignored by the classical performers.” Beginning with his Barcelona debut in 1934 at sixteen, for over four decades Rey concertized across North America, Europe, and parts of Central America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, and did much to bring the instrument the worldwide respect it enjoys today. His New York recitals (mostly Town Hall, but also Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully, and the Metropolitan Museum) became annual milestones. He made countless radio and TV appearances.
For the historical record, Rey gave world premieres of Joaquin Nin-Culmell’s “Six Variations on a Theme by Milán” in (Town Hall, N.Y.C., Nov. 10, 1947); of José Ardevol’s “Sonata” (Woodstock, N.Y., Sept. 3, 1950); of Julián Orbón’s “Preludio y Danza” (originally “Preludio y Toccata,” in 1953); and of Carlos Chavez’s “Three Pieces for Guitar” (Alice Tully, N.Y.C., Nov. 14, 1969; written back in 1923). He also performed in the premiere of Villa-Lobos’ “Introduction to the Chôros” (N.Y.C., August 1962). And I believe but cannot confirm that he was the first guitarist to perform in its totality the seven-movement suite, “Evocaciones Criollas,” of Alfonso Broqua.
Rey made the first recordings of works by Sor, Giuliani, Tárrega, Cervantes, Falla, Grau, Torroba, Rodrigo, Ponce, Lee, as well as the Boccherini, Nin-Culmell, and Orbón pieces included here. He may also have been the first guitarist to record duets by performing both parts himself.
As Michael Lorimer says, “When the guitar world had few great performers, Rey gave a standard of excellence to which to aspire. As the outstanding student of Miguel Llobet, who was the most distinguished performer in the school of Tárrega, Rey directly linked us to that fountainhead of guitaristic tradition. At the same time, Rey’s collaborations with composers provided the literature beautiful new vistas.”
When the two recordings presented herein were made, Rey had built a busy concert career in the USA over the years since his 1938 New York debut. He’d also made five prior LPs which, for various reasons, were unsatisfying to him. However, once he met the two Shulman brothers, his recording luck changed. Though their Philharmonia proved a short-lived label, Rey accounted for two of Philharmonia’s dozen releases, and under several titles the solo LP thrived for many years as a Nonesuch LP and cassette.
It remains one of the essential guitar recordings, with all the glories of Rey’s poetic, precise playing evident a half-century on—his rich and nuanced tone, his exquisite phrasing and sense of line, his bravura technique and profound musicality. (Let those who insist that today’s players have surpassed those of yesteryear consider the fact that this recording was made without any edits.)
The Boccherini Quintet in D—of which this is the first recording—was done just three days before Rey’s 33rd birthday. He had recently received his first of two superb guitars from Hermann Hauser I, arguably the preeminent luthier of the era, and this instrument would prove his beloved “workhorse” for the rest of his career. (Prior to the Hauser, Rey faithfully performed and recorded on a 1931 Simplicio chosen for him in Barcelona by Llobet.)
The Stuyvesant Quartet was one of the finest mid-century chamber groups in the U.S., with a repertoire of remarkable breadth. The quartet’s founders, Alan and Sylvan Shulman, had started Philharmonia, and this disc was the label’s second release. (Side Two was Gian Francesco Malipiero’s “Rispetti e Strambotti,” already reissued on CD.) Apart from its historical importance, the Boccherini performance is notable for a warmth and dynamism that remain unsurpassed. One reviewer pointed out that “the guitarist. . . fits into the quintet group as though he had been a regular member of long standing.”
Here the famous ‘castanets’ passage in the closing Fandango—usually handled by the cellist, tapping the instrument’s body—was played by Rey with his fingernails on the side of his new Hauser, while cellist Alan Shulman took over the pedal figure from the guitar part. (According to Rey, this was Alan’s idea; he was trying to protect the finish on his cello, made by Joseph Dalaglio in Mantua, circa 1800.)
The solo LP, which Rey remembered as “a work of love,” was made over the course of a couple of days in July, 1952. As legendary engineer Norman Pickering recalled, fifty-two years later, “Rey and I had a short but intense relationship. He was a wonderful man, and a wonderfully sensitive musician. I liked him enormously; to this day I’ve never heard another guitarist like him. He was so smart, so easy to work with. He didn’t have any problems, he was totally non-temperamental about recording. He would play things over and over with no objections so I could get the right sound. Complete takes, with no splices—this was how I always worked. Both discs were recorded in the same church. It’s large, of rough stone, with a long reverberation time. I used a single microphone recording him solo, and for the quintet too, placed carefully: a Neumann U-47.”
Rey’s abiding memory of the session was carpets hung in the church to help the sound, and a touch of whiskey being drunk by those listening, not working.
We have included Rey’s original liner notes, which appeared in part on the Philharmonia version of the LP (and an Elektra reissue) and in full on the Nonesuch version. It would be difficult to praise this recording too highly. Though Rey’s later five Epic LPs are superb, revered within the guitar world and awaiting CD reissues of their own, they were made under trying circumstances, far removed from the ease and camaraderie of working with Pickering and the Shulmans. The present two LPs were an Eden in Rey’s recording life, and he looked back on them with pleasure and pride.
It’s worth noting that the pieces in whose development he had a hand have some aspect which is entirely new on the instrument (like the “false harmonics” in the final crescendo of the Orbón). Because of his deep friendships with Nin-Culmell and Orbón, as well as Llobet’s urging, Rey always thought of the guitar in orchestral terms. His attention to dynamics, muting, and registration, his devotion to finding ways to give a score maximum life on the guitar, came from constantly thinking orchestrally.
The Villa-Lobos Etude #11 shows how electrifying a live performer Rey was. Having already recorded the piece for Epic, his interpretation reflects a longstanding friendship with the composer (who praised Rey for playing his work “like a great guitarist and like a true Brazilian.”). This track was only recently unearthed.
As his career flourished, Rey began to have increasing trouble with his right (plucking) hand, a problem unrelated to the later rheumatoid arthritis which would end his concertizing. During the late 1950s and 1960s he found his middle finger weaker and less responsive, with a tendency to under-reach; having never had any problems with technique, he was forced to compensate via complex re-fingerings.
The solution came through Marianne Eppens, a Swiss physical therapist whom he met socially. She realized the problem was due to Rey pampering his right hand to avoid injury or breaking a nail; the delicate mechanism of muscles had become imbalanced from unnatural under-use. She encouraged Rey to put his hand back to active everyday use, and in months he was cured. In 1969 he and Marianne married and left New York for California. Except for two years on Staten Island in the mid-70s, Rey spent the rest of his life in the San Francisco area.
In 1975 Rey was diagnosed with the rheumatoid arthritis which soon twisted his hands and left him crippled. His final concerts, in ’75 and ’76, were played while heavily dosed on anti-inflammatory drugs. The last twenty years of his life were spent in severe pain, and his courage in the face of major setbacks (both knees replaced, a quadruple bypass) was heroic. His marriage to Marianne was profoundly happy and her devotion was, as he put it, “saintly.”
He continued to teach until even that became too arduous. It was inexpressibly poignant to see him during this time—a giant who had once played the most difficult pieces with grace and ease, now unable, as he said, “to play even first-year positions.” Still, even as illness ended his performing at its zenith, it made him a better teacher. Childless, he was loved by students as a surrogate father. Rather than clinging to the faded splendor of what his playing had been, he tried to pass on all he knew, sharing his knowledge (as he wrote of Llobet) as one shares one’s daily bread with a friend. He could explain anything.
It is unfortunate that we have had to wait so long for these discs to see the light of day again. Sometimes it is difficult to grasp how very quickly the vagaries of time can erase a performer’s legacy; the familiar name becomes an unfamiliar ghost. Now, at least, the classical guitar audience will have one of the instrument’s great poets, at his magnificent best, before them again, more than a half-century later. May he never be forgotten.