Sarabande Records SARADD006

Since his debut album in 2004 Morgan Szymanski has released a succession of stimulating collections (see which combine the familiar with new pieces, mostly written for him, which he plays either solo or with a small group of like-minded musicians. In El Árbol de la Vida, his 10th and latest recording Szymanski has pushed the boundaries and he has released a collection of World premieres. These are all pieces dedicated to Szymanski by living composers, with whom he has developed a strong artistic relationship, and they in turn are clearly inspired to write for him. On this latest musical journey Szymanski plays solo except on two pieces where he duets with viola player and composer, Simon Rowland-Jones (who’s name may be familiar as the past viola player of the Chilingarian Quartet) and the flautist Alejandro Escuer, who is one of Mexico´s foremost exponents of contemporary music.

There is a clever compositional link on this album as many of the pieces relate to people, places and objets that are important to the Morgan Szymanski, who I am indebted to for his helpful explanation of the sources of inspiration. This deeply personal link between the writer and performer can only work, as it does here, when performer sees through the eyes of the composer and vice versa. In many respects I felt the opening opening quartet of pieces by Julio César Oliva, a long standing musical partner of the guitarist, was a perfect example of this living act of creativity as the composer takes us into Morgan Szymanski’s world: Valle de Bravo conjures up the guitarist’s home town, the streets of which are covered with bouganvilias (in Bugambilias), whilst Irene is a musical portrait of Morgan’s mother, and La Perla is the name of his guitar and features an attractive succession of ideas. The easy going and strongly lyrical style of Oliva works so well with these personalised pieces, which are quite memorable and represent a perfect entré.

Simone Iannarelli’s music has featured on most of Morgan Szymanski’s albums, and his quite individual take on a variety of subject matters including coffee is always very interesting. In Tonada del Xolotzcuintcle we start with one of the constants in the guitarist’s repertoire, the composer Manuel Ponce, who’s Mexican songs Iannarelli uses as a springboard for a delightfully inventive fantasy.

Stephen McNeff contributed a wonderful atmospheric trilogy of pieces to 2015’s Nuevo Mundo and does so once again with the cleverly atmospheric La Catrina which explores the mythology behind the emblem of The Day of the Dead. ‘Catrina’ originally referred to a well dressed and perhaps rich woman which transmuted into the famous engraving of a skeleton wearing a large elegant floral and feathered hat. No mere ’danse macabre’, this piece is a strongly felt mediation on a subject close to the heart of Mexican culture.

Another very important ancient cultural image is ‘The Tree of Life,’ which features as the central image on the album’s artwork (a silk painting especially made for this venture by Hilary Simon), and the title piece written by Deborah Pritchard, the recipient of a British Composer Award in 2017. this is her first work for guitar, a piece of great subtlety and virtuosity, which like much of her music has strong connotations to imagery, through her experience of synaesthesia, where “she perceives sound as colour, light and darkness.” The tree has its roots in the underworld and branches in heaven which is evoked with great drama and originality through its changing iterations on a repeated phrase, reaching up, and delving deep. This is a truly original work and draws an utterly committed and inspired performance from Szymanski.

Hypnotic percussive effects and strummed chords on the guitar help recreate a ritualistic atmosphere in Paul Coles’ Huitzilopochtli, a brief and hypnotic dance, and a homage to the Aztec god of war. This is superbly contrasted by Banyabuffar written by Simon Rowland-Jones, who takes us to the beautiful coastal village on the west coast of Mallorca, with its extraordinary terrace hillsides and views of the mountains. This is a beautiful work, with the viola singing plangently with the sympathetic guitar in bitter sweet harmony. I pressed ‘play’ several times in succession – it is a truly lovely and memorable work. Szymanski explained that the two musicians played in the village together, where they returned to premiere this work.

A couple of three movement pieces end the album, first the more formally titled Sonatina by Ivan Moseley, who’s music I’d not heard before. This intricate and virtuosic piece has great range of emotion and effects, with a strongly dramatic persona. Written a few years ago for Szymanski, it is undoubtedly a more modern sounding work but one with a strong rhythmic heart. It acts as a perfect foil on the collection for the finale, No estacionarse by the Mexican, Marcela Rodríguez in a brilliant and energetic piece for flute and guitar. The work is translated as ‘No Parking’ and parodies traffic in Mexico City, which is constantly moving, hence no slow movement. Rodríguez is a very well established composer, who has written a number of works for flute in particular, and this restless and energetic evocation of city traffic is executed with consummate ease by Escuer and Szymanski and closes the recital in an exuberant burst of energy.

This album is a true voyage of discovery, personal yet reaching out as we join the guitarist and his friends on a kaleidoscopic journey of discovery through new sights and sounds. Even though it was recorded over the course of a year in Mexico, Barcelona and London, the music flows effortlessly as a well ordered recital, with plenty to hold one’s attention. Everything is played with seamless perfection and complete understanding by Morgan Szymanski and his friends and recorded to the high standards that we expect from this exceptional musician. I will leave the last word with Morgan: I always feel that if somebody believes in me, trusts his work to me and feels inspired to write something for me, then the least I can do is record it so it can be heard. That is my feeling. Ray Picot, Iberian & Latin American Music Society (