Speaking about recording his upcoming album, classical guitar giant Manuel Barrueco asked in a recent phone interview: “Do you know ‘A la Cubana’ by Enrique Granados? I have re-recorded it three times because the arrangement just wasn’t right. It’s hard and it’s supposed to sound easy. That’s a bad combination,” he joked. The exchange gave me pause. Barrueco is renowned for his pristine playing and absolute mastery of his instrument and the music. He went on to explain that making his latest album, Music from Cuba and Spain, Sierra: Sonata Para Guitarra, at home—especially during a pandemic—offered abundant time, giving him the opportunity to get very picky and make sure every take was optimal.
Barrueco and his wife, Asgerdur Sigurdardottir—who serves as his recording engineer and co-producer—work together in a nice acoustic space that doubles as a wine cellar in their Maryland home. The new album is the 14th release by Tonar Music, an imprint the couple established to issue the Manuel Barrueco Collection of recordings and sheet music editions of his transcriptions. Tonar’s first CD was the Grammy-nominated Solo Piazzolla of 2006. Successive albums have featured Barrueco alone and playing with former students (now protégés) Meng Su, Yameng Wang, and Franco Platino, a solo record by Lukaz Kuropaczewski, and more.
In 2019, Barrueco toured with a program titled “Music of Spain and Cuba,” and his new CD highlights selections from that program. His exploration of this repertoire was partially inspired by his search for his ancestral roots. His great-grandfather, Manuel Barrueco Diez, emigrated from Spain to Cuba and fought in the Spanish-American War for Spain in 1898. He returned to his homeland after the defeat, but the guitarist’s great-grandmother remained in Cuba with the children. Our Manuel Barrueco was born in Santiago de Cuba, in 1952, and lived there until his family came to America as political refugees in 1967.
“In recent years, I’ve become aware of my Spanish roots,” Barrueco says. His forebears lived in Fermoselle, a small medieval town on the northwest border of Spain and Portugal. “I visited a few years ago and found the Barrueco name is very common there.”
He became intrigued by the nexus between Spanish and Cuban music. For the album, he recorded transcriptions that include Cuba-inspired piano works by Spanish composers Joaquín Malats (1872–1912), Enrique Granados (1867–1916), Isaac Albéniz (1859–1909), and Sebastián Iradier (1809–1865). Five vihuela works by Renaissance composer Luys de Narváez (1500–1547) connect to the guitar’s Spanish lineage. Overt Cuban musical elements appear in five transcriptions of piano scores by Ignacio Cervantes (1847–1905), a lifelong resident of Havana, and Joaquín Nin-Culmell (1908–2004), born in Berlin to Cuban parents. Tonar will publish two volumes of Barrueco’s transcriptions of music for the album. The first book will contain the five transcriptions from Cervantes’ 40 Danzas. The second will include “La Paloma” (Iradier), “La Morena” (Malats), and “A la Cubana” (Granados).
The four-movement Sonata Para Guitarra that Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra penned for Barrueco is the album’s outlier. It represents 21st-century music for the guitar with Caribbean influences. “Roberto’s Sonata is a massive work and an important one,” Barrueco says. “It’s a piece that needs to be out there getting played. It’s not as easy to listen to as some of the other pieces on the CD. Listeners will hear solid [compositional] craftsmanship. They won’t be whistling the piece on the way home, but they will be impressed by it.”
Protective of the Guitar
Presenting purely classical works in his recitals is paramount for Barrueco. He is two generations down the continuum from Segovia, whose early 20th-century mission was to gain acceptance for the guitar in the classical world, sundering it from the flamenco tradition and popular music styles.
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy other kinds of music,” Barrueco says. “I think we understand what’s folkloric, what’s popular, and what’s classical and need to make it clear what we are doing. Today, people are comfortable playing some things that, frankly, I don’t feel belong on the concert stage.
“I don’t want to come across as a snob,” he continues. “I don’t think a symphony is better than a pop song. You can have a symphony that’s a piece of garbage and a pop song that’s a jewel and work of art. I am concerned about how the guitar fits into the spectrum of classical music. I like everything, including rap, country, and rock music. I can’t think of any popular or folkloric music that I don’t like. But I feel there should be a distinction between musical styles. I try to play programs that will please the serious listener so that someone who goes to piano concerts might enjoy it and find meaning in the music. I am not necessarily a purist, but I am when it comes to the classical guitar. I try to be protective of it.”
Barrueco has, however, made some highly successful excursions outside the classical realm with albums for the EMI label showcasing music by Paul Simon, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and others. His disc of Lennon and McCartney songs in solo, duo, and orchestral settings, crafted by Leo Brouwer, Tōru Takemitsu, and others is exceptional. He also recorded with guitarists Al Di Meola, Andy Summers, and Steve Morse. “We should do what we do best,” he says. “I’m not good at playing popular music. I’ve done it when I had great partners who were willing to meet me halfway.”
Toward the Future
Another way Barrueco is fostering high standards for the classical guitar is by establishing the Baltimore International Guitar Competition in conjunction with the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society, for which he is the artistic director and Sigurdardottir is president. The idea for a competition was proposed to Barrueco by a friend who offered major funding and help enlisting other donors. The debut event is slated for September 21–26, 2021, and will offer prizes totaling more than $60,000. In addition to cash, the first-prize winner will receive representation by the global artist management agency Dorn Music.
“I had become disappointed with some competitions when a player I felt should win didn’t,” he says. “I thought it would be fantastic if we could have one based solely on the quality of the playing, to encourage the art of the classical guitar.” The planners decided to keep competitors out of the judges’ view so that opinions won’t be influenced by a performer’s theatrics, appearance, or gender. Expert jurists will be divided evenly between guitarists and non-guitarists. “I want to have a jury that will not be political, where perhaps someone wants a student from a particular school to win,” Barrueco reveals. “I want the judges to tell me which players they would like to hear again that belong on the concert stage.”
The required pieces will include well-known works by Bach, Villa-Lobos, Tárrega, and Sor, alongside free-choice selections by Romantic-era, 20th-, and 21st-century composers. Mandating familiar repertoire was done with expectations that the pieces will reveal the competitors’ core musical sensibilities. (For more information about the contest, visit BaltimoreGuitarCompetition.org.)
Mentor to Many
In addition to performing, recording, and publishing, Barrueco’s career has always included teaching. Since 1990, he has maintained a studio at Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, where he mentors a small number of students each academic year. His highly accomplished pupils, who hail from America, Asia, South America, and Europe, have won numerous competitions and gone on to successful careers.
“I remember when I was a student, the teachers that had a point of view were the ones that inspired me,” he recalls. “The way the I see it, there are some things that are right or wrong and some that are a matter of opinion. I try to help my students understand the difference and I give them the tools to express what they want. Sometimes they may think I’m trying to mold them to do things as I do. But I tell them if they end up sounding like me, I’ve probably failed them.”
Barrueco still maintains a robust daily practice regimen. “I work for 55 minutes, take a ten-minute break, then do another 55 minutes,” he shares. “I do that twice a day. During this [pandemic] period, I have been spending hours on technique each day—scales, arpeggios, and a few other things. It’s important. Some of my students don’t practice scales, they just work on difficult passages in the pieces they’re playing. I think that’s a big mistake. There is a need to stay in shape by playing scales. It’s one of the hardest things in classical guitar and is like jogging for an athlete. Practicing is the highlight of my day. I love sitting with a cup of cappuccino and looking out my window at the trees. It’s really peaceful.
“I originally fell in love with the guitar, but then felt that music in general was more enjoyable. There is another level when it becomes art. The guitar is capable of ravishing beauty and its sound can project incredible feelings and colors. It’s not just the colors though, it’s what you can do by combining them in certain ways. A well-played guitar is irresistible. I love it now more than ever before.”
What He Plays
For 48 years, Manuel Barrueco has played a 1972 Robert Ruck guitar with traditional bracing, a cedar top, Brazilian rosewood sides, and a long-scale neck. Except for a few tracks on his Medea album, he has used his Ruck number 58 for every solo recording. (He even published a book about the guitar.) Live and for concerto recordings, he plays guitars by Matthias Dammann with sandwich-braced cedar tops and long-scale necks. Regarding strings, Barrueco says, “It’s complicated.” Through the years he’s played sets by Augustine, D’Addario, Savarez, and Hannabach. He currently uses Augustine Gold trebles and medium-tension Savarez semi-polished basses on the Ruck for recording. On his Dammanns, he uses Hannabach Titanyl trebles and Savarez basses.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.