Over the course of a brilliant recording career that now spans more than four decades, Belgian classical guitar great Raphaella Smits has shown herself to be a masterful interpreter of lyrical pieces by a broad range of composers stretching back to the Renaissance, moving into the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras, and through the 20th century. She has devoted full or parts of albums to many of the historic giants of classical guitar repertoire, including Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, Napoléon Coste, Johann Kaspar Mertz, Antonio Jiménez Manjón, Agustín Barrios, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Manuel Ponce, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Leo Brouwer, to name just some.
Smits’ latest triumph for Soundset Recordings is called Che Argentina, a passion project devoted to 20th-century works by seven Argentine composers. As she says in the album’s liner notes, “Since the 1980s, I have been a regular guest in Argentina to play concerts. Twelve tours brought me to all corners of the country, on stages large and small, from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, adjacent to Antarctica… It is a country where music is part of everyday life, and where especially the guitar is always and everywhere present.”
A Rich Tradition
Traditional Argentine music, much of it connected to folk dance rhythms and songs, was a major source of inspiration for all seven of the composer-musicians represented on Smits’ album. But then, so were European composers, from Bach to Tárrega, as well as folk music forms popularized in surrounding countries, including Brazil and Chile. It all combines into an intoxicating mélange of intriguing rhythms (giga, zamba, joropo, etc.) and beautiful ballads that evokes a complex variety of emotions. You’d be hard-pressed to find another recent classical guitar release that is more thoughtful and appealing.
Jorge Morel is probably the best-known of the composers in the United States—he lived in New York for decades and played with a wide variety of jazz and other players there. Morel died in early 2021, so this album’s inclusion of four pieces by him—including the delightfully varied, three-part Olga, dedicated to his wife—serves as a fitting tribute to the much-loved musician and teacher.
“Jorge left an amazing collection of great music, some of it rarely played, unfortunately,” Smits told me recently in an email interview. “For a long time I’ve wanted to play more music by Morel than just the Sonatina, which I recorded back in 1990 [on her Lyrical 20th Century Guitar Music album].” However, she notes, Morel’s death was not the impetus to put the album together: “For several years this idea was growing, and meeting more composers during my many visits to Argentina made it possible to find what I was looking for and to play what I wanted to play. For instance, putting María Luisa Anido [1907–1996] or the Falús [Eduardo, 1923–2013, and his nephew Juan, b. 1948] and José Luis Merlin [b. 1952] next to Morel and Ariel Ramirez [1921–2010]. It’s a program with only original, well-written compositions.”
Particularly impressive is Merlin’s wide-ranging and substantial Suite del Recuerdo, which becomes a glorious showcase for Smits’ guitar artistry, as she effortlessly glides from haunting melodic passages to sections that alternate between inventive strums and brisk fingerpicking, and others that are anchored by potent, thrumming bass accents.
As is often the case with broadly themed albums, there were also pieces that Smits seriously considered but which ultimately did not make it to the finished product. “That’s the way I work on a program” she says. “Making first selections, having far too much music, or changing my mind about some music that is perhaps not staying as interesting to me as it was at first sight. Or pieces not fitting in style with the rest, which could become a sequel album, as a reporter suggested. Why not?”
Off the Beaten Track
Smits has long been admired for her dedication to performing and recording pieces that are somewhat off the beaten track—“I really like to play things that not everyone is playing,” she said in 2019—and she was an early champion of a number of composers who have since become favorites on the classical guitar concert circuit, such as Coste and Mertz. She is also without a doubt the most famous contemporary advocate for the eight-string classical guitar, which has been her primary instrument (though certainly not her only one) since before she became a professional. It was through the noted pedagogue José Tomás, who taught summer programs Smits attended in Alicante, Spain, that she first became intrigued with the eight-string.
Indeed, when, in her early 20s, she entered a Spanish music competition in Granada, Spain, where Andrés Segovia was the head of the jury, she was advised not to play her eight-string, because Maestro Segovia supposedly disliked it. Nevertheless, she came in third place and Segovia went out of his way to praise her as one of his favorites of the competition. She started on a Ramirez, but it wasn’t long before she found the eight-string of her dreams, which was built in 1980 by California luthier John Gilbert (1922–2013), guitar #46, made with a Sitka spruce top, Indian rosewood back and sides, and a Spanish cedar neck. By her second recording project—an album of 16th- and 17th-century songs by English lutenist John Dowland and two others, on which she accompanied Belgian tenor Guy de May—she had embraced the Gilbert, and it has turned up on all but a handful of the nearly two dozen albums she has made since.
The two extra strings on her instrument give Smits the opportunity to create arrangements with a broader palette of sounds and more low-end information than a conventional six-string, but to her great credit she does not abuse that apparent luxury, always employing the basses judiciously. “It enriches the composition and in many cases simplifies the playability for me,” she says. “The most challenging is actually the right hand, not the left. There’s an important set of rules [when devising arrangements]: one, develop good taste; two, understand the harmony; and three, never change just to change, but only to improve.
“José Luis Merlin wrote to me after listening to his Suite del Recuerdo on my CD and said he loves the changes I made and will adopt them in his next performances. This made me happy, for not being in doubt and for just taking the chance.” She adds, “My guitar is built traditionally and doesn’t sound like a different instrument—just like a fantastic, powerful, colorful, balanced guitar, with deeper basses.” For the seventh and eighth strings, Smits uses two additional normal or high-tension Savarez sixth strings, with “the seventh tuned as the lowest bass, depending on the piece, and the eighth always on low D.”
In addition to the favored Gilbert, Smits also occasionally uses various other modern and historic guitars, depending on the style of music she is playing. For example, for her 2009 album The Eight-Stringed Bach, she employed her 2006 Kolya Panhuyzen instrument. The 2015 Manjón: Works for Guitar called for her 1899 Vicente Arias (a six-string once owned by Narciso Yepes and restored by German luthier Bernhard Kresse). On Early 19th Century Guitar Music (2000), featuring pieces by Luigi Legnani and Franz Schubert, and Harmonie du Soir (2006), with works by Mertz and Giuliani, Smits used her ca. 1827 seven-string French Mirecourt (again, restored by Kresse). On the latter album, she also played her ca. 1830 François Roudhloff six-string. Her most recent acquisition is another eight-string made by English luthier Stephen Eden.
As Invigorated as Ever
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, making albums takes up a relatively small amount of Smits’ time. Like so many of her successful peers, she has always had an active performing schedule that requires considerable travel, and she also devotes much energy to teaching the next generation of classical guitarists, both in her native Belgium at the Lemmens Institute, and at guitar festivals and master classes around the globe. Her spring 2023 bookings alone include shows in Japan, Switzerland, France, Finland, and Belgium. She is as in-demand as she has ever been and though now in her mid-60s, has shown no signs of slowing down.
Part of it, no doubt, is feeling invigorated by the young guitarists she’s encountering. “In general, there are many more guitar players now. The great musician-players will always be exceptional,” she says. “But what in my eyes and ears seems very different today is the abilities of very young talents. This is new; something more like the tradition of the piano and the violin. It’s fantastic and very promising!”
The world of guitar competitions has also grown exponentially since her early days and become an even more dominant factor in the career trajectory of many young guitarists. Yes, there are more opportunities for exposure, but she wonders if it’s “dangerous to have all these competitions as a replacement for concerts. What about the dreams of all the prizewinners? After the competitions, they often lose the opportunity to perform and thus their ambition.
“That said, I believe it’s great to participate, but only if you go with the right spirit into the competition.”
And what’s next for the ever-busy Smits? Is there some dream project she’s always wanted to do? “Yes, there is,” she teases, “but I never make my dreams public. They stay my dreams until they are realized.” Whatever it may be, it’s sure to be fascinating and well done, like everything she’s produced so far.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.