Pablo Sáinz-Villegas has ascended to the upper echelon of successful classical guitarists through a combination of his extraordinary skill as a player, his warm and inviting stage persona, and by focusing on a broad but always accessible repertoire that spans the Baroque era to the present day. You’re not going to hear angular and dissonant modern works from him. You will hear a lot of familiar classics—he is, after all, probably the most popular contemporary interpreter of Joaquín Rodrigo’s much-adored Concierto de Aranjuez—but also many engaging, lesser-known pieces that are strong on melody or rhythmically or harmonically interesting (or all three).
His latest album could be considered a “mixed recital,” as guitar albums that feature numerous styles and eras are often labeled, but in fact there is a thematic link to the 14 pieces that is revealed in the title, The Blue Album. In this case, the “blue” is an intangible but consistent mood that permeates and curiously unites the short works. Sáinz-Villegas says that “blue stands for a particularly intimate mood.”
Listeners will have their own opinions of what that mood means to them—for me, the pieces share a serene, mysterious, contemplative quality that I find both compelling and pleasantly mind-opening. The tempos are almost all relaxed and unhurried, yet there is never a moment of sameness because there is such a wide variety of styles among the pieces, and exquisite melodies reign supreme. Perhaps needless to say, the playing by the Spanish virtuoso (performed on a 2007 Matthias Dammann guitar) is both technically superb and emotionally satisfying.
Several are pieces that will be familiar to most classical guitar lovers (even though many derive from keyboard works), such as Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” and “Gnossienne No. 1,” Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” and “La Fille aux cheveux de lin,” as well as Baroque works from François Couperin, Silvius Leopold Weiss, and Domenico Scarlatti. There are plenty of late-20th century pieces as well, including Cuban composer Leo Brouwer’s lovely “Canción de Cuna,” Philip Glass’ “Orphée’s Bedroom,” Stanley Myers’ beloved “Cavatina,” and Max Richter’s sumptuous piano work “A Catalogue of Afternoons.”
It really isn’t until the final piece on the album, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (from the 1983 film of that name starring David Bowie), that Sáinz-Villegas pushes the “blue” mood into new territory—the tune’s aggressive ending feels slightly out of place; a jarring wakeup from the dreamlike drift of most of what precedes it. Be that as it may, this album is still an intriguing, often meditative sonic journey from beginning to end—a great place to lose (or find!) yourself for an hour.