Classical guitarist Plínio Fernandes has long been attracted by the aura of London—some 5,800 miles away from his native São Paulo, Brazil. His desire to move to the Brit capital for college music studies ultimately led him to launch an international touring and recording career there. He signed a multi-album contract with the prestigious Decca Gold label in 2021, at just 27 years old, and in 2023 joined the roster of Askonas Holt, one of the classical world’s premier artist management firms. With the recently inked deal, Fernandes joins the company of historic guitar giants Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, and John Williams, and some of the world’s most revered classical conductors, instrumentalists, and vocalists that Askonas Holt has represented.
On Bacheando, his sophomore album for Decca, Fernandes continues defining his musical voice. As on Saudade, his 2022 debut recording, Bacheando draws a line between the traditional and popular Brazilian sounds Fernandes grew up with and music by J.S. Bach (one of Fernandes’ favorite composers), whose influence resonates with Brazilian composers across the stylistic spectrum.
The new recording incudes the widely played benchmark of the guitar canon, Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, and Bach’s Adagio from Concerto in D Minor BWV 974. The latter appears in a masterful transcription by Latin Grammy–winning composer/arranger/guitarist Sérgio Assad, a fellow São Paulo native who also contributed to Saudade. Assad arranged five tracks for Bacheando and composed Preludio, Fuga, e Vivace, a nod toward Bach that featured Assad’s first foray into fugue writing.
Bach’s effect on Brazilian popular music can be detected in the lyrical “Bachianinha No. 1” and rhythmic “Bachianinha No. 2/Araponga” by bossa nova guitarist and singer Paulinho Nogueira. “Jequibach,” a Brazilian-flavored excursion in 5/4 by pianist-composer Mario Albanese, also reveals the Baroque master’s influence in its contrapuntal momentum. The disc’s final cut is Assad’s arrangement of the Preludio from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 by Brazil’s most famous classical composer: Heitor Villa-Lobos. Throughout, Fernandes plays brilliantly with warmth, precision, and a burnished tone.
During a Zoom call from London, Fernandes spoke enthusiastically about the new album. He also shared the back story about his motivation to relocate to the UK and the auspicious career opportunities now unfolding before him.
Did you start out playing Brazilian popular music on the guitar?
Many people assume I started playing bossa nova, samba, and choros, but it was the other way around. I was a classical guitarist from the first note. I was playing with a footstool, in classical position, and being very serious about it. I had a classical foundation from the start.
Did your early teachers help you develop the consistent, polished sound you produce on the guitar?
I studied in São Paulo with a great teacher named Henrique Pinto who also taught Fabio Zanon, João Luiz, Douglas Lora, and others of the rising generation. Pinto was really obsessed with sound. He used to say, “Music is made of sound; if the quality of sound is not one of the priorities, I don’t know what is.” That stayed with me. Fabio’s sound is one of the most remarkable things, and when I studied with him, we worked a lot on that. So sound quality is one of the things I focus on the most.
What prompted you to leave Brazil to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London for your undergraduate and master’s degrees?
I was fascinated with London as a city while I was growing up, and there were many reasons why I wanted to go to there. I loved football and began watching the Premier League when I was nine and was following the games of the Chelsea Football Club. I also had an Iron Maiden phase and was listening to metal. So there were many different connections to London for me!
But the main reason I decided to come here was because Fabio, my teacher for three years in Brazil, had studied at the Royal Academy of Music before becoming a visiting professor there. I told him I wanted to study abroad, and he suggested that attending the Royal Academy made the most sense for me.
My main teacher was Michael Lewin, who is phenomenal and has taught there for about 40 years. I studied at the Royal Academy for six years, from 2014 to 2020. I also studied with both Fabio and David Russell, who came there as visiting professors during that time.
Many classical guitarists enter competitions hoping a win will help them launch a career. After your studies at the Royal Academy, did you want to do competitions?
I entered competitions until I was 17 and won six national prizes in Brazil. Competitions pushed me to learn new pieces that pushed my limits. I had it in mind to prepare myself during my undergraduate and master’s studies to enter the GFA or Koblenz competitions. But in early 2020, after the pandemic came, I started becoming more active on social media. Then I got signed to Decca. At that point, it didn’t make any sense for me to do competitions because they don’t really integrate you into the real world of concert playing, and that’s the direction I wanted to go in.
How did your contract with Decca Gold come about?
It was through my collaboration with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason on “Scarborough Fair.” He invited me to record the song for his second album for Decca Classics. That recording went viral and got 23 million streams on Spotify. The president of Universal Classics and Jazz in the U.S. was very interested to find out who I was. I was actively posting things on social media at the time, and he got in touch. Things went well, and he wanted to sign me to a multi-album deal. I am super thankful for that moment and opportunity. I’m very lucky to be signed to a major label.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason is an amazing player who captured worldwide attention after performing at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. How did you connect with him?
I’ve known Sheku for a long time. His sister [pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason] started at the Royal Academy when I started in 2014 and we became close friends. Sheku came to the academy later. He’s one in a family of seven siblings that are all phenomenal musicians. Sheku had won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award in 2016 and became a well-known figure. But playing at the royal wedding gave him intergalactic fame.
You featured him on your album Saudade, playing the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. Was that piece on the program when you toured together this past fall?
Yes. We also premiered Leo Brouwer’s Sonata for Cello and Guitar, which we commissioned. It’s called The Magic Space, has three movements, and is very beautiful. We also played the Sonata for Cello and Guitar by Radamés Gnattali, Elegie à une mémoire oubliée; a work written for us by Rafael Marino Arcaro; and two pieces by Astor Piazzola. The encore was the arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” that we recorded for Sheku’s album.
I really enjoyed your rendition of Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro on Bacheando. You play the first two movements very thoughtfully, introspectively, and then the Allegro has a wonderful drive. Every note in the counterpoint comes out clearly, and you do some nice push and pull within the bar lines while maintaining a consistent tempo overall.
I wanted the piece to breathe and speak well, without lagging or rushing. The fugue has a lot of polyphony, and it’s vital to show everything that’s happening as opposed to just playing it like a fantasia. I made my arrangement [of all three movements] after looking at several other versions. I put them in the blender and added some changes of my own that I thought worked well.
Since you use a capo on the first fret, the piece sounds in Bach’s original key of Eb. We are so used to hearing guitar music in the sharp keys that this provides a sonic contrast to other pieces on the album.
There’s a special color to each key, and we don’t really hear that on the guitar too often. For the Bach Concerto in D minor, I also put the capo on the first fret to add something different. It enlarges the coloristic palette of the music.
Have you thought about the direction you’ll take for future projects?
I don’t have much to say about what direction I will go in. I just want to be inventive with the programming. The industry has changed since the days when the next move for me might have been to do an all Villa-Lobos album with the preludes, etudes, and his guitar concerto. I want to do something that is true for me as an artist and engaging for the audience. I need to find something that makes sense for me but is also inventive. Sérgio Assad says that these days there is room to create very interesting programming and to have your own voice.
Do you have a vision for what your career might look like in the years ahead?
I just want to have an all-around career doing the things I like best: recording, playing solo recitals, doing concertos with orchestras, and playing chamber music with musicians I admire. I’m also passionate about music education and about working with living composers. As guitarists, we don’t really have a big repertoire of pieces written by major composers. The challenge is to convince great living composers who are relevant to write good music so people will keep on looking toward the guitar. The greats like Williams, Bream, and Segovia did this, and I think it’s very important that it continue. I’m very glad that I have this platform so I can keep commissioning music and showing that the guitar is the most wonderful instrument.
What He Plays
Plínio Fernandes currently plays a 2004 Jeffrey Elliott guitar with Brazilian rosewood back and sides, a spruce top, and a 650mm scale length. For strings, he alternates between Augustine’s Regal and Imperial sets with medium-tension trebles and hard-tension basses.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.