John Williams might not be the first or foremost interpreter of the Paraguayan guitar maestro Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885–1944), but he is certainly the best known. In the 1970s, Williams introduced Barrios’s music to audiences outside Latin America through television and concert performances and the album From the Jungles of Paraguay: John Williams Plays Barrios (1977). For a recording closer in spirit to Barrios’s own performances, though, you might prefer Berta Rojas’s Intimate Barrios (1998). 

On Saturday night, Williams and Rojas shared a candlelit stage at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Jacobean-style indoor venue at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. It was an evening of contrasts beneath the Wanamaker’s black-and-white-paneled roof. Williams, in black, played the first half, and Rojas, in white, the second. It was modest of Williams to go first, and wise too. Most of the audience was Paraguayan, and was rooting for Rojas, their cultural ambassador. One man even wore a Paraguayan flag, with the national slogan “Paz y Justicia.”

The contrast in guitar styles, however, was closer to the Brazilian motto, “Ordem y Progresso.” Williams, the expert technician, set the stage with an orderly sequence of carefully chosen pieces that carried the audience from Jacobean dances to Venezuelan waltzes. Rojas, casually authoritative in her technique, then gave a superbly articulate and passionate account of Barrios’s compositions, with their swooning, erratic, and improvisation-touched developments. 

Williams opened with three dances from Michael Praetorius’s collection Terpsichore (1612), which have been in his repertoire since the 1970s. The transitions between the running bass and the top-string tremolo in “Courante” went smoothly, but there were a couple of glitchy notes in the otherwise lyrical “Ballet.” The fast “La Volta,” a favorite of Elizabeth I, was flawless, though, with crisp melody and controlled resonance from the D–A–D tuning of the lower strings.

Next, Williams prefigured the Bach-like feel of Barrios’s masterpiece, “La Catedral,” with a guitar adaptation of Bach’s harpsichord arrangement of Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Lute in D Major” (RV93), and “Sarabande in G,” by Bach’s lutenist friend Silvius Leopold Weiss. In the Vivaldi, Williams controlled the three registers of bass, inner voicing, and top melody, while also revealing the triple layering of composition, arrangement, and interpretation. The chromatic minor shifts were pure Vivaldi, the slippered tread of the descending bass was uncannily like Bach, and the rippling chords and semiquaver flurries could only be Williams. The Weiss “Sarabande” was lightly syncopated, as though turning westward.

After a brief stop in Ireland for Turlough O’Carolan’s harp-tinged “Farewell to Music,” Williams touched the continent of Barrios with three Venezuelan dances. Two fast waltzes (Antonio Lauro’s “Natalia” and Antonio Carrillo’s “Como Llora Una Estrella”) and Benito Canonico’s “El Totumo de Guarenas” in 12/8, dazzled with elisions, scurrying ornaments, and sharp cornering. These three dances, taken from Williams’s return to Latin American guitar music with El Diablo Suelto (2003), were the only selections that had been written for the guitar; Williams has adapted the rest from lute, harpsichord, and harp arrangements. It was as though Williams, in choosing this thoughtful, generous, and careful program, had chosen to play to his strengths to assist Rojas in playing to hers.

Rojas swayed, almost touched her brow to the neck of her guitar, and occasionally delivered a single stamp of a heeled shoe as though gathering the loosened threads of melody back into the rhythm.

Which she did, magnificently, in forty-five captivating minutes of Barrios. Rojas’s sound is drier and more wooden than Williams—closer, in fact, to that of Barrios on his 78 RPM recordings. The spirit of her playing is closer to Barrios too, in the way that her virtuosity always serves emotional expression. Williams sat erect in the prescribed posture, but Rojas swayed, almost touched her brow to the neck of her guitar, and occasionally delivered a single stamp of a heeled shoe as though gathering the loosened threads of melody back into the rhythm.

And the rhythm was always there, sometimes stated with percussive boldness, but often expertly stretched or neglected, to heighten the emotional impressions of tension or loss. The deceptively simple melody of “Un Sueno a la Foresta” teetered on heights of rubato, halting as if for a sigh at each chord change, then shimmered with tremolo. The effect was so lyrical, and the coda so drawn out, that the audience’s applause prevented Rojas from playing the final chord. The song simply evaporated from its final note: the most daring of improvisations by Rojas, and proof of her feel for Barrios’s music. 

The Paraguayan polka “Caazapá”—not to be confused with the Polish polka—and a meditative, drawn-out “Barcarolle,” both defied fixed time, but the swinging bass and double stops of another polka, “Jha Che Valle,” reminded me of Joe Pass, the Bach of solo jazz guitar. Like Pass, Barrios elaborates the bass with ever more complex substitutions and complicates the inner voicing with passing chords. He stretches the harmonic links between chords and melody, but somehow always bounces back to the right place at the right time. Rojas identified the thread of anguish running through every development.

She closed, of course, with “La Catedral.” Williams’s celebrated recording of 1977 pulled Barrios out of the tropics and back to Europe, but “La Catedral” isn’t a Bach fugue; it’s a Bach-inflected, classicized kind of Hispanic folk music, written by a Paraguayan who sometimes appeared on stage wearing an Indian headdress. Where Williams played the Preludio Saudade with icy and somewhat rigid clarity, Rojas emphasizes the saudade, the looseness and mistiness of nostalgia. She also took the closing Allegro Solemne more forcefully than Williams did on record, and at only a slightly slower clip than Barrios on his original recording. Her articulation was extravagantly clean, too.

Williams joined her for an encore. As Rojas strummed a Paraguayan dance and Williams picked out the melody from sheet music, they looked like teacher and pupil. Perhaps specialist and all-rounder would be fairer. Either way, Williams looked like he was enjoying the lesson. The next night, he was to share the bill with the Flamenco guitarist Paco Peña. I couldn’t wait.

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