Why we should play the portamento in Regondi's music



Today's blog is meant to be an apology of the portamento in Giulio Regondi's music. Its omission, in fact, causes an impoverishment of the expression and determines a fatal upheaval of the sound levels and of the phraseological weights of this wonderful and extraordinarily well-written music. In this blog we will, therefore, see why it is so important to respect Regondi's precise indications in this regard.


The portamento is a vocal embellishment (from old Italian: ‘portamento della voce’, e.g. ‘carriage of the voice’). As the name suggests, a note ‘slides’ into another one. The notes between the pulsed note and the arrival note must not however be individually distinguishable (as opposed to the glissando in which the same notes must be fairly audible). In the portamento the departure and arrival notes are tied by a bow.

V. Bellini: La Sonnambula (1831), "Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni" (Aria):

In Regondi's music we encounter an impressive number of portamenti. It is evident that his longing for a 'vocal' expression on an instrument that does not have its strong point in the cantabile was expressed precisely through this ornament. Only in the Introduction & Caprice op.23 there are no less than 52 portamenti. We can therefore no longer speak of a marginal element, but of an essential stylistic element of his music which requires a responsible choice on the part of the interpreter for not putting it aside as an expendable eccentricity.

In his works we encounter different types of notation for different types of portamento:

• The arrival note is performed by the left hand (bow + line):


G.Regondi: op.23 (Introduction)



• The arrival note is plucked by the right hand (line only):


G.Regondi: op.23 (Introduction)



An intriguing form of portamento is one in which the tied arrival note has additionally an accent mark:

For this type of portamento I would like to offer you two different interpretations.

In the notation of guitar music there has always been the problem of distinguishing the instrumental ligatures (made by the left hand) from those of articulation and/or phrasing. Nowadays every serious edition shows the instrumental ligatures (when they do not coincide with those of articulation) with a dotted half-bent. At the time of Regondi this notation did not yet exist, so that each composer developed his own notation to indicate when two elements had to be articulated tied, even though the technical slur was impossible to performe within them. Giuliani, for example, used the sign 'Sf'.


M.Giuliani: Sonata op.15, 1st mvt:


Performance:


Regondi (and his contemporary L.Legnani and just before him F.Sor) preferred instead to use the short sign of diminuendo which, if placed above the note on which it begins, might seem an accent.


F.Sor: Divertissement op.2 no.3:

Performance:

L.Legnani: Fantasia op.19


Performance:



Regondi: op.23 (Caprice)

Performance:


Therefore, the accent sign on the high F# in the beginning could mean that the next chord must be articulated tied to it, softer and shorter, and so all the other of this kind.


Another explanation is perhaps even more interesting. In fact, with this kind of portamenti Regondi could challenge us to overcome the limits of sound production and the expressive abilities of our instrument. In other words: the F# note must be performed with the intention of really accentuating it, even if it must be produced always and solely by the left hand. The thing seems, as mentioned, to go against the very nature of the sound production of our instrument. Yet this should not surprise us: very often we find in piano music a very detailed articulation simultaneously with the 'pedal' indication, which therefore theoretically would reset the effect of the articulation itself. Here is an example, from those years, where the desire for expression goes beyond the material limits of the instrument.

F. Liszt: Harmonies poétiques et religieuses S.173, no.1 (Invocacion), composed 1847, first edition (1833):

In our case the touch of the great performer will create in the listener the acoustic illusion, at the same time physically impossible and yet perceivable in reality, that the arrival note receives more emphasis than the first.


Obviously, we also encounter cases where a portamento ends on a note that must be plucked and performed with an accent.


G.Regondi: op.23 (Introduction)



As always, the contextualization of the sign will put us in a position to better decide how to interpret it.

  • Another type of portamento leaves us rather perplexed at first. The reason is the disproportionate distance (one octave) that the finger should cover on the same string:


Possibly due to the substantial differences in the structure, shape, size and type of strings (of gut), the performance of such portamenti on romantic guitar was perfectly feasible with the due fluidity and expressiveness.

If a performance adhering to the original is difficult (if not impossible) on the modern guitar, you can opt for the following technical solution. The 2nd finger slides on the string from the first E flat until it is more or less on the B flat/B natural of the same string at the twelfth fret. At this point the 1 finger will be on the E flat of arrival, the right hand will therefore only have to pulse the string at this same moment.

This as far as the technical aspect is concerned. But why are the portamenti in this music so important? Which elements of the musical speech are transfigured by banning them from our performance?

Let's see some musical examples.

Articulation and weight of the notes

From the following examples it is very clear that the position of the portamento clearly places the weight on a specific note (the starting one of the portamento itself) to the detriment of another (the arrival one). The latter, yet, due to its relationship with the harmony and rhythmical position, should have received a greater emphasis (remember that the bow still in that period required a greater pressure on the first note of the tied group and a decreasing dynamic during the performance of the following note{s}).

G.Regondi: op.23 (Introduction)


The F # and G # (circled in blue) are, in relation to harmony, dissonant notes placed on the rhythmically second-strong point of the 4th beat. They are at the highest point of the respective semi-phrases and are also the longest notes of a passage in sixteenths (they both have a dot besides). Therefore, according to the performance convention of the time, they should, receive a ‘triple ration’ of emphasis, so to speak. Here we see what would happen with a standard performance of the passage, without the composer's indications of portamento (note also the bow in the second group between the C## and the D#, due to the function of suspension of the former):


Yet, the portamento, at the end of which the two notes are, takes away from them just this particular kind of expression. The two suspensions are "sucked" by the bow of the portamento and dissolve in a very romantic, sighing gesture, remaining suspended in the air, emphasized by the presence of the value point. The portamento lends them an extraordinary expressive value if performed correctly and with the right intention.



Rubato, please!

In the previous case, the portamento is also an indirect but unequivocal sign of a freer and more expressive performance of the notes involved (Rubato). In fact, everyone can easily see that performing a portamento (on one string, thus) takes longer than one of the same two notes on two different strings:


  • Correct fingering vs a 'lazy' one:


It is superfluous to underline that a passage or even an entire piece such as op.23, where we find 52 portamenti, can be completely distorted by the omission of this ornament in favor of a standard execution, contravening the very clear indication of Regondi which requires, for sake of higher expressiveness, just to articulate against the general rules of performance.

Here are some examples of passages frequently distorted by this attitude (even when the arrival note is not a suspension):

G.Regondi: Reverie op.19



G.Regondi: op.23 (Caprice)



G.Regondi: op.23 (Caprice)


G.Regondi: op.23 (Caprice)



G.Regondi: op.23 (Caprice)

(in the first portamento a ligature is clearly missing)


G.Regondi: 2nd Air varié, op.22 (variation no.4)



Goodbye phrasing!

G.Regondi: 1st Air varié (variation no.1):


The perfect instrumental writing of the passage leaves no doubt about the type of Rubato and about the division of the semi-phrases generated by the first portamento:


  • Phrasing (and implicitly Rubato) as a consequence of the portamento:


Very often, however, perhaps frightened by the great distances to be covered on the keyboard in one direction and in the other one opts for comfortable fingerings which, however, remove all the charm at the beginning of this variation.

  • Wrong fingerings/phrasing:


Run for your life!

The whole second theme of the Caprice from op.23 forms a case in itself due to the massive presence of difficult-to-perform portamenti:


G.Regondi: op.23 (Caprice)



Here, too, their absence in many performances (or execution with only easy-to-perform portamenti) does absolutely no justice to the elegant beauty that this ornament bestows on this theme.


Conclusion

To conclude, when I go to a concert (or listen to a recording) with somebody playing Regondi's music without portamenti I feel similar to when I order a pizza with porcini mushrooms and get one with just normal champignons, without having being warned before that the porcini mushrooms were not anymore available. The chef is good, the pizza tastes acceptable, and yet I miss all its unique aroma...(and I never get a discount for that disappointment).


Well, I thank you heartily for having read until the end of this blog and hope it will be of some use to you. Please, share your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below, they are very welcome! Take care and see you next time!

Sincerely,

Carlo


P.S. Thousand tanks to Mercè for her always funny and smart thumbnails :D


P.S.This information doesn't want to embody any polemic intent, I just share it with you as a matter of fact. After 50 different performances of the op.23 by Regondi I gave up: only in 2 of them there were porcini mushrooms in the pizza of the 1st musical example of the chapter "Articulation and weight of the notes".

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