Mårten Falk is a greatly-gifted performer from Sweden. His work with the Russian Guitar is nothing short of superb. Let’s immediately watch one of my favourite videos, before reading his very interesting interview below:
Mårten has recorded an album of Russian guitar music by Alexander Vetrov, on a modern 8-string classical guitar: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/alexander-vetrov-solo-works-for-russian-guitar/1114625055
And another: Russian Romantics Reborn (with Sychra, Alexandrov, Sarenko, Vetrov etc):
Interview with Mårten Falk
by Rob MacKillop,
3 December, 2018
RM Hello, Mårten. Let’s start off with how you came to play the Russian guitar. Who inspired you?
MF: Hi, Rob, thanks for your interest, I am very honoured!
I remember very clearly when I first became aware of this repertoire; it was late 1995 or early 1996 when in a Swedish music library I checked the guitar sheet music and I stumbled upon the “Four Concert Etudes” by Andrei Sychra in Matanya Ophee’s edition. I remember I first read the preface, which really made me interested, and then when I saw the music; I just couldn’t believe my eyes. My first suspicion was that this was fake; it just couldn’t have been written in 1817, the music was so adventurous, original and virtuosic; in some ways it was a century ahead the music for the six string guitar. I bought the score about a year later but at that time I was studying in Paris with Alberto Ponce and my schedule was so tight: I had to learn so much obligatory repertoire that I just didn’t have any time to start learning the Sychra. But I bought Matanya Ophee’s other editions of transcriptions of the Russian guitar repertoire that I was sight-reading in my spare time, longing for the time after my studies when I could choose my own repertoire. Some time during my years in Paris I also found Oleg Timofeyev’s first recording of this music and the Sarenko disc by Leif Christensen. Maybe I should add that I have always had a great love for Russian art, literature and music (as a teenager I had a framed photograph of Tolstoy and Chekhov in my room).
Anyway: when I finished my studies in Paris in 1999 and moved back to Sweden, I right away started learning Ophee’s transcription of the Sychra Etudes. I worked on the first movement for a year but I had to give it up: this transcription makes Yamashita’s Dvorak and Mussorgsky arrangements easy in comparison. Or in other words: it is bloody unplayable (Matanya was the first to agree with this, and later he regretted making this transcription)! After this it took five years until in late 2005 a friend of mine sold me an eight-string guitar that I right away tuned á la Russe and the first work I started learning was of course the first Sychra Etude and ten years after I found the score I was finally able to play it. I got in contact with Matanya Ophee, who sent me Sychra’s method, and Oleg Timofeyev who sent me his dissertation and a couple of more discs of his. I also found scores by Sarenko, Alexandrov and others in the Boije collection in Stockholm and I was hooked: a period of frenetic playing began.
RM You went on to record two albums (brilliant albums, I might add!), one of which is devoted to the music of Alexander Vetrov. What can you tell us about Vetrov the man and the composer?
MF: Thanks! Yes, the Vetrov was my second Russian guitar disc, and it was released in 2015. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about Vetrov the man… We know that he started out studying violin and singing, and then switched to guitar, which he studied with Mikhail Vysotsky. He worked as a medical doctor in the provinces outside of Moscow so he (like almost all great Russian artists and composers in the 19th century) could only compose and play in his spare time. He was supposed to be a wonderful improviser with an endless imagination, but he was also a fanatic admirer of Beethoven, and the story goes that he was constantly carrying around scores by the great Viennese master which he studied in great detail. His music is so great; personally I think it belongs to the foremost guitar music from the 19th century. His compositions are not only very beautiful and expressive; they are also very advanced in terms of harmony, with very daring modulations; furthermore (and this might be the most important aspect that make him so great): he is a truly original composer; you cannot say he imitated someone else; his music sounds like Vetrov’s and no-one else’s.
As a matter of fact, I do not consider myself done with Vetrov: I really hope to be able to dedicate some years to in-depth research and more recordings of his masterpieces. In fact, I have recently started learning Russian, and the main motivation is to be able to search in archives for more information on Vetrov.
RM And the second album – The Russian Romantics Reborn – consists of individual items by Sychra, Alexandrov, Sarenko, Vetrov, and (to me at least) lesser-known names: Pavlistchev and Fumic. There is also a surprise appearance from Johann Kaspar Mertz. Please tell us more about the recording.
MF: This was my first recording of Russian guitar music: I did it in 2006, less than a year after I first picked up the instrument. My first idea was to make a CD of romantic music from Russia and Eastern Europe but I kept finding so much wonderful Russian music that there wasn’t much place left for the music from other Eastern countries. The only non-Russian music on the disc are the pieces by Slavko Fumic and Johann Kaspar Mertz. Then the record company came up with the title Russian Romantics Reborn, which I think is a very good title, but it might seem a bit strange since there are also music from Croatia and Hungary on the disc.
The disc starts with my beloved “Etude no 1” by Sychra and also included are pieces for the Russian guitar by Alexandrov (four pieces), Sarenko (four pieces) and Vetrov (one piece). There is also the Nocturne by Nicolai Pavlistchev that is not for the Russian guitar but for a twelve-string guitar in western tuning (with six extra bass strings). I didn’t have such an instrument so I did a transcription for Spanish guitar. Pavlistchev is a very interesting chap. Only three works survives by him: one early and not very interesting piece for the Russian guitar, one fantasy on Auber’s La Fiancée for ten string guitar (western tuning) and then this Nocturne. The reason he switched to western tuning is that he moved to Poland and thus lost contact with the Russian Seven string community. But otherwise, he had deep connections with the Russian intelligentsia and artistic élite, for example: he was married to Pushkin’s sister and was a close friend of Glinka. Since this Nocturne is his op. 41, there ought to be at least thirty-eight other works by him waiting to be discovered…
RM Now, both those albums, and the concerts you did at the time (some of which are on YouTube) were with an 8-string Spanish-style classical guitar. I presume you used Russian tuning for the first seven strings? But what was the 8th tuned to, and do you have any regrets for not using a more Russian instrument?
MF: Yes, there were several reasons. First of all, in 2005 I couldn’t find a seven-string guitar but I did find an eight-string which I tuned in Russian tuning and the eighth string to B (I just continued the G major triad one more step). This was an early guitar made by the foremost Swedish luthier Per Hallgren. After two years, I wanted a new guitar and now I commissioned one from Per. At this time I had grown accustomed to the eight string which I had been using to play some of the bass lines one octave lower, so I asked for an eight-string once again. At this time I had tried some marvellous cedar double top guitars by Per so I commissioned a cedar double top eight string.
At this time I was not at all interested in 19th century guitars. I happily played this guitar for several years but around 2015, my tastes changed and I started thinking that the 19th century repertoire actually sounds better on period instruments – modern guitars often have too much middle register which can make the music a bit “muddy”. I wouldn’t say that I regret using the very modern eight-stringer by Per Hallgren for this repertoire, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t mind rerecording some of the works (for example by Vetrov) on a period instrument. Actually, there is also another aspect: the scale and the neck width on the eight-string are so huge that especially the music by Vetrov (which is the most complicated in the Russian seven string repertoire – sometimes it is as though it was written by a non-guitarist composer) is very difficult and the music flows so much easier on the narrower neck on the 19th century guitars.
RM I have to say that Russian guitars seem often to be based on European models, with so many variants that one could almost say “anything goes”, and I do love your performances on that guitar. However, since you purchased a rather special Russian 7-string by Ivan Krasnoschiokov, your performances seem to have reached new heights. Are there plans to record an album with this instrument?
MF: Thank you, I am very happy to hear that! Yes, in fact, I am working very hard right now on learning a lot of new repertoire and my plan is to start recording a box set of maybe three CDs with Russian music from different periods. Two of the CDs would be 18th and 19th century repertoire, which I plan to record on my Krasnoschiokov, while the third will be modern music for the Russian guitar. I have discussions with two Swedish luthiers who will make modern (but not too modern…) seven-string guitars that will be suitable for the Russian music in more modern style.
Getting back to the Krasnischiokov: I was so happy to find that guitar here in Sweden last year (2017). It is very hard to find good Russian original guitars, both because of the very turbulent Russian history that has resulted in many guitars being used as firewood, but also because Russia at the moment is so disconnected from the rest of the world. I can easily travel to England, France, Germany or whatever to try and buy guitars. Not so with Russia. This Krasnoschiokov came to Sweden in the 1940s; it arrived with a sailor that escaped the Stalinist Soviet Union. It was in an unplayable state when I found it but two luthiers; Roger Häggström and Johannes Kitselis, did great jobs in restoring it and now it is a joy to play.
RM For newcomers to the Russian 7-string guitar, what path could you recommend them to follow? Which methods and attractive easier pieces might they study?
MF: I think the Morkov School is a very good book, both in terms of very intelligent and interesting exercises, but also since it contains very beautiful Etudes. I must say (and this is not because you are the one asking) that you have done a great job uploading these videos where you introduce the different exercises and studies from that book. I think if a beginner downloads the book and follow your videos; within a few weeks he/she will be ready to go with the concert material (at least if he/she has former experience in playing the Spanish guitar). I can say now that I wished I had done it this way when I started playing Russian guitar thirteen years ago. I started right away with the most virtuoso concert pieces with the result that I often feel I lack the basic knowledge of chord shapes and scales that I posses when it comes to the western guitar. As a matter of fact, I have now started going through the Morkov school to try to fill in the gaps that I feel I have. And I find it very enjoyable to play along with your videos!
As for beginners’ pieces: of course it depends on your musical taste but I find the Etudes and other short pieces by Sarenko very beautiful and very comfortable to play; he used the instrument in such a genial way. Also Sychra wrote tons of student material (although, one should avoid his Etudes in the beginning: they are very difficult!), the preludes by Vysotsky and Morkov are also quite easy but musically rewarding. But please note that the collection of 22 preludes by Vysotsky were published after his death and probably the publisher (or Vysotsky’s family) compiled them from loose sheets of manuscript paper found on his desk. The reason for this suspicion is that there are a couple of them that were actually composed by Fernando Sor (since we know that Sor and Vyssotsky met and played for each other in Moscow, it is not surprising that Vysotsky would have had music by Sor) and others are actually fragments from his variation works. Apart from that, several of them are very charming. Also, if you are more interested in the Gypsy tradition (which is very strong in the Russian seven string guitar), I would recommend the wonderful new book by Oleg Timofeyev and Feodor Kondenko “The Art of the Russian-Gypsy Guitar” that came out this year.
RM As a concert performer, do you devote entire concerts to Russian music? And if not, it must be quite difficult to carry two guitars and other luggage with you when on tour?
MF: I do both. Many times, I have played one half of the concert on Spanish guitar and the other on Russian guitar, but as you say, it is quite difficult to carry around two guitars (and potentially damaging to one’s hands). Of course, when I fly, there is always a big problem with two guitars, but often I buy one extra seat and then I tie both guitar cases together and put the whole package on one seat. But now, my plan is (because of my concern for the climate) to fly as little as possible and I hope to travel by train; at least in Europe. And then, of course it is much easier to carry two guitars.
Now my plan is also to make an effort to put together more varied programs on exclusively Russian guitar (before, I had mostly been playing the very romantic, mid-19th century repertoire). I am currently preparing both the more classicist works by Ignaz von Held, some Gypsy style pieces by Orekhov and Kondenko as well as some contemporary works by Gilardino, Agibalov, Julia Finkelstein and Ulf Grahn. I also plan to perform some works by Rudolf Straube (late baroque composer and student of J. S. Bach) that was written for the English Guittar which was tuned like the Russian guitar, although one fourth higher, as well as some French music for the eleven-course baroque lute. If you tune the two G-strings of the Russian guitar to F#, you will have a B minor chord with exactly the same intervals as in the baroque lute tuning (but one third lower) and you can thus play the baroque lute music directly from the tablature. Of course you will lack four bass strings, but this is the exact same situation as when you play music for the ten-course renaissance lute by Dowland on the Spanish guitar (tune the G string to F#, lack of four bass strings, one third lower).
RM How do you find audiences react to this lesser-known repertoire?
MF: When I began, I thought that guitarists would go wild with this unknown high romantic repertoire, but that the “general” musical audience would prefer Alhambra and Asturias. Strangely, and very surprisingly, I found the situation reversed. Back in 2005/2006 when I had learned my first Russian pieces, I approached guitarists with these and expected a big reaction, but (with some notable exceptions) I found that the average guitarist would go wild over a new recording of Aranjuez, La Catedral or Alhambra, yet was totally uninterested in this magnificent repertoire. I had a hard time figuring out why… On the other hand, I got tons of concerts among the chamber music societies, and the big newspapers and radio stations greeted this repertoire with a huge interest. I have heard pianists and conductors state that Vetrov is an important composer, and the reviewer of the largest newspaper in Sweden compared him to Schubert. My conclusion is that the average guitarist is more concerned with the playing, and less with the music. Personally, I do not mind: it is more important for the guitar at large that it finds audiences outside of the “guitar ghetto”, and moreover, fees are much higher among chamber music societies – so I am not complaining. But I hope that broadminded guitarists will discover this repertoire, which is so incredibly large that it is enough for everyone. And to be fair: I have been invited to guitar festivals, guitar societies and guitar faculties as well to perform and give lectures; so there are many broadminded guitarists around.
RM Tell us about your experiences of performing at the International Annual Russian Guitar Seminar and Festival (IARGUS) in Iowa.
MF: As a matter of fact, I have only been there twice: at the very first event in 2006, and the latest one, this year (2018). This is a very, very nice festival, and very different from other guitar festivals. Firstly because it is so intimate, everyone hangs out together at the barbecue with vodka in Oleg Timofeyev’s garage until late at night, and there is a lot of ad hoc playing and improvising until the wee hours. Most artists are also included in most concerts, and there is a lot of chamber music going on: very different from other guitar festivals where everyone has prepared a solo program, performs that in one concert and then either stays to hear the others, do a master class, or travel to the next gig. At IARGUS you will find yourself receiving new parts for new chamber music combinations all the time. I can HIGHLY recommend everyone to visit this wonderful and truly unique festival (I will even make an exception from my flying boycott to go there in 2019).
RM I know you from your performances of contemporary repertoire for the six-string guitar. Have you commissioned new music for the Russian 7-string?
MF: Yes I have. I commissioned one Swedish composer: Lars Carlsson and one Swedish/American: Philip Miller and they both wrote quite large pieces for my Russian guitar. There was one problem with these pieces though: Although I asked them to ignore my eighth string on the guitar I was using at the time, they just couldn’t leave it alone. So both of these works are actually for an eight-string guitar in Russian tuning. But I plan to sit down with the composers to try to make versions for seven strings so that other people can play it.
Although I didn’t commission it, I was very honoured that the great Angelo Gilardino dedicated a large, three movement sonata “Winter Tales Sonata” to me and I did the world premiere of this in 2009. I hope to finally record this important work on my next CD project. Also, I gave the premiere of the third Sonata by Alexei Agibalov on the very same concert. Agibalov is a wonderful composer, although arguably old-fashioned, his music is both beautiful and very well crafted. I would compare his style to Manuel Ponce.
From the premiere of the Gilardino Sonata:
And from the premiere of the Agibalov Sonata:
My friend Stefan Wester – also a Swede – has also done some work on new music for the Russian guitar and he premiered works by Julia Finkelstein and Ulf Grahn. This is very good music and I plan to learn these works too.
RM And what of the future? I trust the Russian 7-string features in your plans for the foreseeable future?
MF: Yes, as a matter of fact, I had several other plans that I was supposed to work on now, but I put them all aside because now I am very inspired to work on the Russian guitar. Of course, I also have a lot of gigs on “regular” guitar – especially in contemporary music. But I will try to focus on Russian guitar now for a while. Actually I hope to find a University where I can write a PhD on Vetrov. Oleg Timofeyev’s dissertation, although twenty years old, is still the only PhD dissertation in the world (including Russia!) on this instrument and its repertoire, which is crazy: much more research really needs to be done. If, by chance, anyone reading this is thinking of writing a guitar related dissertation: I would suggest that the Russian guitar is an area that is wide open and where much work is still undone.
RM I’d like to finish by thanking you for your continued inspiration, and your support for this website. And one day I hope we can play together!
MF: I am the one that should thank you for making this wonderful homepage and highlighting this repertoire. You have a great bunch of subscribers on your YouTube channel and you are really reaching out to a lot of people. I hope some of them are adventurous enough to start learning the instrument and start digging into this gold mine of a repertoire!
…And I would love to play together with you! I will plan a train trip to Scotland for some Sychra and Morkov duets!