Raphaella SMITS
INTERVIEW Classical Guitar Magazine November 2004














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Colin Cooper

The instrument leads you to the music

BORN near Antwerp, Belgium, Raphaella Smits studied at that city's Royal Conservatory of Music, and at the Brussels Royal Conservatory of Music. At Antwerp she gained her diploma in 1978, and in 1981 she received the Diploma Superieur from the Brussels Conservatory. Study with José Tomás in Spain followed, and she won first prize in the 20th Francisco Tárrega Competition in 1986.

Her successful career involves a multitude of concerts around the world, in addition to which she has established an enviable reputation as a teacher, holding masterclasses at various centres and festivals, including the summer festival she ran for years at Corsendonck. She teaches guitar and chamber music at the Louvain Lemmens Institute.

When I met her recently, she had just performed an exceptionally well-received recital in the Belgrade International Guitar Festival, playing a lively and characterful Mirecourt (Paris) guitar from 1820-30. It had been described in the Vichy auction as having 'many blemishes'; in fact, Bernhard Kresse, who undertook the restoration, had to reassemble it completely. With a scale length of 63.5 cm, its 16 frets and additional bass string make it eminently suitable for playing Mertz, and in fact Raphaëlla uses it for some of the Mertz on her Harmonie du Soir recording. For some of the Giuliani and for other pieces by Mertz, she uses another Parisian guitar, by François Roudhloff c.1830.

This does not mean that Raphaëlla Smits neglects her 8-string Gilbert. She has been a dedicated exponent of the multi-string guitar for many years, and she remains unswerving in her conviction. It was this that prompted my first question. It elicited a typically forthright response.

Why do you prefer 8 strings to 6?
I wonder if you ever asked a 6-string player why he is not playing 8 strings.
Anyway, basically it is not that I prefer 8 to 6 strings, but that a lot of the music I'm playing benefits from the basses. The additional 7th and 8th strings give a more full sound. And the 7th string is sometimes very useful for a better, more convenient left-hand fingering.
Also, I play a lot of different instruments ‹ contemporary and historical ‹ because each type of instrument creates a different world. So I choose a guitar not because it has a certain number of strings, but because I think it might be the right instrument for the repertoire I'm going to play. So, for me, the number of strings is not a priority, it just comes with the preferred instrument. Therefore I play 8-, 7- and even 6-strings: it all depends on the project and its repertoire.
But a modern guitar with 10 or more strings is something else; there we hear a different kind of sound concept. To me, it turns out to be a really different instrument, far from what I have in mind of being a classical Spanish guitar. That doesn't mean I don't like to hear it with music especially written for it, like Ohana's. But it's not my thing.

You use a 7-string guitar on your Mertz and Giuliani CD. What were the special qualities that attracted you to this instrument?
That instrument, a Mirecourt guitar, is an original from the first half of the 19th century. It has an incredible fast response, and is good in sound projecting and volume. Because it is a more dry sound, it stays very clear and is useful for the typical fast-run or arpeggios from that period. It helps you to play that music in the right way: the instrument leads you to the music.
I would like to let you listen it: nothing is so difficult as explaining a sound. First of all, the way of playing romantic instruments is completely different from the approach to an instrument built the modern way.
As you know, since 1980 I have been playing on a John Gilbert guitar, which means that for me he is an outstanding guitar maker. But some things just work better according to the type of instrument: the tension of the strings, the size of the body as well as the distance of the positions ‹ it can all be more convenient, depending on the repertoire. It is clear that the warm, full, clear long-lasting sound of the Gilbert will suit the Adagio by Rodrigo better than it will a fast capriccio by Legnani, full of slurs and runs and arpeggios, written for a romantic guitar like this.

Have you accompanied a singer with it?
Yes, I did play the Mirecourt in a Schubertiade together with the tenor Guy de Mey. Beautiful! Balance is no problem at all. The extra string gives more possibilities for holding the bass line and to have long-lasting notes under the top part.

The Mirecourt guitar certainly made a great impression in Belgrade. That same evening, another artist, a good player, had given a concert using an instrument with all the qualities you might expect a modern guitar to have. The hall was crowded, and not without some extraneous noise from outside. In these circumstances, and bearing in mind the differences in repertoire, the Mirecourt did in fact project better. It was a surprise.

Bernhard Kresse, who restored this instrument, writes in the annotation to Raphaëlla's Mertz and Giuliani CD Harmonie du Soir:
"I bought this instrument at auction in Vichy, France, in 1995. The description was 'Guitare romantique, manche ébène, caisse érable. Dans sa boîte origine. Nombreux accidents.' (Romantic guitar, ebony neck, maple soundbox. In its original box. Many blemishes.) Although the instrument was nearly falling to pieces (it seemed that it had been stored for a long time in a place with high humidity), all the parts were in an astonishingly good condition and showed no damage or even traces of having being used. So the only thing I had to do was to reassemble it!

It is a typical guitar of the late 1820s or the early 1830s, with its classical shape and design, which we know from the guitar makers of Mirecourt or Paris.
The table is of spruce, back and sides of flamed maple, ebony fingerboard and pin-bridge, ebony veneered neck, scale-length 63.5, 16 frets. The addition of a seventh string was quite usual in the 1840s and 1850s, and recalls the music of Mertz and Coste.

Kresse has restored it beautifully. Smits took it out of its case to show me. The strings are wound on wooden pegs, like a violin's, and are surprisingly easy to change and to tune. And, once tuned, they tend to stay in tune longer, though I don't know why. It had not been touched since her concert the previous evening, yet the tuning was near perfect. I asked if a set of fine adjusters would be useful, as a modern violin has, but Raphaëlla scorned the suggestion: it was no problem all to tune once you got used to it, and in fact you ended up by tuning less. Perhaps some research needs to be done on this phenomenon. Is there any scientific reason why strings wound on wooden pegs should be less susceptible to fluctuation in tuning?

The 7th string, added later in the guitar's history, is tuned to D in Mertz's Harmonie du soir, or to B in, for instance, the same composer's Le Romantique. The strings themselves vary widely, asd Smits explained.

RS: There are many types of materials, thicknesses and tensions possible. In the majority of cases, this kind of instrument used gut strings, but that did not meet my requirements. After many experiments I chose a mixture based on several types of D'Addario strings, all low tension.

I know that Jos Van Immerseel and his passion for authenticity influenced your activity with early instruments.
Indeed, he was my guide in making and understanding music. And from this point of view, he opened my ears and eyes for historical instruments. His recordings, as a piano player as well as a conductor are of the highest level.

One record I particularly admire is the one you made with Liliana Rodriguez. Her voice is at its expressive best: a youthful charm alternating with feminine maturity and wisdom, one minute a harsh, almost flamenco quality, the next a cooing turtledove. Did that CD give you any special problems?
No, on the contrary. Liliana has such a natural talent. And she has one particular quality: she's a good listener. This is a quality which I consider the most important for any musician, chamber or soloist.
Perhaps it sounds obvious, but a lot of musicians do not listen (not to themselves nor to their partner). Good musicians live in two worlds
simultaneously: they must be able to think ahead how a phrase is going to sound just before they play it, but then they have to listen very carefully if the phrase sounds for the audience like they intended it to be.

Somehow, playing music is a triple activity: you play physically, you listen and judge the result of the playing and you prepare, and if necessary adjust, your next lines.
What Liliana and I had to work on was to get a balance between freedom and exactness. I believe it's all a matter of emotional and technical control, but without losing the intuition. Of course this is very demanding and we worked very hard. To listen to each other is inspiring: the work grows from text expression to musical lines and the musical structure supports the expression. In the end ‹ no doubt about that ‹ we're breathing in the same way.

When you are playing with a singer, do you feel that the guitar is, at best, an accompanying instrument, or is there a sense of two equal instruments? I ask this because it took some time for the piano to achieve equality, and even now there is a school of thought that believes a singer should have as little accompaniment as possible, so that perfect intervals can be achieved without interruption by a tempered scale.
I think a singer should be supported by the accompaniment. It's a duo, not a duel! And indeed, for me a voice is one of the most beautiful instruments, fitting extremely well with the guitar.

In any case, how much does it matter if a singer has a slightly different scale from the guitarist's? Do listeners really care?
Ah, I know what you mean: I cannot speak for 'the public', but I like it better when the two instruments reach each other. So a sound mix is harder to achieve with a soprano than with a baritone. But then again, if you are lucky to play with a super singer, there is no problem. As a duo you look together for balance in sound, colour, vibrato, timing, etcetera.

You have worked with Jorge Cardoso too. How did that happen?
I met Jorge Cardoso many years ago, in the early 1980s at a festival in Berlin. We kept in contact, and it was he who invited me to come and play in Possadas, Argentina. This was the start of a great influence, to be able to know more about South America, about their musicians and their musicianship.
Since than I have been invited many times at ŒGuitarras del Mundo_ (directed by Juan Falú). Jorge wrote me a beautiful Vals à la Chopin, we played some duos, and it was he who introduced me to Liliana Rodriguez. I owe him for that.

José Tomás was one of your teachers. Was he the most important one? Can you say something about his methods and what they meant to you in your development as a musician?
You know, when you are a teenager, you are not so much aware of what method a teacher is using. At least I wasn't. It's all more a matter of trust and believing. You hear what you hear. Tomás had an incredible sonority; he was an imposing teacher, made some beautiful transcriptions and ‹ don't forget ‹ he was the assistant of the great Andrés Segovia.
Not many courses were going on in summertime, and this festival was like a meeting point where young players from all over the world came to Alicante to meet Tomás and his students. He could tell you details about composers, about music, about ornamentation, about fingering etc. at a moment when you are completely open to any suggestion. Without doubt he was a big influence.
He was important, but I cannot say the most important. Whoever you meet, whatever you learn, what you feel when you are hearing a concert, speaking with a writer or a composer, making chamber music, travelling - it all makes you who you are.

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