The Free-Reed Review
Critiques of Compact Discs, Books and Music Scores
CD Review: Antonio Barberena
Acordeôn de Concierto
Total Time: 72:46
Review Date: April 2001
Antonio Barberena, Acordeôn clasico
Although I have listened to more than two hundred classical accordion CDs by dozens and dozens of players from around the world, I had not heard of any Mexican classical accordionists, until Antonio Barberena sent me his CD. What a pleasant surprise!
First of all, the artwork and packaging is superb; the CD jewel case is even encased by a printed cardboard sleeve. The sculpture of an accordion-playing angel is charming, and reflects the folk art of Catholic Mexico, as well as the Baroque contents of this CD (which includes three pieces recently discovered in the library of the Mexico City Cathedral).
But the greater surprise to me was Barberena's playing: clear, articulate and musical (and the recording is also professionally engineered). Barberena's playing is not spectacular, but it is solid; rather reserved. I had no idea such a high caliber of classical accordion art existed in Mexico. Barberena (born in 1962) began playing piano accordion at the age of eleven and switched to the chromatic button accordion at fifteen. (Sounds a lot like the United States' own Peter Soave.) He won first place at the 5th National Accordion Championship in Mexico City. He recorded two LPs, founded the Accordion Quintet of Mexico City and concertized in Spain, Venezuela, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, and the USA (Houston, Texas).
The works on the program (mostly transcriptions) are well-played and well-balanced, despite a preponderance (more than half) of Baroque pieces. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in F Major and Boellmann's Suite Gothic were originally written for organ, and Sanz's Suite Espanola, for guitar. The three Mexican pieces date from as early as 1599 and were written for either organ or harpsichord. The only pieces specifically written for accordion are Adamo Volpi's Preludio, also in the Baroque style and Vladimir Zolotarev's Sonata No. 2, which is certainly—along with Boellmann's Gothic Suite— the most substantial piece on the program.
I can only find fault with two aspects of the CD, one minor and one major.
1. The CD booklet notes (written in Spanish and English) are OK as far as content goes. The English translations should have been checked by someone more conversant in English; the sentence structures are awkward, but this is tolerable. While reading about the history of the accordion, I was delighted that a good portion of the notes were taken from my book, The Classical Squeezebox, and that my name was acknowledged. I only wish they would have spelled my name correctly! (Is DOKTORSKI so hard to spell?)
2. The other and far more significant criticism is the equalization of the left hand: the bass frequencies are boosted up to such an extent that the instrument hardly sounds like an accordion anymore. Any accordionist knows that the left hand sound is notoriously lacking in depth due to the inability of accordion manufacturers to squeeze correctly proportioned reeds into the bass mechanism. We know from elementary physics that the larger the object, the slower its vibration. The top notes of a concert grand piano, for instance, are produced from strings only a few inches in length, while the bottom notes are produced from strings nine or ten feet long. The upright and console pianos lack in the low frequencies because to save space manufacturers have to cram in strings which cannot exceed a few feet in length. What one gains in space one loses in sonic depth.
The accordion is like an organ. The top notes of a pipe organ are produced from pipes only an inch or two in length, while the pedal notes are produced from pipes between sixteen and 32 feet in length. (Really grand organs have bass pipes which measure in at 64 feet!) For an accordion to have an authentically deep bass, it would need to have reeds more than a foot long. This is impractical, although it is possible to put large bass reeds in a harmonium. This is why the harmonium has the deepest bass notes of all the free-reed instruments.
The accordion manufacturers get around this law of physics by soldering heavy weights on the ends of the bass reeds to slow down their rate of vibration. This lowers the pitch, but weakens the fundamental frequency.
For decades accordionists have tried to compensate for this by amplifying their instruments with contact microphones inside the instrument; one set for right hand and one set for left hand, both with separate tone controls. In this way they can artificially increase the depth of their bass notes. I have heard that Charles Magnante never played without an amplifier. I suspect he was embarrassed by his instrument's unaltered bass sound.
Using an amplifier and altering the sound of the instrument may be acceptable for jazz accordionists, but classical accordionists should beware of changing the timbre of their instrument on a recording solely for the sake of what they think will be a more pleasing sound. Barberena's instrument sounds bottom heavy on this recording. I don't deny that it is a pleasing effect, but it is not authentic. If a listener first hears Barberena's recording, and then hears him live in concert, the listener may be disappointed by the tiny sounds coming from the left hand in real life. I think it is best to be honest and present the accordion for what it is, despite its limitations. This was also discussed in a review of Friedrich Lips De Profundis and Et Exspecto CDs by Paul Magistretti.
At the risk of offending some readers, I will propose an analogy. The practice of artificial enhancement can be applied to other arts as well, such as the art of female breast enlargement. What is more important, size or authenticity? Is bigger really better? Barberena's bass sounds like a triple D; attractive certainly (and perhaps even sexy), but extremely exaggerated.
I believe, regarding the art of the classical accordion at least, that it is better to present one's instrument to the public free from electronic effects such as boosted bass equalization, as long as the composer does not specifically call for such sonic enlargements in the score.
Despite this criticism of Barberena's artificially enhanced bass, I believe most listeners will enjoy this rare treat of music from Mexico. It is really a pleasant surprise.
The comparison between the enhanced bass and mammaries was humorous—I
laughed out loud when I read it! :-)
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