Guitars at Old St Paul’s Lunchtime concert

Guitar music by Andrew York, Radames Gnatali, Brahms, Piazzolla, Paulo Bellinati

Wellington Guitar Duo (Christopher Hill and Owen Moriarty)

Old St Paul’s, Tuesday 8 September 2009

The guitar is not, perhaps, an instrument that you think of as devotional, adapted to what you do in a church. In fact, however, the delicacy and subtlety of this string instrument sits very comfortably in a fairly small church, especially one with such architectural and historic beauty as Old St Paul’s. The guitar, after all is a close relative of the lute and its keyed descendants such as the clavichord, harpsichord or spinet.

To its disadvantage is the relatively small repertoire of music of more than a century old, and the dominance of much of its recent repertoire by Hispanic dance music, not to mention the universe of popular music. We are not used to thinking about guitar music as being as important or as valuable as that of instruments more central to western European music tradition.

So it is common to fortify programmes with arrangements of acknowledged classical pieces: on this occasion the candidate was the Andante, Theme and Variations movement from Brahms’s String Sextet, Op 18, one of his best loved works, and music that, through John Williams’s arrangement, sounded extremely well on two guitars, overlooking those parts in which your mind’s ear longs for the low sonorities of a viola and cello. Its gently shifting harmonies seemed to be just what a sensitive guitarist would choose, though a repeated accompanying figure became monotonous in the fourth variation.

The programme of Christopher Hill and Owen Moriarty began with a piece by United States composer and guitarist Andrew York. His Sanzen-in was inspired by the ancient temple and garden in Kyoto which, with gently syncopated rhythms in common time, evoked a past but not perhaps a Japanese past; the flavour was generalized Latin rather than Asian.

The rest of the programme was of South American music: by two Brazilian composers, Radames Gnatali (two pieces from his Suite Retratos) and Paulo Bellinati. Gnatali was born in 1906 in Porto Alegre (get out your atlas) and his four movement Retratos was composed in 1956 and arranged by the composer for many different solo instruments and ensmbles . The beguiling waltz, Ernesto Nazareth, recalled music like Granados’s Valses poeticos, with its attractive rubato and dreamy character; the second, Chiquinha Gonzaga, presumably named for a musician friend, exercised the two players’ rhythmic dexterity.

Bellinati’s Jongo ended the recital. Written in 1978, using one of the many Brazilian dance rhythms, it has become a standard in the guitar repertoire, and the duo’s performance was highly accomplished.

There were two very contrasted pieces by the famous Argentinian, Astor Piazzolla (which Christopher Hill explained he had transcribed from a recording because of difficulty in obtaining scores – one hopes, not just to avoid paying royalties). One, Zita, was one of his characteristically elaborate and complex tangos where one admired the players’ ensemble through the spiky, unpredictable rhythms; the second was Whisky, and indeed created a feeling of happy disorientation.

A programme of this kind made me aware both of the riches that the past half century have brought to the guitar repertoire and the depths of (at least my) ignorance of the world of Latin American music, apart from the few obvious names. Would it have been a good idea to have used a recital like this to elevate this music, by its presentation, to the status of a comparable recital of European classical music, with documentation in the shape of informative programme notes about the composers and the music?

It seems a shame to perpetuate the impression of guitar music, and Latin American music generally, as light-weight and not worthy of musicological attention, by not offering background material of interest to a (let us assume) musically cultivated audience such as comes to these concerts.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *