Guitar’s Song and Dance – the old and new worlds of Gunter Herbig

Gunter Herbig – Classical guitar

Music by Luys de Navarez, J.S.Bach, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Douglas Lilburn and Agustin Barrios

Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon

Sunday 29th November 2009

During the nineteenth century Franz Liszt was the greatest exponent of the transcription – he used the piano to help popularise orchestral and vocal music whose performance would have otherwise been confined to places and venues where there were orchestras and musicians able to present the music as written. Another instrument whose range and flexibility made it an admirable vehicle for transcriptions of all kind of music was the guitar – one that Liszt unfortunately never turned his hand to – and during the nineteenth century people such as Anton Diabelli, the Bohemian virtuoso Johann Casper Mertz, and the Spaniard Francisco Tarrega were responsible for guitar versions of music by people such as Mendelssohn, Schubert and Paganini, though the last two did themselves actually write directly for the guitar. It struck me, while listening to guitarist Gunter Herbig give his inspirational concert recently in Old St.Paul’s Church, how versatile the instrument actually was – a good deal of the programme was made up of transcriptions of both songs and works for other instruments, yet the guitar seemed admirably suited to express the music’s essential elements. My point in citing Liszt’s well-known transcriptions for piano at the beginning of this paragraph is to thus draw a favourable comparison with similar kinds of reworkings of music to be played on the guitar.

Gunter Herbig’s programme spanned several centuries and continents, being described as “a musical journey from the Old World into the New World” A small degree of amplification was used throughout the concert, which seemed somewhat obtrusive to my ears right at the start, but one quickly adjusted to a point where it was hardly noticeable. Herbig began with some pieces written by the sixteenth-century Spanish composer Luys de Narvaez, a song “Cancion del Emperador”, and two sets of variations. The song had a wistful and melancholic air, with elements of ritualised movement suggesting dance-steps, while the sets of variations contrasted nicely with one another, the first “Diferencias sobre Guardame las Vacas” cheerful and forthright, the other Diferencias sobre otra parte” more ruminative and varied in voicings and in timbre.

The next item was a transcription by Herbig of J.S.Bach’s Partita in D MInor BWV 1004, written for what the guitarist called “prepared guitar”, which meant that a steel wire was inserted beneath the strings of the instrument to colour the sound. The result was not unlike those throaty timbres one associates with early keyboard instruments of the kind that Bach himself would have been familiar with – the clavichord and the early fortepiano. I must confess that part of me was at first wondering why anybody would want to emasculate the beauty and purity of clearly-voiced classical guitar timbres, but I got used to the sound after a while. The somewhat spectral tones of the doctored instrument certainly reflected something of the turmoil that would have afflicted the composer at the time of writing this music, with the unexpected loss of his first wife. Whenever the playing’s intensity heightened, the astringency of the sound sharpened, so that the more introspective moments, robbed of their intrinsic tonal beauty, took on added poignancy in Herbig’s hands. Best of all was the great concluding Chaconne, whose forthright flourishes just before the return of the final tragic statement of the theme made for wonderful drama and deep expression.

After the interval we heard the Five Preludes of Heitor Villa-Lobos, a guitar classic of its kind, as it were – but one with a difference, here, as Herbig was using a new edition of the work incorporating earlier handwritten manuscripts by the composer of these pieces, featuring differences to those of the published versions commonly known. These are wonderful works, the first a baritone-like aria with a duetted middle section, the second a quixotic dance whose central episode darkens (rather like a cloud crossing the sun) with flurries of chilly breezes, and a third (a favourite of mine) a recitative- like exploration of surrounding spaces, with beautiful progressions reminiscent of Grieg’s Norwegian March from his “Lyric Pieces”. A fourth seems like a nature-piece, declamations with whisper-echoes from great distances, sudden agitations and then silences filling up the remaining spaces, apart from a final strum of farewell, while the last is appropriately a Latin dance, here played with commanding colouration and rhythmic flexibility.

Nobody who knows the voice-and-guitar version of the song-cycle “Sings Harry” should be surprised that Douglas Lilburn wrote for the solo instrument. His “Seventeen Pieces for Guitar” (published in 1975, but written throughout the 1960s and 70s) were composed largely at the instigation and encouragement of guitarist and artist Ron Burt. Gunter Herbig played a set of pieces called in the programme “Six Canzonas” – two of these, including the poignant “Flowers of the Sea” from the “Sings Harry” cycle, were from “Seventeen Pieces”, while the other four were transcriptions of music written originally by the composer for Shakespearean productions in Christchurch in the 1940s. Together, the pieces made a gentle, somewhat melancholic impression, indicative, one suspects of a solitary inner landscape, with wistful, even lament-like melodies, measures and processionals, sparsely accompanied.

It was left to “the Paganini of the Paraguyan jungle”, Agustin Barrios, to disperse the pall of introspection that had been thrown over the proceedings, with a romantic waltz (Vals No.3), played with plenty of charm and rhythmic freedom, and two song transcriptions, “Julia Florida” and “Villancico de Navidad”, whose colour, rhythmic verve and depth of feeling amply demonstrate why some regard Barrios as the greatest of all guitarist-composers. Following his death in 1944 he was neglected by the world at large until a new generation of performers rediscovered his work, and restored his reputation as a composer. Gunter Herbig’s playing, as throughout the concert, brought it all to life with considerable elan and skill, concluding a most successful evening at the wonderful Old St.Paul’s.

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