Gunter Herbig at Old St.Paul’s – the next best thing to a siesta……

Gunter Herbig (guitar)

Music for guitar from South America
Works by Reis, Piazzolla, Fleury, Barrios and Pernambuco

Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon,

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Gunter Herbig strode into the performing-space of Old St.Paul’s radiating waves of energy and purpose, as if he was about to perform some kind of feat considerably more spectacularly death-defying than give a guitar recital of music from South America. He thanked us all for “braving the elements” in coming to the church to see and hear him play, and hoped that we would, by the end of the concert have thought it all worthwhile.

Herbig is a native of Brazil, born of German parents, who spent much of his childhood in Portugal and Germany. Having such a cosmopolitan cultural background, has, he reckoned, given his music-making an interesting and personalized mixture of influences which he treasures. He certainly gave every indication throughout  the concert of “owning” the music he played, communicating to us his regard for the sounds as having a living value.

By way of telling us both about the music on the programme and the circumstances of his getting to know it, Herbig made the works come alive both as sounds and as evocations of places and moods and ideas. His anecdotes, filled with information and spiced with droll humor, gave each work a richer context  that enhanced our understanding of the pieces. And his playing had all the character and virtuoso skill that the music required to “speak” to us.

Herbig began with two works by Dilermando Reis, perhaps the most well-known Brazilian guitarist of modern times, one who performed the compositions of JS Bach, Barrios and Tárrega, as well as his own and other works by Brazilian composers. Reis recorded many of his own works, among them the second of the pair of waltzes that Gunter Herbig played today, Se Ela Perguntar. 

First up, however, was Ternura, a lovely, quixotic work, filled with insinuation and sensuous figuration, having a kind of spontaneous, almost unpredictable course. The second work I thought rather Chopinesque, or perhaps a Latin American version of the same, alternating between physical and emotional, purpose and reflection. Both were winningly-voiced, the player always responsive to the variety between ebb and flow, movement and stasis.

Astor Piazzolla’s music, little-known outside the South American continent until the last decade of the twentieth century, has become synonymous with the distinctive voice and infinite variety of the once-infamous dance, the tango – Piazzolla’s nuevo tango was scorned at first by traditionalists, who objected to his fusion of the dance with both classical and jazz elements, but his radical style eventually won acceptance. Gunter Herbig briefly entertained us with a story of how he encountered Piazzolla’s music for the first time, before demonstrating via his playing of two of the composer’s tangos the extent to which he had been “grabbed” by this music.

First came Adios Noniño (translated, “Farewell, Father”), written in 1959 shortly after the death of the composer’s father. Percussive and timbre-driven at the work’s beginning, free and flexible in rhythm and harmony, the piece seemed to present a sensibility filled with changing emotions, a kind of continuum of instability, but one on an inevitable course towards some kind of awareness as a result of experience. The visceral aspect of the music I found compelling and in places exciting, even unsettling, though I wasn’t sure why on this first hearing, not knowing the work’s circumstances. As a piece of “pure” music it certainly made an effect in Herbig’s hands.

I thought the second tango, Verano Porteño,  a more “road music” kind of work, less inward and circumspect, more “out there” with a stronger rhythmic trajectory that seemed to cover plenty of physical ground. Again the music had a percussive element, the player required, as before, to strike the instrument in different ways, by way of underlining the pulse of things, the music’s heartbeat. Not all of the music was thus enslaved – recitative-like passages and incidental glissandi and other kinds of timbral slides punctuated the flow, the guitar used like a kind of all-purpose folk-orchestra, especially towards the piece’s end, with all kinds of deft percussive touches.

By way of contrast, Gunter Herbig played three more “conventional” tangoes, two by the eminent and much-travelled Argentinian guitar virtuoso Abel Fleury, and one by Paraguyan-born Agustin Barrios. Fleury’s two pieces sounded so “clean” and straight after Piazzolla’s far more discursive worlds of experience, a contrast perhaps akin to hearing music by almost any of Beethoven’s contemporaries next to the former;s late quartets!  However, Barrios’s work Don Perez Freire had a more personalized aspect, the listener imagining some kind of portrait of a kind of Latin American “Beckus the Dandiprat”, somebody worldly-wise and energetic, and perhaps a little garrulous but with real charm to boot – a man, one suspects, well acquainted with the pleasures of dance and movement.

A second piece by Barrios, Julia Florida (Julia Blossoming), a work dedicated to one of his students, Julia Martinez de Rodriguez, was a different kind of portrait, by turns graceful and impulsive, quickilvery and lyrical. Subtitled “Barcarola” it had moments reminiscent of the music of Faure, with a wistfully beautiful melodic line. The program was , in a sense, rounded off by the final programmed piece, written by Joao Pernambuco, a founder of the Brazilian choro style. Pernambuco’s output was virtually salvaged  by people like fellow composers Heitor Villa-Lobos, who transcribed many of the pieces, and later Dilermando Reis, who performed many and recorded several of Pernambuco’s works. We heard the latter’s Sons de carrilhoes (Song of the Bells), an attractively lyrical toe-tapper of a piece, a happy and joyous conclusion to the recital.

However, Gunter Herbig then played for us an encore, by way of sympathizing with the realities of many of us having to return to work from the concert, rather than, as he put it, “taking a siesta”! Of course, our sensibilities had been having a great time cavorting around and about imagined realms where such practices as siesta were part of the daily routine. So we were given Leo Brouwer’s Berceuse (Cradle Song) as an extra moment of magic, a gentle kind of farewelling to this gorgeous array of music.



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