Review / Rapturous concert of Spanish music

Music / “Boccherini’s Guitar”, Australian Haydn Ensemble, directed by Skye McIntosh. At Albert Hall, May 31. Reviewed by TONY MAGEE

Cellist Anton Baba.

ONE of the many luxuries of listening to an early music ensemble playing period instruments, or copies there-of, is that one hears the individual players more distinctly.

Each of these fine instruments, with their players, has a unique and beautiful sound and while the ensemble is homogeneous, the glorious tonal qualities of each instrument are deliciously apparent. Such was the case in this wonderful evening of Spanish or Spanish-inspired music.

Beginning with Boccherini’s “String quartet Op. 26 No. 4 in A major”, the playing was relaxed and cantabile, sometimes voluminous, always sensitive. Intense musical chemistry flows within the group: knowing glances, smiles and nods, all communicating phrasing, cadence points, tempo and a myriad of other musical nuances. The piece was beautifully ornamented in the early classical style and absolutely charming.

Porro’s “Grand Trio extrait de Mozart for guitar, violin and cello” is an arrangement derived from Mozart’s “Violin Sonata K.304 in E minor”. The performance was a tapestry of musical colour, modal changes and abrupt dynamics shifts. Incredible ensemble playing from the trio captured the drama and at times, sadness of the piece, to deliver a performance of intensity.

The second half of the program began with Fernando Sor’s “Introduction and Variations on a theme by Mozart, Op. 9 for solo guitar”, a piece full of lightness, freshness and delicacy.

Guest artist Simon Martyn-Ellis extracted soft, lute-like qualities from his guitar. He chose a dynamic range of varying degrees of pianissimo – almost reminiscent of accounts of the piano playing of Chopin – which served superbly to contrast the penultimate chord which was a grand fortissimo, followed by the most delicate strum for the final chord. A stunning effect that delighted the audience.

Haydn’s “String Quartet No. 51” is a musical depiction of “The Seven Last Words of Christ our Saviour on the Cross”, although the string quartet version is cut down to just four movements. The introduction is majestic and grandiose – Christ’s beating heart is strong, almost defiant. In the seventh and final sonata, first and second violins play an exquisite duet over an ever-fading pulse interspersed from the viola and cello. It is in a major key and seems to suggest the conflict between the failing body of Christ and the joyous inevitability of rising to join God. The piece was beautifully and movingly portrayed in this performance, arguably the centrepiece of the entire concert.

The final work for the evening was the Boccherini “Guitar Quintet G.448 and Fandango in D minor”, quintessentially Spanish and offering a showcase for guitar and cello. The final fandango movement is a dance rhythm distinctive for its exotic and sensuous driving Spanish pulse. A true delight, evoking rapturous applause from the audience.

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