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S & H Recital Review

Bach, Granados, Sculthorpe, Venezuelan composers, John Williams (guitar), Wigmore Hall, 22nd October 2003 (MB)

This sold out recital – with tickets more difficult to come by than dinner at the Ivy (as The Sunday Times memorably described trying to get in to the Wigmore Hall) – offered only glimpses of John Williams at his best. Whilst still a mercurial presence on the stage, with a magnetism that is often compelling, it wasn’t always possible to appreciate the concept behind this programme. With the post-interval half given over to miniatures by Venezuelan composers who feature on his new CD, it was left up to the first half to give us an insight into some of the repertoire Mr Williams has become almost synonymous with.

And Bach’s Chaconne is one of them. Formidably difficult though it is (on both violin and guitar) it is also clear that on the guitar it is but a pale example of Bach’s writing at its most inventive. Problems for the violinist are, of course, compounded by the fact that Bach’s writing for quadruple stopping is impossible to negotiate today with modern bowing techniques. So, why, when the guitar is so naturally predisposed to playing quadruple notes, did Mr Williams decide to split the notes into two chords? That uniquely sonorous effect Bach strove to achieve was here dissipated. Yet, dissolving the Bachian sound is what this transcription largely does. Little of the dynamic power emerged, and sustained triple minims were rarely treated as such, especially when it also meant playing a quarter note simultaneously. What was also missing was a certain element of rubato. Whilst Bach’s bowing marks are largely ambiguous, and retain sufficient space for rubato, none of this seems to matter in the transcription. Yet, despite this Mr Williams did achieve a conspicuous clarity to his playing though I imagine the piece has been much better realised than it was here (even by the guitarist himself).

Granados’ Valse Poeticus (another transcription) is a suite of short, contrasting waltzes. Romantic in nature, even recalling Chopin, they are distinctively different in timbre – noble, elegant, serene – and are framed by a seductive theme that culminates in the repetition of the first waltz. Played as sprightly as they were here they cannot fail to charm. Peter Sculthorpe’s Djilile, an Aboriginal theme the composer has used in many of his works, is darker hued and, without being notably inventive, has beguiling humility even if it is by no means radical in its language. Again, the performance was persuasive.

The second half comprised fourteen works by nine composers. However, it might just as well have been a single work by one composer since so little disparity between the composers’ tonal language emerged. Idiomatically, this Venezuelan music was bland with only the pieces by Antonio Lauro showing any sense of individuality. A complete lack of programme notes (there were none about any of the music at all, frankly deplorable for a venue of this stature) seems a blessing given that so much of the music lies beyond critical comment. At the time, however, it was just infuriating.

Ultimately, this was neither a good example of recital programming nor a good example of guitar music at its most challenging and responsive. A recital of Britten, Henze and Takemitsu may not have sold out the Wigmore Hall but it might have offered a better example of what the instrument can do. Yet rarely does this music seem to be played and as this recital proved the easy route can be both dull and uninspiring.

Marc Bridle



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