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Haydn, Berkeley, Bach, Ponce: Paul Galbraith (guitar) MKM Mustafa Kemal Center, Istanbul 18.11.2009 (AM)

: Piano Sonata No. 49 in C Sharp Minor, Hob XVI 36 (transcribed by Galbraith)
Berkeley: Theme and Variations Op. 77
J. S. Bach: Cello Suite No.6 in D Major, BWV 1012 (transcribed by Galbraith)
Ponce: Prelude, Variations and Fugue on ‘La Folia Espana’

The second evening in Istanbul Recital’s 2009-2010 season featured a guitar recital by Paul Galbraith. A recipient of many awards around the world, Mr. Galbraith plays what he calls a ‘Brahms Guitar’, an invention he devised together with the late David Rubio. The instrument has two additional strings above and below the normal register and was originally developed to play Brahms’ Theme and Variations Op. 21a. The Brahms Guitar is also commonly referred to as the Cello Guitar because the instrument has a metal endpin that is placed on a wooden box and is held and played vertically like a cello.

Mr. Galbraith has transcribed many solo instrument works for guitar, among the more prominent ones being Haydn Piano Sonatas and Bach violin and cello works. Today’s line-up was equally divided between his transcriptions and works written for the guitar.

The first piece of the evening was Paul Galbraith’s own transcription of Haydn Piano Sonata No.49 in C Sharp Minor: Hob XVI 36. A regrettably seldom recorded sonata –it is even missing from Mr. Galbraith’s own Haydn keyboard sonata transcriptions CD, this is one of Haydn’s mature piano works written in a very unusual key for its time. C-Sharp minor is a key that’s been known to resonate with Romanticism. This piece is not exactly romantic but bears signs of early Beethoven piano music, most notably of his first sonata in F Minor dedicated to Haydn. Apart from its choice of key, the sonata is noteworthy for its prominent contrapuntal structure which was my first thought when I saw the piece on the program. It is difficult for a work relying so much on at least two lines at all times to work on any other solo instrument. To our delight, Mr. Galbraith’s transcription does not only confront the counterpoint, but uses additional devices to bring it forward. Particularly during the Minuetto, I felt like there were two guitars on stage playing in perfect synchronicity. As a whole, the sonata was played at a slightly slower tempo than we are accustomed to hearing on the piano, but considering the intricacy of the music specifically written to be heard on the keyboard, slowing it down allowed the audience hear the subtleties of Haydn’s countless small themes which would otherwise might have gone missing when played on a soft stringed instrument at regular speed.

The evening continued with Lennox Berkeley’s Theme and Variations, Op. 77, a concise work clocking in less than seven minutes. Paul Galbraith gave a short introduction before the piece and explained Berkeley’s French influence. The work’s theme is a simple melody intermitted by chromatic phrases, reminiscent of Britten. The theme’s French character is not immediately audible but as the variations progressed, an aural spectrum evocative of Ravel on guitar started to emerge. This short work showcased a guitarist capable of managing to keep a work in perspective despite the almost sovereign nature of the variations –a characteristic which was showcased in full bloom later in Ponce’s La Folia Variations.

The first part of the recital came to a close with another of Mr. Galbraith’s own transcriptions: this time of J.S. Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite in D Major. This suite occupies a larger range than the other five and therefore is most suitable for the expanded Brahms Guitar. It also features many virtuosic passages, particularly in the well-known Prelude’s long jumps. I have personally always found this suite to be strongest of the six both musically and with regards to emotional impact. In theory, this work in which Bach’s genius in creating counterpoint from a single melody line is very present was supposed to work unequivocally with a polyphonic instrument. However, despite Mr. Galbraith’s technical skills I was not fully convinced with the end result. The guitar’s limitation is in its timbre and my feeling is that it fell short of cello’s vigour in delivering Bach’s intended outcome. That being said, the music improved considerably in the faster Gavotte and Gigue dances. These livelier dances are more suitable for the guitar and Paul Galbraith’s excellent sense of rhythm made these movements feel at home.

The second part of the recital was dedicated to what some guitarists call the ‘Old Testament of Guitar Music’: Manuel Ponce’s Variations and Fugue on ‘La Folia de Espana’. This monumental work, was presented this evening with all of the 20 variations as published in 1930. Mr. Galbraith noted beforehand that Ponce is known to have written more variations which were never recorded. ‘La Folia’, of course, is quite possibly one of history’s most influential themes with literally hundreds of musicians having composed works based on its chord progressions. La Folia de Espana is based on the common theme but it features a more prominent Iberian influence close to its original roots.

The technical difficulties of Ponce’s work can only be imagined by a listener, but Paul Galbraith played the piece with an uncanny ease, often diving from variation to variation without a pause. His finger work in the faster variations and attention to detail in the slower ones were both equally commendable. I must make a special mention of the Fugue, which must be very difficult to pull off following the already lengthy piece. Mr. Galbraith’s polyphonic playing abilities were already featured in the Haydn sonata, but here, polyphony is everything. Ponce’s fugue comes immediately after the delicate 20th variation which almost serves as an introduction and pushes the guitarist to a completely different mindset, separate from the rest of the work. Mr. Galbraith managed to make every pitch heard equally while never losing sight of the ‘La Folia’ theme persistent throughout this wonderful finale.

I would like to extend my thanks to the organizers who have given us the opportunity to hear this wonderful musician and possibly converting members of the audience who do not hold guitar music as part of their top priority –myself included.

Alain Matalon

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