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Songs Without Words
Slava & Leonard Grigoryan (guitars)
rec. 2017, Sing Sing Recording Studios, Melbourne
Details at end of review
Booklet notes in English
ABC CLASSICS 4815101 [53:34]

Ralph TOWNER (b. 1940)
Migration [16:20]
Wolfgang MUTHSPIEL (b. 1965)
Flexible Sky [25:50]
Ian GRANDAGE (b. 1970)
Black Dogs [16:09]
Slava Grigoryan (guitar)
Australian String Quartet (Dale Barltrop, Francesca Hiew – violins; Stephen King – viola; Sharon Grigoryan – cello)
rec. 2016, UKARIA Cultural Centre, Mt Barker, South Australia
Booklet notes in English
ABC CLASSICS 4815428 [58:24]

Associate ‘classical guitar’ with ‘Australia’, and two names should naturally spring to mind: John Williams and Slava Grigoryan. But while Williams is dinky-di and keeps strong ties with his homeland, he has largely made his life and career overseas. Conversely, Grigoryan migrated to Australia from Kazakhstan with his family when he was just five, and built his career downunder. The Williams story is more typical of prominent antipodean musicians, but others have followed the Grigoryan path, including Elena Kats-Chernin, Gerard Willems and William Lovelock, albeit Lovelock returned to his native Britain later in life.

Like Williams, Grigoryan has also had significant parental influence on his chosen career. His father Edward taught both him and his younger brother Leonard the fundamentals of their art, and has collaborated by way of his arrangements as their careers have developed. Indeed, all the works on the Songs Without Words CD reviewed here are guitar duets arranged by Grigoryan senior for his sons.

That said, on initial acquaintance these arrangements may seem overly literal. Indeed, I found the opening Bach, Dvorák and Fauré pieces so plain and ponderous in their delivery that I was ready to bail out and declare the whole disc a non-starter. Fortunately I listened on, and was rewarded, if not excited, by some greater animation and buoyancy in the Grigoryans’ playing. Largely, of course, the charm of these pieces rests with the melodic invention of their composers, and competent execution of any variant will always give some pleasure. Surprisingly successful were the two Elgar miniatures in two-guitar garb, as were the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov confections. The de Falla suite of Seven Spanish Folk Songs had an idiomatic touch, if not the flair that duos such as John Williams & Julian Bream, and Sérgio & Eduardo Abreu, have brought to the Iberian repertoire. The concluding Ponce Little Star rather summarised the whole recital: expressively restrained, played more with secure proficiency than inspiring artistry.

If ‘dinner party music’ springs to mind from my description of this CD, or as a mild stimulant to other pastimes, I wouldn’t argue. Given its near-premium price and modest playing time, and unless you’re a die-hard Grigoryan fan, I can think of many better-value CDs of this kind, in the Naxos guitar series for example, that will at least achieve the same appeal and purpose.

The title of the second CD in this review returns directly to the ‘migration’ sub-text of my introduction, although the liner-note references are largely pictorial. The programme consists of three works by contemporary American, Austrian and Australian composers, the first two of whom are also guitarists and have performed as a trio with Slava Grigoryan. Ralph Towner’s Migration is described by the composer as “a strictly written piece in one long movement, with no improvisation and a use of simultaneous major and minor tonalities”. On listening, the ‘one long movement’ is in identifiable sections, with nearly the first third exploring the tonal landscape in moto perpetuo style, followed by two long passages introduced by ruminative guitar, joined shortly after by the strings, with the musical dialogue developing greater intensity until it dies away in peaceful accord, and indeed the work ends quietly. I found it effective, stimulating, and well played, having the essential quality of sustaining concentration (and, without score, curiosity) throughout.

Wolfgang Muthspiel’s Flexible Sky is characterised as a classical-jazz fusion, and a reflection of its composer’s musical journey. A 4-movement work of nearly half an hour’s duration, I found its ideas and their treatment interesting and frequently engaging, but felt some pruning wouldn’t go astray. Repeated effects such as string glissandi become a little tiresome, but the contrasts of moods, rhythms and harmonies are effectively managed. Then, ending the recital at home, so to speak, Grigoryan and the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) play the work of one of their countrymen, Iain Grandage, whose Black Dogs is in five movements, the title presumably referring to mental depression. Grandage explains that “the guitar is the principal voice ... the mind, introducing material that is then amplified, modified and refracted through kaleidoscopic glasses by the four string players”. Book-ended by a Prelude and Postlude, the work begins and ends quietly, but not without disquiet. The three central movements trace different arcs of agitation and anxiety, the third a swirling moto perpetuo of infectious energy and drive – a tonic for the depressed, if anything! In all, an impressive work.

Grigoryan leads throughout with authority and masterly musicianship. The ASQ, which includes his wife Sharon, join him in symbiotic and sonorous accord. It would be hard to imagine a better showing for all three works. The ABC Classics recording is immediate and truthful, as it also is for the Songs Without Words CD.

My election to review these CDs together clearly had the common factor of Slava Grigoryan, but there was also the tension of the familiar against the new. It’s of no particular comfort that I found the tried-and-trusted fare from the Grigoryan brothers ho-hum and the contemporary works, performance-wise at least, the more engrossing experience. Here of course is the rub: the old favourites can withstand endless doses of the ordinary, while the new and unfamiliar, no matter how well conceived and persuasively performed, will typically struggle for an audience. Slava Grigoryan is an outstanding guitarist, as witnessed certainly by one of these CDs: had you both of them, which would you play more often?

Des Hutchinson

Track listing of Songs Without Words:

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

1. Arioso from Cantata BWV156 [5:20]
Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
2. Songs My Mother Taught Me, Op. 55 No. 4 [4:02]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
3. Aprčs un ręve, Op. 7 No. 1 [3:54]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
4. None but the Lonely Heart, Op. 6 No. 6 [2:08]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
5. Chanson de matin, Op. 15 No. 2 [2:53]
6. Chanson triste, Op. 40 No. 2 [3:07]
Manual de FALLA (1876-1946)
7.-13. Siete canciones populares espańolas [14:31]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
14. Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 [7:01]
Edward ELGAR
16. Chanson de nuit, Op. 15 No. 1 [3:47]
16. Chant sans paroles, Op. 2 No. 3 [3:14]
Manuel PONCE (1882-1948)
17. Estrellita from Dos canciones mexicanas [3:35]



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