Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Guitar & strings; Morgan Szymanski & Benyounes Quartet at Conway Hall

Morgan Syzmanski & Benyounes Quartet
Morgan Syzmanski & Benyounes Quartet
Vivaldi, Paganini, Puccini, Boccheerini, Turina, Escaich, Piazzolla; Morgan Syzmanski, Benyounes Quartet; Conway Hall Sunday Concerts Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019
An attractive programme showcasing different solutions to the challenge of combining guitar and strings

On Sunday 26 May 2019 the guitarist Morgan Szymanski joined the Benyounes Quartet (Zara Benyounes, Emily Holland, Sara Roberts, Kim Vaughan) for an attractive programme of music for guitar and strings at the Conway Hall as part of the Sunday Concerts Series. And beforehand I gave the pre-concert talk, skeching a brief history of the development of the guitar and talking about the music in the concert. This included Vivaldi's Lute Concerto in D, Boccherini's Fandango Quintet, Paganini's Cantabile for violin & guitar and movements from Astor Piazzolla's Histoire du Tango arranged for guitar and string trio by Szymanski, plus music by Puccini, Turina and Thierry Escaich.

We started with Vivaldi's Lute Concerto and in the charming, yet perky opening movement we were aware of the potential balance problems of the original solo instrument, and how imaginatively Vivaldi had solved them. The lovely slow movement featured a nicely sung melody from the solo guitar, and the finale was positively toe-tapping.

Rather suprisingly, the virtuoso violinist Niccolo Paganini was also a guitarist, though he tended to only play it in private.
His Cantabile for violin and guitar (played by Zara Benyounes and Morgan Szymanski) was a lyrical short piece which eschewed the composer's bravura fireworks and veered rather closer to the salon. Next came Puccini's Crisantemi, his only mature piece for string quartet, in a beautifully shaped performance full of lovely dark hues.

Boccherini's guitar quintets were in fact arrangements, by the composer, of pre-existing material yet he does bring in some creative solutions to the challenge of writing for guitar and string quartet. His Fandango Quartet opened with a lively movement where the guitar was largely restricted to accompaniment, creating some striking textures, with the challenging cello part very much to the fore. The lyrical second movement featured the guitar more, whilst the addition of the guitar made the slightly formal third movement a lot less so. So far, the performers gave us music was fascinating and charming, if not specifically memorable. But with Boccherini's Quintet in D it is the final movement which lifts the piece, a lively fandango full of engaging rhythms in which the texture and rhythms of the guitar part really does make the piece. And here the performers brought the work it an exciting close.

The second half opened with Joaquin Turina's Oracion del Torero, a piece of semi-programme music which he originally wrote for a quartet of folkloric instruments, the laud, similar to a mandolin. This version for string quartet showed the music of Ravel, a composer whom Turina knew in Paris, to be very much to the fore. This was an attractively varied piece, with a lovely immediacy to the textures and you wondered why we do not hear more of Turina's music.

Scenes de Bal by the contemporary French composer Thierry Escaich was written in 2001 for strings and inspired by a film about a disused dance hall which comes back to live. The five short movements weave standard dance rhythms with evocative atmospherics which created a modern sense of Geoffrey Toye's The Haunted Ballroom, and Ravel's La Valse was not far away.

The final work in the programme was two movements, 'Cafe 1930' and 'Nightclub 1960' from Astor Piazzolla's Histoire du Tango, originally written for flute and guitar, and which Morgan Szymanski had imaginatively arranged for guitar and string trio, giving us music which was full of invention and colour, whilst managing to evoke both the passion and the melancholy of the tango.

The final concert of the current season of Sunday Concerts at Conway Hall is on 2 June 2019, when pianist Simon Callaghan is joined by friends from a programme of trios by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms. Full details from the Conway Hall website.

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