Tuesday 30 March 2021

A Healing Fire: Greek guitarist Smaro Gregoriadou in music by Bach, Britten, Gubaidulina & Hetu played on instruments by George Kertsopoulos

Bach, Britten, Gubaidulina, Hetu; Smaro Gregoriadou; DELOS

Bach, Britten, Gubaidulina, Hetu; Smaro Gregoriadou; DELOS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 March 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Music by Bach and three 20th century composer performed on modern developments of the classical guitar

Under the title A Healing Fire on Delos, the Greek guitarist Smaro Gregoriadou performs Bach's Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor BWV 1003, Britten's Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op.70, Sofia Gubaidulina's Serenade and Jacques Hetu's Suite pour guitar, Op. 41. Gregoriadou describes the works in the programme as intending to 'offer encouragement and hope against today’s dystopia and chaos; they explore spirituality, self-knowledge and transcendence, illuminating dark and ambiguous regions of the human psyche with a different kind of light, a different sort of fire.'

Rather than playing a standard classical guitar, on this disc Gregoriadou plays a pair of instruments inspired by Kertsopoulos Aesthetics, a programme by guitar maker George Kertsopoulos which sees to explore and develop the possibilities of the classical guitar.

She starts with Bach's Sonata in A minor for unaccompanied violin in her own transcription and performed in D minor (the key Bach used when he transcribed the work for harpsichord) Gregoriadou's sound is quite bright and up front, and she plays on high-tuned guitar with two pedal mechanisms and scalloped frets.

For those accustomed to the softer sound of the classical guitar in this type of transcription, Gregoriadou's more up front and direct sound world might come as a surprise. Her account of the opening 'Grave' is strong and firm, whilst the 'Fuga' is crisp, firm and quite steady with Gregoriadou making explicit what often has to be left implicit in Bach's original. The 'Andante' is firmly rhythmic with a strong emphasis on the repeated accompanying notes. The concluding 'Allegro' is brilliant and idiomatically guitar sounding.

For the remainder of the disc, Gregoriadou plays on a classical guitar in standard tuning with a single pedal mechanism. Britten's Nocturnal was written in 1963 for Julian Bream and is Britten's only major work for solo guitar. A set of variations on Dowland's Come heavy sleep,  Britten uses a technique which he developed in earlier works such as Lachrmae, Op 48 where the theme on which the variations are based comes only at the very end of the work. So we plunge straight into Britten's intense, contemplative, bitonal sound world. Again Gregoriadou's sound quality is stronger and with more depth than some performers, and the use of the pedal mechanism seems to have an effect on the sustaining of the underlying harmonies. The result is brilliant and intense, a performance which brings out the edgy innovation of a piece which is hardly one of Britten's most comfortable works. 

Sofia Gubaidulina's output for guitar is small, but significant. Serenade is a small solo piece from her youth, dating from 1960. The work opens with a free prelude in almost Bachian style, before developing into something rather intense, pushing both the instrument and the harmonic language.

Jacques Hétu was a Canadian composer who studied in Canada, at Tanglewood with Lukas Foss and at the Paris Conservatoire with Henri Dutilleux. His Suite, Op. 41 from 1986 is the first of his four significant works for guitar. The suite was commissioned and premiered by Alvaro Pierri, and was conceived as a succession of poetic scenes, Prélude, Nocturne, Ballade, Rêverie and Final. The first movement combines Bach's style of free prelude with a 20th-century neo-classical aesthetic, whilst the Nocturne applies a harmonic astringency to a lyrical impulse, vernturing into some dark (nocturnal) corners. The Ballade is no more comfortable, with an intriguing almost bitonal edginess to the music alongside a somewhat romatic impulse. The Rêverie is very much about dark as well as restful thoughts, whilst the Final takes us into a vividly, intense soundworld but then ends with hints of a return to the Prélude

Recording guitars is a very personal business, different players and different engineers can have remarkably varying preferences. Having never heard Gregoriadou playing live, and never having experienced her Kertsopoulos Aesthetics guitars before, it is difficult to get an idea how faithful the recording is but at times the seems to be remarkably intense and close. 

Gregoriadou is clearly a guitarist who, rather than accept the instrument's limitations and repertoire, seems to be constantly questing for new ways of performing and new repertoire. This disc offers new ways of looking at existing repertoire alongside lesser known pieces.

Johann Sebasian Bach (1685-1750), transcribed Gregoriadou - Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 [23:05]
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - Nocturnal after Dowland, Op. 70 [17.27]
Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931) - Serenade [3'06]
Jacques Hétu (1938-2010) - Suite pour guitarre, Op. 41 [15.34]
Smaro Gregoriadou (guitar)
Recorded at Play Recording Studio, Athens, 1 March 2020 and 6 June 2020
DELOS DE3582 1CD [59:10]

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