Wednesday, 20 November 2019

MUSIC REVIEW: Aquarelle Guitar Quartet - The Stoller Hall, Manchester.

The Aquarelle Guitar Quartet was founded by a group of students at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1999. The members of the ensemble have changed over the years since then, with Michael Baker, Vasilis Bessas, James Jervis and Rory Russell being the current members. Because of personal reasons, Bessas was unable to perform at the concert this evening and was replaced with short notice by Craig Ogden, an original founder of the quartet.

The ensemble members each took a turn introducing and explaining the pieces they performed which was a nice touch and really enhanced the listening experience.

The first piece of the night was an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol. This piece, in five short movements, explores some of the musical traditions of Spain from traditional dances from Asturias in the North – Alborada, to flamenco traditions in the South. Originally written for orchestra, this arrangement cleverly allowed the quartet of classical guitars to present the colours and sounds of the original. What was really noticeable was the intricate work between the musicians – sometimes a line of music would suddenly be continued by a different guitarist, this dovetailing of the melody allowed the sound to move around the stage – on the one hand the melodies were not interrupted and seamlessly passed around, but on the other hand it was clear who had the melody at each time. Percussive effects were added with castanet and maraca sounds imitated through tapping the body of the guitar in different places. Capriccio Espagnol does not have the fun that similar Spanish themed pieces have, such as pieces by Granados or Albeniz, but the fire was certainly there.

The second piece of this half was written specifically for guitar quartet by Philip Houghton. It was explained to us that the Australian guitarist and composer Houghton had a reverse synaesthesia in which on seeing colours or landscapes, he would hear associative sounds. This was a basis for the composition which we heard tonight – Opals. This was in three movements – Black Opal, Water Opal and White Opal. This was a gorgeous piece of work and I really was surprised to find my mind also associating the sounds with the images of these gemstones. The black was not dark or depressive, but regal, lush, complex and rich. Water, a slower movement had an element of flowing but also a sense of expanse, and white was clean and bright. The four musicians really excelled in this piece which had a very contemporary feel. It was a highlight of the night for me, with some delicate playing and fantastic harmonics.

A third piece, Dancas Nativas, by Clairce Assad, was commissioned by Aquarelle. This also was percussive and latin in sound, using sounds from Assad’s native Brazil in a contemporary way. Twisted Samba played with metre, while Reflective Cancao was evocative, harp-like and meandering. A final Mad Baiao finished the suite with a syncopated and stabbing sound that reflected this style of music that would be traditionally performed with a flat double-headed bass drum. The compositional style of this music is clearly that which is informed by musical and rhytmic traditions of Brazil, but structurally has a floaty, evocative and pondering quality to it. The many shifts and changes were meaningfully played by the ensemble.

A break was had during which the four musicians mingled with the audience in the foyer area. Fans were delighted to chat about the music and it seemed that the audience was full of appreciative guitar admirers and musicians.

After the break, another nine songs were performed including some light hearted – but nonetheless impressive – pieces from cinema. An arrangement of a piece from The Motorcycle Diaries – a biographical film about Che Guevara – made use of a Charanga in the quartet. This string instrument is not dissimilar to a mandolin in sound and appearance. Traditionally, it is made from the body and skin of an armadillo. We were assured tonight’s instrument was made from wood. This was another melodically beautiful piece with some delicate melody played on the charanga. This instrument was mentioned by Che Guevara in his diaries and it is thought he knew how to play it. Another film song was from the film Chocolat, an arrangement of Django Reinhardt’s Minor Swing. There was a lot of fun in this song, and indeed the improvisations provided by each member of the ensemble were fantastic. They really were able to get the spirit of the piece across but also show off their skills.

A variety of other pieces were performed – two traditional Balkan songs, an arrangement of a contemporary harp piece by Catriona McKay, a beautifully sad song about the death of a poet and others.

There was a great variety of styles and moods throughout the night which made for a fantastic programme that really engaged the audience. The Stoller Hall was, of course, a fantastic venue to hear this type of music – every detail was so clear and precise, as if you were right beside the musicians on the stage.

An encore saw the quartet alter their strings for a prepared guitar piece that emulated the sounds of the African thumb piano. Although this was a simple effect to achieve, with the use of a paperclip, it was a magical piece to end the concert with.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 19/11/19

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