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12th PSMF: Sunday Delights

by Margaret Arnold
Historic church

Melbourne Recital Centre Great Romantics Winner
Miles Johnston, classical guitar

At St John’s, Flinders, on Sunday morning, a sizable audience was treated to an exceptionally fine guitar performance from Miles Johnston. This charming Sunday morning concert is a great example of the way Peninsula Summer Music Festival has forged partnerships with other entities, to the benefit of all. Miles won the Melbourne Recital Centre Great Romantics competition in 2018, and with both the Festival and the Recital Centre being committed to recognising and nurturing young artists, he was given this performance opportunity.

This was not just additional experience for a young performer, but a recital of excellence.

JS Bach’s first violin sonata in a wonderful arrangement for guitar was breathtaking. From the improvisatory opening we were in expert hands, as chords were spread in the slow first movement, to the fugal entries of the second movement, where the entries of each successive voice were so clearly articulated; the gentle and lyrical third movement, and the fast semiquavers of the final movement cascading in the upper strings while the bass effectively underpinned the harmonies. I feel confident that JS Bach would have approved!

Giulio Regondi, a Swiss-born nineteenth century guitarist and composer, was new to me, and his Introduction and Caprice was the work with which Johnston won the Great Romantics competition. The sensitively played Introduction with tastefully romantic ornamentation gave way to the strongly rhythmic Caprice, Johnston orchestrating the melody and accompaniment by way of his variety of tone colours, and with skilful rubato he appeared at one with his instrument. The virtuosic and dramatic finish left us in no doubt about his technical and musical skill.

It was good to hear an Australian work – Richard Charlton’s challenging Threnody for Chernobyl, and a fascinating Introduction and Vivace by Russian composer Nikita Koshkin. A gently romantic Brazilian piece provided the encore which was demanded by the enthusiastic crowd!

Throughout the entirely memorized concert Miles Johnston introduced his items informatively with confidence and poise.

We will hear a lot more from this fine young classical guitarist.

Schubert Songs
Australian Haydn Ensemble and David Greco

A short lunch break permitted a leisurely walk to the Flinders Market, before returning for the final time this weekend to St John’s Church. By 2pm the church was full to overflowing, with extra chairs and people squeezing into their pews to fit in an extra body. There was a buzz of excitement. And with good reason!

The quintet of string players was arranged in a semi-circle with the double bass in the centre, cello then violin 1 to her right, and viola and violin 2 to her left.  The program of Schubert songs, arranged for string accompaniment, was interspersed with four string quintets taken from Felicien David’s Les Quatres Saisons, a collection of 24 miniature string quintets. These works all had something to offer musically, without detracting from the Schubert songs. And they were performed with precision of ensemble, impeccable intonation, musicality, and sense of style.

David Greco entered and took his place in the centre, in front of the double bass, surrounded by the other instrumentalists. Smartly dressed in dark trousers, white shirt and a burgundy vest, he had bare feet. Was that because he’d ‘brought two left shoes to the Peninsula’? He left that possibility unresolved, but otherwise provided excellent introductions to the mostly rather dark songs. Over the course of the concert, he also described the way that using instruments of the period with gut strings, and late classical bows allows for more contrast, as the bow can dig deep into the gut strings. Together with flexibility of rhythm, and use of portamento in the playing and singing, Greco described this as ‘an arsenal of expressivity’. This was certainly apparent with his range of tone colours and shaping of phrases, and singing into the consonants, just as the bows press into the gut strings.

I had thought that I would find the absence of piano too difficult, but in fact I have found a new way to hear these Schubert songs. Hearing other instruments sharing the accompanying lines brings them out for attention in a different way, and I found I was actually hearing more of the music.

We had a good selection from Greco and the Ensemble – Die Götter Griechenlands, Der Jüngling und der Tod, three songs from WinterreiseDer Tod und das Mädchen, and Der Erlkönig.

Greco’s smooth well-centred and supported vocal tone was thoroughly in control of all he sang, and he and the Ensemble worked together superbly. Musicianship of the highest quality and outstanding communication between players, singer and audience made for a memorable concert.

Greco recited The Erlking in English, giving it the full theatrical treatment. As soon as he finished, they launched into the music. It was a breathtaking performance, and the audience erupted in wild applause and shouts. Of course there had to be an encore. But what could possibly follow such a piece? There was only one possibility. An Die Musik proved to be a perfect ending to an excellent concert.

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