The Devil’s Trill

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Published: 27th March, 2014

This concert in the Great Performers 2014 series at the Melbourne Recital Centre featured violinist Karen Gomyo and guitarist Slava Grigoryan.  As the final item on a program of music for violin and guitar, Astor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango summarized the nature of the program as a whole. With items by Vivaldi, Locatelli, Paganini, Giuliani and of course, Piazzolla, the audience was taken on a tour of the development of music composed for violin and guitar by the Italians that ended with a cosmopolitan synthesis of tango music. It would be difficult to find better guides than Gomyo and Grigoryan.

For the couple sitting next to me, this was their first visit to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, drawn there by the promise of excellent guitar playing. Although impressed by the venue, they were a little disappointed by a lack of balance between the instruments. The patron on my other side was similarly disappointed with the prominence given to the violin. Even though the title of the concert indicated that this would be more about the violin than the guitar, it is true that the guitar’s basso continuo line in the Vivaldi and Locatelli works tended to reticence against the strongly projected eloquence of Gomyo’s Stradivarius.

Looking a little priestly herself in a chic black cassock-like garment, Gomyo immediately impressed with her mastery of all the technical and musical challenges of Vivaldi’s Sonata in A for violin and basso continuo(guitar), op 2 no 2. The same consummate ease and expressiveness was brought to Locatelli’s Sonata in D minor, op 6 no 12. A flamboyant violin virtuoso, his L’Arte del Violino, a collection of 12 violin concertos containing 24 fiendishly difficult solo Capricci, inspired Paganini’s even more fiendish 24 caprices.

Virtuoso of violin virtuosi and showman par excellence, Niccolo Paganini was also a whizz on the guitar; after all, at the age of three, the mandolin was his first instrument. In the three of his sonatas for violin and guitar chosen for this concert a more equal distribution of material is given to the two instruments.

Perhaps unexpectedly, a gentler more elegant brand of musicmaking was revealed with an emphasis on playful charm. The third of these, Grand Sonata in A, op 53, was a true duet that surely must have satisfied the lovers of the guitar in the audience. Violin enthusiasts would have found their thrills in Paganini’s variations on his Caprice no 24 – a grilling examination of violin technique if ever there was one. Needless to say, Gomyo passed with flying colours. By a strange synchronicity, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini(Caprice no 24) was to be featured by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in sellout performances on the following three evenings.

Slava Grigoryan’s moment in the sun came with Mauro Giuliani’s Grand Overture in A for solo guitar, op 61. Dubbed “The Paganini of the Guitar” Giuliani’s association with Rossini was clearly audible in the profusion of notes and the light-hearted character.Sounding like a whole orchestra condensed into oneinstrument, Grigoryan negotiated this demanding piecewith the authority and style that makes him one of Australia’s leading musicians.

Back together for Astor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango, Gomyo and Grigoryan conjured up the shifting moods of Bordel 1900, Café 1930, Night-Club 1960 and Modern-Day Concert with graceful finesse. From melancholy sweet enough to make your mascara drip into your absinthe, to outbursts of fiery passion, both artists drew upon an armoury of stunning effects to create the seductive and varied world of tango. After such persuasive playing, in some respects it was a pity to have an encore with such a strong focus on the virtuosity of the violin, but the Paganini piece did perhaps form a fitting segue for those about to attend the MSO concert.