Alan Cooper reviews soundfestival 2018: Ian Watt & Paul Livingston


IAN WATT: Guitar

Sunday 4th November, 2018

Both the first and final concert in this year’s soundfestival took place in the Barn, Banchory. These were very different events covering, in a sense, the huge range of musical styles that sound encompasses. Today’s programme, performed by viola player Paul Livingston and guitarist Ian Watt, both of them virtuosi on their chosen instruments, included two pieces by earlier composers in transcriptions for today’s two instruments, along with three works by contemporary composers. Two of those contemporary writers, John McLeod and Edward McGuire, are numbered among the first rank of Scottish composers today. It was a particular pleasure to welcome them to the Barn so that they could regale us with a few words pre-performance about their very different works. When I was a young student in the early 1960s, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 – 1767) was just emerging from obscurity to join the front rank of Baroque composers. I remember singing in one of his St Luke Passions (Telemann composed forty Passion settings) in St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Carden Place. The tenor singing the part of the Evangelist was none other than the late Philip Langridge. He was just out of college. A few years later we could not possibly have afforded him.

I mention this because the opening work in Sunday’s concert was a transcription by José de Azpiazu (1912 – 1986) for guitar and viola of Telemann’s Sonata in a minor TWV 41:a6. I suppose that because the transposition was by a relatively modern Spanish composer and that Telemann was only rediscovered in the 1960s, this lets Telemann into sound even if just by a whisker. In any case, since the viola was this year’s featured instrument for sound, this gets Telemann right in.

Although in a sense the guitar was the accompanying instrument for the viola which had the featured part, nonetheless, in many sections of the work, the duo were given equal value. In any case the balance achieved by the two players was matchless – what an absolutely lovely sound. The third movement marked Soave was exactly that, with clear guitar chords and singing viola playing. The opening Largo had the viola as the foreground instrument but the guitar provided the backbone of the music. The two Allegro movements were energetically played.

The pieces by our two Scottish composers followed the Telemann piece. John McLeod told us that ‘Ariadne’s Thread’ from Three Mythical Pieces (2012) is a musical narrative of the story of the Greek myth of the Cretan princess Ariadne who gives Theseus a thread when he goes into the labyrinth and slays the Minotaur. The thread leads him out of the labyrinth again and he is saved. The music, McLeod told us, is about finding ones way in and then out again – just follow the threads of the music. There was indeed a thread of melody against broken chords in this solo guitar part but what really impressed me was the fact that this music was superbly well-crafted as a guitar piece. Just listening to it and watching Ian Watt’s superb performance without knowing any background you would assume that this composer had been brought up playing the guitar. Its technical creativity matched anything by Tárrega or Albéniz, I thought, but McLeod came relatively late to composing for guitar and as far as I am aware does not play the instrument. Isn’t that amazing?

Before the performance of his piece ‘Fast Peace III’ (1982) Edward McGuire told us that his piece dealt with the worries about nuclear war before the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by Gorbachev and Reagan. Now of course with Putin and Trump in charge, Eddie McGuire’s piece is very much up to date again today. He explained that there were elements of minimalism in his music but these were not there for their own sake. They helped build the tensions, edginess and nervousness in the music. There were powerful chords on guitar and some advanced techniques on viola. In describing this music I would say that it gave us ‘precisely what it said on the tin’. Perhaps copies should be sent to two world leaders I can think of.

The final work in the first part of the concert was the ‘Cadenza for solo viola’ (1984) by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. It comes apparently from within his Viola Concerto. Is this really what happens in the concerto? It would seem to be rather long for a normal cadenza. Has it been expanded in order to make this independent concert piece. Like most cadenzas it put the soloist to test in a technical sense. Full of complex challenging virtuosity, it shone the spotlight on Paul Livingston’s wonderful abilities as a viola player. The piece itself was up there in a modern sense with any of Bach’s solo works for unaccompanied violin or cello.

The second half of the concert was devoted to just one piece. This was Schubert’s ‘Sonata in a minor, ‘Arpeggione’ D 821’ in a transcription by Walter Feybli and Konrad Ragossnig. These two arranger/composers are usually associated with guitar music. The Arpeggione, as Ian Watt explained, was a kind of cross between a guitar and cello. Like a guitar, it had fingerboard frets and six strings similarly tuned but it was held and bowed like a cello, similar to the bass viola da gamba. It was invented by two Viennese instrument makers Johann Georg Stauffer and Peter Teufelsdorfer. Schubert’s piece was the only well known work for the instrument but it is now usually played on cello or viola. In the past I have heard several performances on cello but today’s concert was the first time I had heard it on viola. As Ian Watt said, he was going to play on the guitar the part that is normally given to the piano.

I really enjoyed this performance. The jaunty viola tune is repeated throughout the extensive opening movement so much that it was in danger of becoming an ‘earworm’. There was one delicious moment though where a key change coincided with pizzicato on the viola and the tune moving to the guitar. In the middle slow movement, the full singing voice of the viola was outstanding. I felt I had really got to know the instrument. The final movement had many similarities to the opening and our two performers played it with matchless elegance – a rather extraordinary ending to the soundfestival which had opened ten days earlier with some very different music.

comments powered by Disqus