Bridgewater Hall 15th November 2010
Guitarist John Williams has carved out a unique route in guitar music with his espousal of Latin American folk forms and this was to be an evening in which this was demonstrated to the full with the occasional eclectic selection from central Africa thrown into the heady mix. Williams is a self-effacing personality and took to the stage in humble fashion before briefly explaining the repertoire for the evening. Clearly the educational aspect of the music is a key ingredient to his live performances and the audience greatly appreciated the immediate rapport struck up with them. The evening’s music began with the highly rhythmic five preludes from Brazilian composer Villa Lobos, with the third being particularly melancholic in nature. Anyone with an interest in contemporary Brazilian music would do well to listen to these. They were seminal pieces in the musical education of the originator of bossa nova, one Antonio Carlos Jobim. Williams cuts a lone figure on stage, with left foot perched on a stand while he caresses the guitar strings with all the delicacy that one might expect of a true guitar maestro. The music speaks for itself and requires no visual embellishment. From Brazil the music shifted towards the Caribbean and more specifically to Cuba. Composer Leo Brouwer is one of the most prolific among contemporary composers and is noted particularly for his work on film scores. Williams has long appreciated the more challenging ‘El Decameron Negoro’ that Brouwer wrote during the 1970s. While the piece may not be as immediately as compelling as Villa Lobos, it is ultimately equally, if not more satisfying. The piece reaches a dramatic crescendo with a flurry of notes and Williams evidently admires the fact that Brouwer is himself a guitarist (though sadly arthritis has deprived us of hearing the composer himself deliver some of his own compositions) and this enhances the former’s appreciation of the piece significantly. In general John Williams has done a sterling job of promoting lesser known composers from other parts of the globe and this is, perhaps, best illustrated by the composition ‘O Bia’ by the multi-talented singer-songwriter, novelist and composer from Cameroon Francis Bebey.
For the second half of the evening after a brief interval, Williams showcased one of his absolute favourites composers from Paraguay, Agustin Barrios. Throughout the pieces there is a joyous feel with themes that follow a distinct call and response pattern and even a quasi-Carribean and in places calypso ambience. Williams delights in recounting some of Barrios’ life before tackling ‘La Catedral’. This is a beautifully paced number and highly melodic at that. The performance by Williams is quite simply exquisite. A brief rendition then follows of ‘Julia Florida’ which is a deeply romantic piece and with a certain amount of repetition used. This then leads into two waltzes, ‘No. 3 and 5’ which are taken at a more rapid tempo and are multi-layered with Williams intricately weaving in and out of the notes here. In particular the second waltz features different movements within the same piece and is something of a melancholic lament. The piece ends to rapturous applause from the ever appreciative audience. For the final Barrios number, ‘Dream in the forest’, Williams is perched on the edge of his chair and the piece has something of a regal feel to it. Polyrhythms abound on this number and merely serve to remind the listener of Williams’ virtuoso level. It is a musical challenge he is more than up to and there is astounding deftness of touch on the guitar. As an encore Williams plays three short separate pieces. The first is romantic and from the pen on Spanish composer Albeniz with an intoxicating rhythm. The others, in contrast, are delivered at a much quicker tempo with mucho gusto. The guitarist departs stage after an enthralling evening’s craftsmanship.