Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
November 17, 2017

From his first notes, guitarist Andrew Blanch drew the audience in. Performing a programme titled Guitar Music from Latin America and Beyond in the cosy space of the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room, the Sydney-based musician’s sound was soft-edged yet articulate in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Prelude No 3. This was the kind of sound that invites you to lean forward and listen hard, barely breathing so you don’t miss any details of the subtle shading.

As part of the new Classical Guitar Festival Sydney, Blanch – who made his recording debut just last year – presented a performance spanning works from Latin America to Australia, the guitarist delivering sweet arpeggios and gentle harmonics in Paraguayan guitarist-composer Agustín Barrios Mangore’s Julia Flordia and an easy virtuosity in the composer’s springier Vals No 4.

Andrew BlanchGuitarist Andrew Blanch

Raphael Rabello’s Meu Avô (my grandfather) was a sly dance, Blanch drawing a fine tone from muted bass notes, while the guitarist draw out the lyricism of Rabello’s Sete Cordas (seven chords), originally written with voice as a love song to the guitar.

Blanch rounded out the first half of the programme with a suite comprising five pieces from Venezuela. Ignacio Figueredo’s Los Cauaritos kicked the suite off with a sparky start, Blanch’s understated playing nonetheless crisply rhythmic and articulate before Vicente Emilio Sojo’s darkly lilting Cantico shifted the mood into something more contemplative. Two more pieces by Sojo, the lively Galerón and soulful Que no te quiera mis, followed before Benito Canónico’s festive El Totumo de Guarenas brought the Latin American part of the programme to a close.

The second half of the programme was dedicated to the ‘beyond’, with Blanch tackling JS Bach’s Violin Sonata No 1. Bach’s music lends itself well to the guitar – as Slava Grigoryan has proven beyond doubt with his wildly successful recording of the Cello Suites – and Blanch brought his own exquisite musical sensitivity here to the fantasia-like Adagio, the guitar tracing smoother, more textural lines than the violin might. Blanch’s Fuga ­– a movement made famous as a guitar work by Andrés Segovia – was cleanly rendered, his cascades of descending notes particularly beautiful. The Siciliana translated less successfully to guitar, the quicker decay of guitar strings not quite doing justice to the more robust sustain of violin. The vibrant Presto, however, worked a charm, Blanch deftly handling the virtuosic challenges of Bach’s string writing.

Ross Edwards’ playfully rhythmic Marimba Dances (in an arrangement by Adrian Walter), followed the Bach, Blanch’s sound crisp in the first dance, otherworldly in the second dance, the guitar drier than the resonant marimba – but not unpleasantly so, the result crunchier and textural. Unfortunately the fireworks from Midnight Oil in The Domain brought the concert to a halt between movements as the flash and boom of the pyrotechnics filled the Utzon Room for 20-odd minutes. Blanch, however, managed to salvage the mood with the bright syncopated rhythms of Edwards’ final dance, before launching into a colourful performance of Francisco Tarrega’s Carnival of Venice variations, and finally a tranquil encore.

This was a fine concert of sensitive guitar playing, but its strength – Blanch’s subtle musicality and delicate, unamplified playing – also had its drawbacks. While the audience hung on every quiet, beautifully shaped note, you could practically hear people grinding their teeth whenever someone dropped a programme or – even more disturbingly – small change. Nonetheless, a wonderful, intimate concert by a young guitarist to look out for.