Greek guitarist stars in a clutch of her own complex transcriptions of baroque classics.

Hobart Town Hall

April 4, 2014

Hot on the heels of that other successful guitarist of the moment Montenegrin Miloš Karadaglić, comes Greek guitar virtuoso and composer Smaro Gregoriadou. As in the world of conducting, she is one of only a small band of female guitar soloists whose names spring to mind, including Australian Karin Schaupp, and from a previous generation, American Alice Artzt. Along with her countryman George Kertsopoulos, Gregoriado is on a mission to ‘re-invent’ the guitar, by closely studying the history of its manufacture and playing techniques, and adapting them to modern instruments.

Coming modestly on to the stage and by way of demonstration of her work, she played her own transcriptions of a clutch of Scarlatti Sonatas, a Bach Toccata and The Harmonious Blacksmith by Handel – all in keeping with the Baroque stylings of the rest of this fabulous Festival. Also included were a couple of inevitable Spanish pieces, and the only contemporary works in the whole Festival – a piece by Stepan Rak born in 1945, and an encore by the aforementioned Kertsopoulos, who also made the beautiful pinewood instruments.

Gregoriadou is an intense artist, totally absorbed in the music, and she drew us into her intimately quiet world, sometimes battling with the noise of Hobart’s busy Friday night traffic. In her clever transcriptions, she made some of the Scarlatti Sonatas (originally for harpsichord) sound if they had been written for the guitar. I was reminded of hearing the ‘lute stop’ on the harpsichord earlier in the week, and at times just how similar these two instruments can sound. Some of the other Scarlatti transcriptions were less successful, sounding a bit awkward. To finish the first part of this recital, she played the Canarios by Sanz, the tune made popular by Rodrigo in his Fantasia for a Gentleman.

A transcription of Bach’s E Minor Toccata followed, and in this Gregoriadou played freely and very musically, her guitar speaking to us like a singer’s recitative before an aria. The Fugue was technically dazzling, and the audience responded accordingly.

Handel’s famous Harmonious Blacksmith variations were next, and in this she gave a very personal, confidential performance, with many impressive scale passages. Another Spanish show-stopper Antonio Ruiz-Pipo’s Danza replaced the advertised Handel Chaconne. Hearing something written especially for the guitar back to back with the Handel transcription, made it clear where the problem lies: in order to accommodate a keyboard’s worth of notes onto six strings sometimes means bending the rhythm to an unacceptable degree, destroying the piece’s line and rhythmic integrity. A more judicious choice of repertoire may be the solution.

Temptation of the Renaissance by Russian-born Czech Stepan Rak was another real showpiece, starting with renaissance graciousness, and finishing with flamenco flair. As an encore and tribute to both her Greek heritage and her friend George Kertsopoulos, Smaro played and extract from his St John’s Gospel, based on a Greek folk-song.

I was in two minds about this concert. While admiring the astonishing technical facility of this artist, there were uncomfortable moments and slips which do the music itself no service. Although Gregoriadou isn’t particularly young, it reminded me of how I feel about young artists selecting too difficult repertoire for competitions. In some ways I would rather hear one long note played beautifully, than a million scrambled. Though, that said, I am sure guitarists would have been over the moon.