The Edge, Federation Square
September 6, 2018

Swiss guitarist Christoph Denoth has a reputation for his rich sound and depth of musical expression. His recent resume is impressive: appearances at the BBC Proms, Carnegie Hall, the Berliner Philharmonie, a high-quality selection of recordings with Sigmum Classics, the Salzburg Mozarteum, the Wigmore Hall, and on BBC Radio3, and performances alongside the English Chamber Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain, the Offenburger Streichtrio, and the Sacconi String Quartet. This year, in an Australian debut, he added the dynamic Melbourne Chamber Orchestra to this list, although ill health took away from what promised to be an exciting evening of Spanish music at the Deakin Edge auditorium at Federation Square, Melbourne.

The program consisted of a fascinating array of works for solo guitar, string orchestra, and the ever-popular Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez, which called for an extended chamber orchestra. There isn’t a great deal of chamber music from Spain, and thus Professor Denoth brought his skills as an arranger to Catalan pianist and composer Joaquín Malats’ Serenata Española, while the seemingly ubiquitous Nicholas Buc contributed arrangements of Issac Albéniz’s piano suite, España,and selections from Enrique Granados’ twelve Danzas Españolas. The core was a rich selection of works, full of romance and beauty.

The evening began with Joaquín Turina’s well-known La oración del torero, famously inspired by the vision of a bullfighter praying before an altar before going out to fight, followed by Albéniz’s Leyenda and Torre Bermeja. These are deservedly popular pieces, but are nonetheless technically demanding for any classical guitarist. Denoth was visibly uncomfortable from the outset, and the faster chordal runs and arpeggio passages in higher registers were not sitting well under his fingers.

The MCO joined him onstage for the Malats Serenata Española, a delightful arrangement that showcased the string orchestra’s finesse and passion under director William Hennessy AM, whose stage presence and performance style is always joy to behold. Denoth’s arrangement of Malats’ tuneful, colourful work is elegant and thoughtful – moments of truly expressive musicianship were evident, despite Denoth’s unfortunate poor health. Hennessy then led his charges through the exciting and quintessential Spanish España, which was also a testament to Buc’s talent as a composer and arranger.

The MCO is undoubtedly a professional string ensemble, but its performances are regularly marked by an informality and didacticism that likely stems from its frequent forays into music education and performances for younger audiences. While the music spoke for itself on this particular occasion, Executive Director Richard Jackson was kind enough to offer the AFL scores during the interval – a distinctly Melbourne contribution to the classical concert format.

The second act commenced with three movements from the fiery and playful Granados Danzas Españolas, which is unmistakeably Spanish in spirit and style, combining musical nationalism with Romanticism as it works towards a dramatic finale. Again, it was hard to fault the MCO’s compelling performance.

The final work on the programme was, of course, Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Denoth is no stranger to the work, and his acclaimed 2016 Sigmum Classics recording alongside the London Symphony Orchestra is a masterful and compelling interpretation. It is full of vigour and spirit, a wonderful conversation between guitarist and orchestra full of light and shade. The members of the MCO, extended now with brass and woodwinds, were skilful and adroit, providing a nuanced and artful performance. Although some of the more demanding passages of the Rodrigo eluded the unwell Denoth, the middle Adagio movement was a highlight of the evening, its achingly mournful atmosphere fully realised by soloist and ensemble alike. Here, Denoth’s artistry and talent was more clearly apparent as he extracted a full-bodied tone from his instrument and expertly navigated the slow movement’s familiar melodic contours.

Despite this moment of brilliance, MCO announced Denoth’s reluctant decision to withdraw from the repeat performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday, with well-loved Australian guitarist Slava Grigoryan standing in for him for the concert. Denoth, however, will return with the string orchestra in their regional tour, From Venice to Madrid, between September 12 and 17, including the Feast of Music chamber festival at Daylesford in regional Victoria.

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine