This concert was originally planned to be performed in 2020, but, like so many performances and events, was postponed. Guitarist Slava Grigoryan has played with the Southern Cross Soloists many times before, so this afternoon performance was a chance for a convivial catching-up of friends through music.

Karol Kowalik, Alex Raineri and Slava Grigoryan in SXS’s Souvenirs de Aranjuez concert. Photograph © Darren Thomas

The concert opened with a set of works labelled as being from the Spanish Baroque, although they were rather different to the pieces mentioned in their promo online. I’d been expecting de Murcia, de Ribayaz, and Matteis, and wound up with two de Murcia pieces and a piece by the (very definitely not Baroque) Mudarra. These were uniformly well played, although the Mudarra’s F# tuning made for a slightly awkward wait while Grigoryan retuned. The set was a pleasant amuse-bouche, if seemingly almost unrelated to the concert proper.

Next was a trio of Debussy Préludes, played by violinist Alan Smith and pianist Alex Raineri, which made a charming introduction to the more jazz-inflected side of harmonies for the rest of the program.

Natalie Nicolas’ new work Secrets, for guitar and chamber ensemble, apparently re-uses parts of an early work of hers. She’s said to Limelight previously that the piece is also “a work that expresses my musical exploration of paying homage to an Icelandic artist that has influenced my compositional voice for a number of years”. I’d love to know who the Icelandic artist was (perhaps Björk? Jóhann Jóhannsson? My money is on Ásgeir, personally), but this was a fascinating work that actually reminded me more so of the textures of Toru Takemitsu, particularly in the way that the guitar part was written. Mercifully avoiding most of the usual guitar-writing clichés, this piece supported and enriched the more well-known 20th-century pieces surrounding it.

Raineri returned to the stage for Ravel’s classic Piano Concerto in G major. Although composer-in-residence John Rotar’s arrangement was, as usual, excellent, I couldn’t help but feel that it was an exercise in futility to try to reduce down Ravel’s detailed, pin-point precise (and very much large-scale) orchestration into a small chamber ensemble. There were several points that fell flat not through any fault of the players, but simply because there weren’t the forces to do it justice – the emphatic full-stop of the bass drum in the opening of the third movement, or the array of percussion that usually enlivens the piece (I missed the electric crack of the whip most of all). A valiant effort, but one that I think really requires Ravel’s original orchestration to work properly.

Finally, Grigoryan returned to the stage for Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez. Like the Ravel, this was played in a reduced form, although the program notes didn’t mention Rotar’s involvement here – was it simply the available orchestral parts, with Raineri chiming in now and then? I’m not sure, but this actually worked much better than Ravel’s piece, with only a few moments feeling anaemic, like the glowing mist of strings that normally concludes the second movement. Grigoryan’s technical skill was most impressive, and in particular in the hair-raising scales that punctuate that same movement. The third movement’s deceptively simple tune still brought plenty of opportunities for guitar fireworks, and some fun ensemble interplay that can be easy to miss in the normal orchestration. With no encore from soloist or ensemble, this made for a pleasant finish to an amiable and enjoyable concert overall.

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