Strings Attached (Andrew Polmear): http://www.stringsattachedmusic.org.uk/coffee-concert-29th-january-2017-review-andrew-polmear/#more-1828
I was astounded by this concert. I don’t know enough about the guitar or the repertoire to write about them knowledgeably. But Sean Shibe’s performance was enough to sweep away what preconceptions I had, both about the limitations of solo guitar and about the mediocrity of some English 20th century composing.
These preconceptions did not apply to the Dowland whose work I know and whose melancholic songs I love. But I have never heard him approached with such tender introspection. Every note was beautifully tailored, every phrase shaped with such delicacy. At times Shibe would set up a dialogue as though playing two instruments, not one. And what brilliant programming – to open the concert with a Dowland descending six note scale and to close it two hours later with a similar figure as Dowland re-imagined by Britten.
So, how about the Malcolm Arnold, William Walton and Lennox Berkeley? Shibe referred to the Arnold Fantasy as dark and cynical (amongst other things) but then played it even more interestingly than that: deep rather than dark, tender rather than humorous. Again it was the introspective approach, quiet, careful and so expressive, that brought the piece alive. Shibe admitted that the Walton Bagatelles were not as well written for the guitar as the Arnold Fantasy but then played them with such conviction that I, for one, couldn’t tell. Even his slapping of the strings in number 3 – Alla Cubana – was more a caress than a percussion note. And the Berkeley Sonatina was the same – it’s mood changing from lively to sad and back to lively again.
Introducing the Britten Nocturnal, Shibe advised us, among other things, to be like the blind Southern Baptist preacher reading the Old Testament and, if we found it difficult, to listen “with faith”. It is difficult, so full of changes of pace and mood, with no temporary refuge in melody or repetitive rhythms. It’s a piece that needs an extraordinary musician to communicate its complexity with love, and this is what we had. When, in the final movement, the Dowland theme on which it is based was revealed, an extraordinary concert came to the prefect end. Except that Shibe played an encore, more traditionally Spanish than anything we had heard so far, but still played with the tender caress that by then we had come to know.
I have to mention the short talks that Shibe gave between pieces. He has the same ability in words to capture the essence of a piece that he does in music. He talks as though he’s thinking it through for the first time – as though he’s never seen it quite like that before. Is this really possible? He must have played, and talked about, these pieces many times before. Well, so what? I liked the informality that it brought to proceedings. And I really liked the way he brought in comments even from the world outside music.
Andrew Comben took a risk programming Shibe into our chamber concert series. Except, of course, that he had already heard him and knew there was no risk at all.