S&H Concert Review

Arthur Butterworth Guitar Concerto Craig Ogden (guitar)/Leeds Symphony Orchestra/Martin Binks. Notre Dame College, Leeds. 19 November 00 (PC)

British Composers such as Stephen Dodgson, Malcolm Arnold, Richard Rodney Bennett, Lennox Berkeley and Denis ApIvor have all written guitar concertos but the idea of Arthur Butterworth contributing to the genre seemed remote. He has proved his ability to write successful, idiomatic concertos for violin, viola, cello, organ, bassoon and trumpet, yet the guitar appeared to be outside his usual means of expression. Its plangent sounds would seem to be alien to a composer more at home in the milieu of the brass band and used to looking North rather than South for inspiration.

The success of Arthur Butterworth's new Guitar Concerto may be due to his idea of meeting the genre halfway. There is an unmistakably Spanish flavour to the writing. Indeed, the concerto is inspired by the ancient rituals of the Inquisition and its spirit which has haunted Spain down the centuries. In its many introspective moments, the work is almost an Expressionistic embodiment of the very soul of Spain.

The brooding, substantial first movement is marked Lamentoso e piangevole and conjures up images of inquisition as the soloist is challenged by implacable statements from the full orchestra. These monumental, dark tuttis are reminiscent of the tragic main theme from Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica, a strange connection, yet both pieces deal with elemental, terrifying and ultimately destructive forces. The descending lines for cor anglais and trumpet and a motif for celesta create a palpably desolate atmosphere. The revelation of the piece is the writing for guitar: whilst never reminiscent of Rodrigo, for example, Arthur Butterworth imbues the soloist's part with a brooding and sorrow which reflects Spain as clearly as Venice is evoked in his Concerto alla Veneziana. The guitar part sounds at all times comfortably under the fingers of the soloist.

The second movement, marked Presto - fuggevole e con malizia, is a brief, quicksilver Scherzo in which the guitar is pursued by the lower strings. The woodwind provide the malice of the title, souring the textures as mockingly as they do in Rodrigo's Fantasia Para un Gentilhombre, though in the brass-friendly acoustics of the Great Hall, these biting woodwind interjections were occasionally difficult to distinguish. The Scherzo leads without a break into the Adagio, a reflective movement in which the soloist ruminates with extended cadenza-like passages whilst the strings remind the listener that the conflicts of the earlier movements are still lurking in the background. In this movement especially, one missed the depth and sonority of a professional band of players but the quality of the string writing was evident.

The conflict is all but blown away by the joyous Allegretto con moto Finale, which seems to bask in Spain's sunny climate. Allowing the solo instrument a greater degree of unrestrained virtuosity, the composer appears to be suggesting that the unquenchable spirit of humanity in Spain can overcome the dark spectre of the past. It does so logically via the dance: there are punchy Spanish rhythms in this Finale and the sound of tapping on a woodblock conjures up images of flamenco dancers. The ending is abrupt and almost arbitrary as if the dance of Life goes on whether the music stops or not!

Arthur Butterworth's Guitar Concerto is a considerable achievement. At over thirty minutes' duration and taking its Inquisition theme seriously, it is certainly not a lightweight piece. One of the composer's most personal works, it also enshrines the very essence of Spain. Though there are some passages of familiar Nordic brooding, they are subsumed beneath the overwhelmingly Latin temperament of the work. The tired cliché of Arthur Butterworth as a painter of purely Sibelian landscapes is laid to rest in this complex concerto. Australian-born soloist Craig Ogden, aided by a microphone, played with passionate conviction and musicality and the Leeds Symphony Orchestra under Martin Binks gave impressive support, though the brass tended to dominate the textures: a pity, since the writing for strings and woodwinds is especially fine in this piece. I hope it will not be long before the work receives its professional première where all the subtleties of the score can be realised. The concerto's atmospheric nature and broad range of expression suggests it could become one of its composer's greatest successes.

Paul Conway

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