The Seasons & Winterreise

Adelaide International Guitar Festival 

Dunstan Playhouse. 9 Aug 2012

Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Seasons’ comprises twelve solo piano miniatures – one movement for each month with a characteristic feel that says Russia!  (In his introductory remarks, Slava Grigoryan mischievously suggested to the audience that the piece might have been better named ‘The Months’.) The Seasons was a commissioned work and was composed in instalments, but that doesn’t diminish its charm or significance.  Indeed several of the movements have endured over the years and are well recognised, especially the ‘Barcarolle’ that is June.  The Seasons has been arranged for other instruments but most commonly for orchestra (sometimes accompanied by solo violin) which I don’t think works as well as the original – the material is not, in my view, sufficiently robust or textured for a full orchestral ‘make-over’.  I recall hearing an arrangement for clarinet and piano many years ago, and wished that I hadn’t, but that was probably more to do with the fact that the performance was augmented by a lady of Wagnerian proportions resplendent in a mauve chiffon gown and Dame Edna-ish blue rinsed hair who recited her favourite poem ‘of the season’ at key moments.  I recall that the Barcarolle was welcome respite after her tribute following May! 

So, it was with both interest and trepidation that I sat down in the Dunstan Playhouse to see what the famed Grigoryan brothers would do with it as a guitar duo arranged by their equally talented father Edward. 

I need not have worried.  The result is just superb.  Arguably many of Tchaikovsky’s lilting melodies were made even clearer and more poignant by the elegant and skilful transcription and by the pure musicality, technical acuity and artistry of brothers Slava and Leonard.  As performers they are well suited for duets – one can sense a real and deep connection and understanding between them, something that been forged over the years through hard work and by blood.  Their unison, arpeggiated scales and controlled dynamics were a joy.

The second half of the program featured 14 songs from Schubert’s famous song cycle “Winterreise” sung by tenor Henry Choo and accompanied by guitar duo Oliver Fartach-Naini and Lee Song-Ou.  Again, I was slightly doubtful about a guitar accompaniment – rather than piano – to a tenor rather than a baritone (which is more common) but the result was very satisfying.  Choo clearly understood the material and was able to transport the audience with him on the voyage of self-discovery and resignation that is the Winterreise.  Choo’s technique and control allowed him to sing in sympathy with the tonal qualities of the guitar, and one never overpowered the other.

Having said all that, there were moments in both The Seasons and in The Winterreise where one wasn’t convinced that the guitar was able to deliver fully on what the composer intended.  The guitar does not possess the same sustaining power and spectrum of overtones of the piano, but the arrangements highlighted different aspects of the music, and the result was satisfying.

A vital part of any festival is to explore new ground and new possibilities for artistic expression.  This program demonstrated the versatility of the guitar and I look forward to similar forays into reimagining classical repertoire.

Kym Clayton