Spanish maestro scores every time in something of a game of two halves.

Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

July 18, 2014


There’s no doubting the flair and talent of Brazilian guitarist and composer Yamandú Costa. His ability to put across his own music was clear, particularly in his charismatic solo set. Yet, when a dapper Pepe Romero, at 70 looking and sounding better than ever, took to the stage in the second half, you couldn’t help feeling it was a case of less adding up to more.

First things first. Costa is a master of the violão de 7 cordas (the Brazilian seven-stringed nylon guitar). Dwarfed on the huge Festival Theatre stage, his heavily amplified, meaty sound nevertheless filled the auditorium and he played with great confidence and an impressive musical flamboyance throughout. That sound, however, was on the bass-heavy side, which rather negated the pleasure to be had in seven strings, and left you wishing you could hear him unplugged.

Costa at play brings to mind a gifted teen noodling away in his bedroom. His impassioned riffs, quick fire manual dexterity and occasional vocal meanderings were engaging. He has a cheekiness to his manner too that was infectious, nonchalantly tossing one leg over the other as if to say, “I can do this standing on my head”. A natural clown, he quipped about the pleasures of beer and kangaroos – the latter becoming the ad hoc title for an as yet unnamed new composition.

If some of those solo compositions are on the forgettable side, perhaps with Costa it’s a case of “it’s not what he does, it’s the way that he does it.” He completed the first half with his orchestrated Fantasia Popular, a three-movement suite of pleasant, filmic music, none of which stays with you for very long. The amped guitar here tended to swamp the strings of the Adelaide Art Orchestra (though not the brass, who in the first half sounded a bit rough and ready). Costa played his part with style, but the constraints of an ensemble took the improvisational edge off of his performance. It felt afterwards as if the audience would have preferred another solo set.

The second half, on the other hand, couldn’t have been bettered. To be honest, the world’s greatest living classical guitarist playing the world’s most famous guitar concerto sounds like a win-win. But if you haven’t seen him live, and if you’ve never heard Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez in the flesh, you really should. Both are an object lesson in how to make your musical points with grace, style and immaculately controlled passion.

From the first memorable chord of the instantly recognisable concerto there was a sense of being in the presence of a master. Romero, dapper in black and grey suit complete with watch chain, was commanding, relaxed and focussed in turn, smiling at the audience in orchestral sections and nose to the fretboard at moments of musical complexity. It’s easy to forget on recording just how virtuosic a work this is, with it’s demanding solo part. You also forget just how beautifully crafted it is with its delicately touched-in orchestral details and exquisite balance between soloist and orchestra. The Aranjuez is the perfect match of content with form – a stark contrast, coming as it did back to back with Costa’s less memorable, rhapsodic work. And Romero’s amplification was just right, allowing the burnished colours of his instrument to blossom naturally under his deft fingers.

The orchestra under Brett Kelly were on much better form here, with some lovely woodwind contributions – how daunting it must be to play the cor anglais solo at the opening of that famous adagio knowing that it will be taken up by Pepe Romero. The soloist’s dynamic shadings, and his moulding of Rodrigo’s beautifully judged phrases were a masterclass in control and technique. And how perfectly highlighted were those strummed chords (never as harmonically pure as you imagine them to be). A rapt cadenza led into the scampering, yet stately finale, Romero’s sparkling divisions clear as a bell over Rodrigo’s dazzling orchestration.

For his solo set, Romero stuck to the greats. A perfectly paced, never overdone Asturias with a terrific sense of communion in the central section; a reflective trawl through Turina’s Fantasía Sevilliana; and a turn-on-a-dime reading of Tárrega’s flamenco inspired Capricho Árabewas. He wound up with his father’s engagingly melodic Fantasía Cubana, with its astute awareness of the guitarist’s technical armoury and bag of tricks including a remarkable ‘upside down’ final dash.

Romero plays again at tonight’s gala and he has a masterclass tomorrow morning that no budding guitarist should miss. One word to sum up? Legendary.

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