The Boston GuitarFest opened its series of performances on Wednesday night, June 15, with an intriguing concert featuring guitarist Artyom Dervoed in the first half and harpsichordist John Gibbons in the second. The program leaned heavily toward Italian works or Italian-influenced works, as this year’s GuitarFest theme is “Bell’Italia” — in homage not only to Italian contributions to guitar music, but also to Italian guitar maestro and festival keynote guest, Oscar Ghiglia.
Dervoed opened the concert with Leo Brouwer’s transcription of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata K. 208, one of three Scarlatti sonatas he performed that evening. His approach to the work was gentle but self-assured, with a good sense for phrasing. His cadential figures were not overly stylized and helped maintain a good momentum. Prior to the other Scarlatti sonatas, K. 213 and 178, Dervoed inserted Leo Brouwer’s 1968 work Canticum, which, while it makes use of extended techniques, was very “Baroque” it its moments of delicacy. Dervoed’s playing here was very refined, and the pianissimo sections were compelling. In the “Ditirambo” movement, Dervoed slowly developed the misterioso tension of the work but exercised a certain amount of restraint so that the relative modernity of Brouwer’s composition did not awkwardly jut out of the Scarlatti works. Dervoed maintained excellent rhythmic delineation throughout, adjusting the dynamics and articulation during recapitulations, in the Scarlatti Sonatas K. 213 and K. 178, transcribed for guitar by Claudio Giuliani. In K. 178, in particular, Dervoed conveyed the fun and almost folksy character without leaving behind the elegant Baroque phrasing.
Dervoed, who was the 2010 GuitarFest Competition winner, showed great technical skill, particularly in Giulio Regondi’s “Introduction and Caprice”, Op. 23. He deftly maneuvered between the virtuosic nineteenth-century passagework and graceful dance-like sections, demonstrating a more aggressive energy than in any of the other previous works. Toward the end, some of the florid runs seemed a bit rushed, as though he might get ahead of himself, but he maintained just enough control to keep it in check.
Joaquin Turina’s Sonata, Op. 61, originally dedicated to Andrés Segovia, artfully mixes Spanish drama with French sophistication, as indicated in the program notes, but moves in and out of these two styles without warning. Dervoed was fairly seamless in shifting between Turina’s passages, although his fingerwork seemed more labored than in the Regondi. The outer movements are full of flamenco flamboyance, but the middle Andante is comparatively one of repose and quieter moments. Dervoed had a lovely sound here; he caressed each phrase with the same care he brought to the Scarlatti Sonata, K. 208. Even the faster outer movements both featured a lovely “tranquilo” rocking theme that Dervoed seemed to relish in amidst all the fireworks.
Dervoed closed his half of the program with Kevin Callahan’s The Red Fantasy, which, like an Italian ricercare written in an improvisational fashion, opened freely, giving way to a thematic section with little Latin punctuations. While the notes call attention to Callahan’s use of a “‘rock-and-roll’ vernacular,” my sense was more that of wandering through a contemporary art museum while looking at paintings of Velázquez — not quite incongruous, but at times a bit stretched in its attempts to join the two.
The second half of the program started around 9:30 pm, after a longer-than-average tuning session for the harpsichord during intermission. John Gibbons, eager to begin, sat down and immediately launched into his first set of works by Girolamo Frescobaldi. Gibbons’s half of the concert was more coherent in terms of programming, with a clear direction toward the Bach Italian Concerto, BWV 971 via the roads of Frescobaldi and Vivaldi.
In Frescobaldi’s Toccata ottava (Libro primo), Gibbons’s artistry shone; the continuity of his melodic phrasing sparkled with sprightly gestures. The “Corrente” from Balletto terzo, was very much a “corrente” with its Italian sense of ornamentation, but had the underlying gentility of a French courante. Gibbons illuminated madrigal-like moments in the passacaglia of the Balletto. The influence of Frescobaldi on Bach (transmitted via Froberger then Buxtuehude) was most apparent in the Toccata settima (Libro secondo), with its passages of both musical and emotional contrast. The final work of the set was Frescobaldi’s “Partite sopra Follia,” which, as Gibbons observed, is a set of variations on what is known as the “early folia” (also “fedele”) in Italy, as opposed to the “later folia” theme made most famous by Corelli. The program note was not clear on this distinction, so I appreciated his clarification for the audience. Gibbons asserted the theme, but always seemed very aware of the lovely sonorities and rhythmic possibilities of each individual variation.
Bach’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D Major (RV230/ BWV 972) is a fascinating exercise in transcription. Vivaldi’s penchant for perpetual motion and motivic repetition is most obvious in the opening Allegro, and Gibbons delivered a wonderful performance that gave energy and life to each iteration. Although I must admit that I miss the strings in opening of the Larghetto, Gibbons brought forth melodies that twinkled brightly, but never too stridently in the upper registers (and I acknowledge Allan Winkler’s instrument for its part in this). The final Allegro exploded with gaiety and joy, and Gibbons truly transformed the harpsichord into timbral rainbow for the rousing finale.
Bach’s “Aria variata alla maneira italiana” BWV 989, upstages many of its models with its unique figurations. Gibbons exposed the timbral variety through careful attention to articulation and characterization. While at no means in the same field as the Goldberg Variations, these “Italian” variations do demonstrate Bach at his most melodious and are full of contrapuntal ingenuity.
Of course it was the Concerto nach Italienischen Gusto, BWV 971, that was the long-awaited finale for the evening. Gibbons’s performance was engaging, dramatic, technically solid, and emotionally expressive. His carefully controlled sense of tempo in the Allegro never let the impulse of urgency take over. His Andante was indeed an actual “andante,” instead of stagnating on every ornament and cadence, as some pianists do (luxuriating in the resonant capacity of their instrument). The Presto demonstrated the virtuosic talents of both Bach as a composer and Gibbons as a performer. The finale was fine compensation for the late start of the concert and second half, but programming a concert like this obviously presented some challenges that will need reviewing. The overall concept of including harpsichord in a GuitarFest concert made a lot of sense, particularly given Eliot Fisk’s holistic approach to music. I did find it a shame, however, that Gibbons’s half of the concert was not a BEMF “Fringe” concert, as the two festivals are running concurrently, and the performance would have likely been enjoyed by many BEMF patrons.
Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music of Bard College and Boston Conservatory.