No appraisal of the classical guitar in the last 50 years could be a creditable one without mention of John Williams. The genial Australian is approaching his 70th birthday, but shows no sign of slowing down, nor losing his passion for music in all shapes and sizes.
Not a single note of this Wigmore Hall recital came from Western Europe or North America, though the influence of the classical tradition could be felt on frequent occasions. Instead Williams marked his return to a hall in which he first played in 1958 with a programme centred on Latin America, with interjections from Cuba, Cameroon and Australia, by way of the guitarist himself.
What is most impressive about Williams’ playing is the way he makes complicated passages look so straightforward. With not a bit of showmanship, he worked through Villa-Lobos’ appealing 5 Preludes, stopping after the first to introduce himself and give some musical context. This running commentary gave the concert an informal air and set some of the remarkable music we heard in context.
None was more remarkable than that of Agustn Barrios Mangor, the Paraguayan composer Williams has championed for some considerable time, recording a famous album of his guitar works as long ago as 1977. We heard the three short movements of La Catedral, drawing a surprising amount of their stylistic writing from the Baroque period, and two charming waltzes, Op.8 Nos. 3 and 4, which were exquisitely coloured by the guitarist. The real star of the show, however, was Un sueo en la Floresta, where Williams’ command of tremolo was astonishing to witness, with not a note out of place as the music weaved its tapestry.
Either side of the interval Williams led us to Cuba via the pen of Leo Brouwer, whose three-movement suite El Decameron was beautifully played and richly coloured. The charming syncopations of Francis Bebey’s O Bia took us right to the heart of Africa, with Williams telling the story of one of his closest friends before enjoying his own musical tribute, Hello Francis, which proved to be a sped up version of the dance we had already heard.
Williams’ own material was no less involving, with the three numbers From A Bird depicting an encounter with a honeyeater bird in Melbourne. Struck by the musicality of its song, Williams built his own piece around it, adding a strident second movement and a softly thrumming third for good measure.
Enjoyable though these pieces were, it was Barrios who was the star of the show and Williams remained in Latin America to offer us two Venezuelan pieces, Como Llora una Estrella (Like An Evening Star and El Totumo, as encores. Throughout the evening dance rhythms could be keenly felt, and this was a section where you wanted to clear away the Wigmore Hall’s seats and throw caution to the winds.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org