On 13th March, I along with about 100 other privileged Melburnians at the Melbourne Recital Centre, witnessed the awe-inspiring launch performance of Melbourne Guitar Quartet’s third studio recording “in colour”.
The name of the album couldn’t really be more apt as Ben, Jeremy, Pete and Tonié are really maestri of tonal control (this is some of the best quality tone you’ll hear on a guitar!) and musical colour. Which, is pretty flipping important in particular, I believe, when playing music by “impressionistic” French composers such as Debussy. Not only this, the Quartet’s sense of colour and expression, brought to the fore by the use of guitar family (soprano, standard, baritone and bass classical guitars), really do bring a new dimension to well-known and loved pieces from the Spanish (formerly piano) repertoire.
The recital opened with Claude Debussy’s beautiful Suite Bergamasque (as does the recording). If you’re not familiar, Suite Bergamasque is a suite of four pieces written originally for the piano around the turn of the 20th century and includes the very well-known Claire de Lune. And MGQ have done themselves proud with this transcription, really capturing that impressionistic nature of Debussy’s work. It’s difficult not to go past the Claire de Lune too – such as well known piece, but masterfully transcribed here and played with such supreme delicacy, with a subtlety that invites that audience in and asks them very gently to listen to this beautiful melody, the sumptuous harmonies. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end….
The Suite Bergamasque is followed by the lively Arabesca from Enrique Granados’ 12 Danzas Espanolas. This, along with the Villanesca and the Zarabanda which closes out the recording (both from the 12 Danzas Espanolas), really benefits from the use of the guitar family instruments, enabling Granados’ original piano imagining to come to life in terms of the bass to treble range. Something that, obviously, a standard guitar or group of standard guitars can’t convey as well.
One of my particular favourites from both the launch performance and the recording is Cordoba from Isaac Albeniz’s Chants d’Espagne. This also really benefits from the use of the guitar family, a with those big fat juicy bass notes and scintillating soprano notes. This track is an absolutely fantastic transcription and is on high rotation for me at the moment! In terms of the performance of this piece, it really showed-off their tightness as a group. I know only too well from playing in the Victorian Guitar Orchestra that slower moving pieces can often be the more challenging to coordinate between musicians, but the Quartet were right on the nail here (and throughout).
The album also features the Assez vif movements from both Ravel and Debussy’s respective string quartets (Ravel’s in F major and Debussy’s in G Minor) and the wonderful Pavane pour une infant defunte by Ravel. Again, these are well known pieces of the greater classical music repertoire and potentially a daunting task to transcribe such music for the guitar family. Well, they didn’t disappoint! The Ravel Assez vif is just genius, with the most fantastic colouration and texture, really capturing the essence of the string quartet, but without it feeling like a pastiche of a bowed string piece. And of course, the playing is just incredible (I’m running out of superlatives here!) with that rich tone and sensitive, musical playing.
Throughout the whole in colour performance it was so inspiring to feel and see the interaction between the players – a subtle eyebrow movement, nods of the head, a lean of the body. Each one knowing what the other is doing, their sound a gorgeous, colourful blend of guitar awesomeness.
If you’re interested in beautiful French and Spanish music, re-imagined for the guitar family and brought to life by four musicians at the top of their game, this album is a must. Do yourself a favour and head over to their website now to order yourself a copy of in colour.
Note: Please let it be known that I am somewhat biased in writing this as Ben Dix has been my own teacher and mentor (and a fantastic one at that) for the last few years, Tonié has always been happy to share sage words of wisdom with me, and Jeremy and Pete are both lovely chaps too. I can confirm they didn’t know this was getting posted up thought and I only ever tend to really write up positive reviews here, so you can rest assured that, although somewhat biased, this is a bloody fantastic recording!