A lesson in guitar-playing

FOREST OF DREAMS

Callum Henshaw

Soundset Recordings  SR 1103

Callum Henshaw

Henshaw is a new name to me, although his main claim to local fame is winning the 2017 Melbourne International Concert Artist Guitar Competition.  As far as I can make out, this is his third recording and it covers an expansive territory, some of it concentrated on the near-contemporary.   He begins with a classic: Augustin Barrios’ Un Sueno en la Floresta; moves to Australian Phillip Houghton’s Stele Suite; follows with another Latin foray in Four Catalan Songs by Miguel Llobet.   Graeme Koehne’s A Closed World of fine feelings is listed in the Australian Music Centre’s catalogue as being written for voice, although its recorded performance from that same site seems to have been on carillon; Henshaw’s CD booklet claims the work was commissioned by Tim Kain who, last time I looked, was a guitarist.   Further, there seem to be two linked works in so far as one entry refers to the above title. while another adds on the phrase and grand design.  Yet another entry suggests the work is choral.  That’s the trouble if you start looking for definite information: confusion waits just around the corner.  Leo Brouwer’s Sonata del Decameron Negro follows; and the CD ends somewhat strangely in Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of his Second Wife.

Is there a theme running through thus collection?   Well, does there need to be?   We have a Paraguayan composer represented by a piece written before 1918; Houghton, a revered figure on the local guitar scene, wrote his four-movement work in 1989; Llobet’s collection of folk songs was collated somewhere between 1889 and 1935; Koehne’s composition in its guitar format dates from 1997;  Brouwer is Cuban and his sonata was written in 2012.  The Dow Lament – a sort of inbuilt encore –  comes post- 1805, when the lady in question, Margaret Urquhart, died, and pre-1807 in which year Scottish fiddler Gow himself yielded up the spirit.

Henshaw has a sensitive ear for the demi-semiquaver work that dominates the Barrios work, once the composer stops loitering around the outskirts of the forest and gets stuck into the canopy of filigree that carries most of his piece’s interest.   I lost the performer after the second repeat at bar 120, catching up a little further on; probably the fault of my edition.  Still, this isn’t enough to disconcert any listener who is hard pressed to carp at the performer’s negotiation of this bagatelle which paints a delicate representation of South American greenery –  a very civilized environment, from  this showing.

Houghton’s work has some Greek connections, as in the opening Stele which refers to ancient memorial stones for the dead, the precursors of our modern-day gravestones.  It’s a clear-cut composition with an inbuilt fluency of material, yet it summons up no particular image of Greek mini-monuments; nothing but a certain spartan texture. Dervish is a 6/8 prestissimo with a few percussive surprises along the whirling route.  I assume its title refers to the well-known Turkish mystics although Houghton’s character is more of a will-o’-the-wisp than one of those stately clerics whose motion is hypnotic rather than frantic.   Bronze Apollo falls into two sections: Premonition, which is slow-moving, suggesting the silent eloquence of the god, and Arpeggio, which is just that – a basic pattern that increases its dynamic range if not much else.  A crescendo gives it propulsion but at the same time everything is measured, which is very Classical Greek, isn’t it?   Nothing in excess.   The final movement, Web, is another rapid moto perpetuo which builds its questing commentary over a repeated sextuplet pedal A.   I don’t know what Houghton was getting at here, although my mind automatically goes to the myth of Arachne; but, for all I know, he might have been referring to the state of pre-Pelopennesian War politics, or the proliferation of tourists throughout the Cyclades.  Whatever the case, the suite as an entity satisfies for its fluency and variety of colours, excellently brought into being by Henshaw’s deft talent.

Llobet’s folk-song settings are Canco del Lladre (The Thief’s Song),  El Mestre (The Teacher), L’Hereu Riera (The Riera Heir), and El Noi de la Mare (The Child of the Mother), the last of which was a Segovia special.   The first impresses for Henshaw’s subtle harmonics at bar 11, but even more so from bar 24 to 27 where, thanks to the composer’s skill and Henshaw’s delivery, they make melodic sense for once.   Even better follows in El Mestre, which is a model of elegance and clarity with no signs of that slovenly left hand work that disfigures movement along the fingerboard.   Henshaw doubles the length of L’Hereu Riera by playing it twice, which gives you the chance to relish his supple ornamentation that livens up a pretty straightforward setting.   Finally, El Noi is a simple lyric in a gently rocking 6/8 with the instrument’s lowest string tuned to provide a pedal D.

Koehne’s work is also in D Major with the lowest string again tuned down a tone.  A gentle ternary-shaped piece with a repetitive rising pattern of three chords in its outer sections with a more ‘filled-in’ central part that fleshes out the arpeggio shapes, this piece is calm and suggests nostalgia for a past world of simplicity and emotional candour.  It is, apparently, an elegy in which not much is being said, but the work offers an uncomplicated landscape without surprises.

The CD’s most substantial element is Brouwer’s sonata in four movements: Guijes y Gnomos (Elf-Goblins and Gnomes), Treno por Oya (Lament for the Goddess Oya), Burlesca del Aire (Burlesque of the Air Spirit), and La Risa de los Griots (Laughter of the African Story-Tellers).   Springing from an earlier work – El Decameron Negro of 1981 – this sonata’s first movement is based on a nervous alternation of major and minor 2nds that construct a mobile motif above chord work falling easily under the hand.  But it wouldn’t be Brouwer unless it had at least one eclectic touch; in this case, a quiet reversion to Renaissance lute sounds that begins a little after the 3 minute mark: an oasis of old-time certainty in the middle of modern-day nervous twitches.   For all I know, Brouwer could be citing a particular piece from that era; my knowledge of the repertoire has, alas, diminished with the years.

Oya is in charge of winds, lightning, storms, death and rebirth; quite enough for any deity to be getting on with.   Brouwer begins his mourning peacefully enough, moves into a habanera rhythm, which abruptly turns into a music of rapid-fire flurries with theatrical pauses and questioning hiatus points; the habanera returns, the activity momentarily rises and sinks away, while the delicate-stepping conclusion brings this schizoid lament – meditative and frenetic in turn – to a questioning conclusion.   As a scherzo, the Burlesca is ebullient in a muffled manner, packed with wry flourishes at either end and holding another surprise at about the 2-minute mark when the content moves into late 19th century Romantic guitar territory  –  just for a brief stretch but it serves to throw the brisk humour of its surrounds into high relief.    Brouwer’s finale is a rondo after a slow introduction.   It follows a simple enough format with two lengthy slower episodes and a slower-paced coda that rounds out the sonata with a sort of defiant flamboyance.   What it has to do with griots and their traditions is beyond me; with its sophisticated rhythmic chopping and changing, it suggests Latin America more than anywhere else.

But the sonata has an impressive vivacity throughout, Henshaw milking it of its timbral interplay with exemplary skill and that gift of insight which cuts to a composer’s particular chase without faltering,   It helps that the work is a gift for anyone brave enough to take it on; that’s not to lessen this interpreter’s insight and clear sympathy with its language and intent.

Finally, the Gow Lament rounds off proceedings.  This is a fine melody in two strophes, both of which Henshaw repeats and in the process shows himself a dab hand at slight inflections and quicksilver grace notes, informing the lyric with a generous vibrato in its warmer, lower-register moments.  I suppose it can be viewed as fitting in with the disc’s content through an expressive honesty and a chameleonic folk tint that emerges all over the place.   After the Brouwer with its acerbic harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary, its naive orthodox simplicity serves as a sort of emotional solace.

 

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