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Review in Music & Vision

[Review posted on]

'On 27th November I had the tremendous good fortune of attending ‘Music in the Time of Goya’ at the National Gallery in London – a chamber-music concert curated by pianist Helen Glaisher-Hernández as part of a series of ‘Late’ events at the Gallery relating to their new exhibition, 'Goya: The Portraits', and organized in collaboration what I have long considered to be the UK's most exciting music society: the Iberian & Latin American Music Society. As I contemplated the opulent and atmospherically-lit setting of Room 36 (otherwise known as the ‘Barry Rooms’) where Myra Hess performed her historic war-time concerts, I felt very privileged to be one of the lucky few who managed to get a seat to this rather exclusive affair; amongst the 18th-century British portraits by Reynolds, Lawrence and Zoffany I found myself in the company of such esteemed guests as Queen Charlotte, Colonel Tarleton and Mrs Oswald. Any fears that we were in for a stuffy evening of ossified classics, however, were soon allayed by the beguiling line-up of young musical talents, who presented a captivating and highly entertaining concert with wit and effervescence. Amongst various concert hommages to Goya organized this year, 'Music in the Time of Goya' stands out as an especially thoughtful and well-researched response to Goya’s art, which confirms Helen Glaisher-Hernández as a highly imaginative and experimental curator. This exuberant programme, full of surprises and hidden treasures, comprised an eclectic array of references: from comic Spanish operetta and film music, to 19th-century Spanish salon music and the most charming Spanish songs composed by an unlikely Mr Beethoven. I especially enjoyed the curator’s own lively arrangements of 18th-century Spanish folk songs, which highlighted the types of popular art-music influences that Goya might have heard at the Spanish court. In one such piece we were transported, via Boccherini and string quintet, to the street sounds of Goya’s Madrid, articulated with an impressive spiccato by violinist Violeta Barrena. In another, we were treated to a surprise appearance by the Duke of Marlborough, who came back from the dead in the form of a gentleman in the front row with a musical interjection of his own. The programme was so richly dense that it is impossible to do it justice here by detailing every piece, but certain items are worthy of special mention. Amongst the soloists featured the suave concert pianist, Eduardo Frías, who performed two leisurely keyboard sonatas by Scarlatti and Soler, followed by an empassioned reading of Granados’ 'La maja y el ruiseñor' and a refreshingly straightforward rendition of the 'Adagio sostenuto' from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, in which Frías succeeded in hypnotizing the audience with undulating, diaphanous sound. The Spanish guitarist Isabel María Martínez also presented two solo pieces by Falla and Castelnuovo-Tedesco ('Danza del molinero' and 'El sueño de la razón produce monstruos'). Get past the artist’s distractingly long black hair (practically floor-length when the artist is seated), and you discover a guitarist of considerable gifts whose unmistakingly Spanish sound and phraseology are complemented by a dynamic sense of voicing and a wonderfully-rich and evocative colour palette. One of the highlights of the evening for me, however, was the set of Granados Tonadillas performed by soprano Amaia Azcona and pianist Helen Glaisher-Hernández, a duo of almost telepathic consonance, who treated us to authoritative and emotive interpretations of exceptional polish - I don’t mind admitting that their poignant 'La maja dolorosa No. 2' brought a tear to my eye. Billed as 'a unique voice amongst the new generation of Spanish sopranos' Azcona combines solid technique with a rare expressive aptitude of disarming sincerity. In Glaisher-Hernández she has the perfect accompanist - her satisfyingly understated playing predicated on a compelling mestizaje of classical refinement and Latin feel. The pianist momentarily stole the show, however, in Obradors’ fiendishly difficult 'El vito' which Glaisher-Hernández dispatched with bravura and panache. Of course, the outright star of the show was undoubtedly Nina Corti, a Swiss dancer and castanet player with an illustrious reputation on the continent for her unique brand of flamenco and classical music choreography, having rubbed shoulders with the likes of Vengerov, Carreras and the Gypsy Kings. This was Corti’s first performance in the UK since her appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in 1991, and it was well worth the wait. As soon as Corti walks into the room you know you are in the presence of a great artist. On her second entrance, having set a tantalizing precedent with her rousing performance in Valledor’s 'Mambrú quedo difunto', the room palpably leant forward in anticipation. Corti delivered a sumptuously lyrical set of improvised choreographies inspired by Granados, with the octagonal central space in the Barry rooms serving as the perfect stage for Corti’s swirling movements. But the best was yet to come - saved for last - in Boccherini’s famous 'Fandango', which I had heard several times before with castanets, but never quite like this. Credit also goes to the string quintet (led by a commanding and vivacious player, Elena Jáuregui) which pulled off a sophisticated rendition of the piece at breakneck speed. Corti further displayed her versatility in the encore, introducing charming elements of Spanish folk dance. Thus the evening came to a reluctant conclusion with two well-deserved standing ovations, the entranced audience seemingly unaware that almost two hours had passed. To witness this unique coming together of art, music and dance of the highest order, surrounded by portraits from Goya’s time, was one of those devastaingly sublime concert experiences that will undoubtedly make normal future concert outings for me seem banal by comparison, and although I don’t think this experience can ever be repeated I do hope that there will nonetheless be further opportunities for this project to re-run and be enjoyed by a much wider audience.'

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