Rafael Aguirre at the London Guitar Festival

At the closing night of the London International Guitar Festival, I found myself mulling over what the great Segovia once claimed: that “if people have a little understanding, it is better to move them than to amaze them”.

Flamboyant temperament and mercurial technique define Rafael Aguirre, a Spanish guitarist who gave his UK debut that night at the Bolivar Hall. The venue is perfect for the guitar: a stylish, bijou concert hall downstairs at the Venezuelan Embassy.

Aguirre’s recital began with Bach’s D minor Chaconne. Immediately his rich tone and dynamic playing are compelling: adhering very firmly to a tempo a touch breathless, it was a powerful yet polite rendition. This was followed by William Walton’s Five Bagatelles. He lingered lovingly on these charming pieces, full of gently dissonant bite and very English character.

Villa-Lobos’ suite of 12 studies is one of the landmarks of the guitar repertoire, fusing a typically Brazilian character into a machine-like musical process. Rafael selected two etudes, no. 7 and 11, to close the first half of his recital. Out of context, we miss the crystallisation and dissolution of the suite, but enjoyed the cyborg charm of the etudes.

The second half had a Latin-Iberian bent, beginning with Un Sueno en la Floresta, a languorous dream related in scintillating tremolo, composed by the great guitarist Agustin Barrios. (Paraguay’s national composer, Barrios was a remarkable character, and posed as an Amazon Indian called Nitsuga for part of his career.) Antonio Lauro’s feisty Seis por derecho swung us towards Venezuela, and then across the Atlantic with an incandescent Guiajiras by Paco de Lucia. This was a less heady Flamenco than most, freckled with machine-gun scales: Aguirre pulled this off with virtuosic aplomb.

Francisco Tarrega’s slinky variations on the Carnival of Venice ended the concert. The father of the modern classical guitar, Tarrega was a legendary teacher and composer for the guitar, writing for salon audiences at the close of the 19th century. These variations can’t fail to charm: the guitar conjures bouts of laughter with petulant glissandi, a playful masquerade, full of winks.

All in all, I hesitate to say that it was a great recital – I was left with the impression that Rafael’s character could obstruct the music, rather than be its medium. But both music and musician had flair and an obvious head-over-heels love that, certainly, won me.

October 2013

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