A tale of two guitarists in Worthing and Bognor reviews

Paul Gregory (UK, guitar) Lunchtime Concert at Christ Church, Worthing. William Walton (1902-83), Bagatelle No 2; Fernando Sor (1778-1839), Four Studies in D F A Dm, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Prelude & Allegro BWV 998.

Paul Gregory
Paul Gregory

Five Brazilian pieces – Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), Prelude No 4; Luiz Bonfa (1922-2001), Samblamento (Samba); Annibal Augusto Sardinha ‘Garoto’ (‘The Kid’, 1915-55), Jorge do Fusa – Song; Zequinha de Abreu (1880-1935), Valsa (waltz) from Amando sobre o Mar (Loving Over The Sea); Dilermando Reis (1916-77), Batuque (drumming) from Xodo da Baina (Sweet Heart of Baina). Stephen Funk-Pearson (USA, b 1952), Thusselgarth.

Fabio Zanon (Brazil, guitar) Evening Concert at West Sussex Guitar Club, Regis Recital Hall, Bognor Regis, Saturday 25 June (7.30pm). All-Brazilian programme. Five popular pieces – Eraldo Pinheiro, Ao Luar (song – In The Moonlight); Armando Neves Armandinho, Choro (Song) No 2; Nicanor Teixeira, Sarabande; Marco Pereira, Bate-Coxa (Thigh-Drum). Francisco Mignone, Five Etudes (1970) Nos 5 4 6 11 & 9. Heitor Villa-Lobos, Twelve Etudes (1924-28)

TWO WORLD-CLASS guitarists in the space of three days came to give concerts in West Sussex. The first from Brighton, bearing the Andrés Segovia International Competition 1984 winning prize he won at age 22, the second a London-based Brazilian, adorned with the Francesco Tarrega and Guitar Foundation of America titles he won, just weeks apart in 1996, when he was 30.

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    Two men born less than five years apart, one in Sussex, the other in Brazil. And both bearing a message: that hearing Brazilian classical guitar brings revelation beyond the traditional Spanish. Add to that message ‘Paraguayan’, on the lips of Shoreham multi-guitarist Richard Durrant, also Sussex-born, just between the Paul Gregory and Fabio Zanon, and here is a trio of modern experts – virtuosi, it goes without saying – showing where public fascination with classical guitar should be heading. Without needing an ounce of bravery.

    Post-war Britain suddenly heard George Harrison’s classical guitar on the 1964 Beatles track, And I Love Her, including a solo. And saw it on the film A Hard Day’s Night. It was an instrumental surprise in their recorded work, ahead of many others to come.

    Thoughtful lead guitarists started including Segovia alongside Scotty Moore and Hank Marvin among the Favourites Guitarists in the pop magazine bio questions. But that classical guitar was referred to as ‘Spanish’ by the 1960s record-buying masses. And still is. Only this week on BBC Radio 4, U2’s Bono asked to take ”a Spanish guitar’ to his Desert Island as his luxury.

    When Andre Previn helped bring the classical guitar new prominence, on TV during the 70s (including writing a Guitar Concerto himself), John Williams and Julian Bream became almost household names, and despite Bream’s add-on speciality of English Elizabethan music (the Spanish Armada period . . .) its identity was seen as Spanish. Mason Williams’ 1968 hit Classical Gas made no difference.

    Southern TV’s Out Of Town, as its theme tune, helped pave the way for Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos (Recollections) of The Albambra to become now Britain’s enduring favourite solo classical guitar piece. The title could only speak of Spain. Britons began setting up homes on the Spanish coast, in the ‘Land of the Guitar’. Unless you studied guitar or listened to Radio 3, and heard Italian guitar composers, like Vivaldi, Giuliani and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the Spanish label remained undisturbed.

    Fast forward to now. Paul Gregory had been learning Brazilian material for his Worthing appearance and they gave his already wide-ranging programme a fresh and exotic seductive breeze and shimmer. Then the week ended with a full-on, all-Brazilian evening from a Brazilian. There was plenty of cafe, street and beach music feel and vibe across both concert atmospheres.

    Like Gregory, Zanon began his programme with a similarly smiling selection of Brazilian romantic songs and dances, then presented two sides of guitar Study (Etude) composition – sharing with his audience five from Mignone’s romantic and narratively-inclined 1970 set, and then revealing the giant Villa-Lobos in his dozen dramatic, dazzling, gobsmackingly rigorous and de-romanticising technical Studies of the mid-1920s.

    They are a world within a world and Zanon, whose birthday is a day after Villa-Lobos’, said he sees all 12 as a single piece. That is surely his Brazilian blood speaking. In scale and scope they are staggering but far from beyond European comprehension and appreciation.

    Spiritually, this is not concert hall stuff – although one could visualise Gregory charming a medium concert hall of people and Zanon’s Villa-Lobos igniting a few hundred silent but enthralled guitaros and aficionados already schooled on his definitive own yardstick commercial recording.

    Instead, both were playing to 50-75 people – in most ways an ideal. Gregory was entertaining a normal cross section of people and Zanon invigorating and inspiring probably one of the country’s most active guitar clubs, the attendance swelled by knowledgeable non-members.

    Within only a lunchtime timescale, listeners spread away down a church, Gregory had a generous instrumental acoustic but needed to limit his verbal introductions. Zanon, his audience fanned around him in a one-third circle, had the evening in which to expand his enjoyably informative, gently wry introductions to the music.

    He’s 6ft 3in, and presented modestly in black trousers and shoes, dark blue conventional jacket, indigo tie with blue gingham shirt. Also a broadcaster and Royal Academy professor, among the information he shared were the backgrounds of these Brazilian guitarist-composers.

    What different worlds they came from. Pinheiro, a Sao Paulo railway worker, taught Zanon’s father to play. Dad then taught son. Armandhino was a footballer with the famous Corinthians club (Zanon’s son’s favourite team; Zanon’s a Sao Paulo fan) and was a collaborative guitarist with singers – but couldn't write music down. Pereira had a classical upbringing but wanted a jazz style.

    Of the specialist guitarists writing these Studies, Mignone’s father was an opera orchestra flautist and Villa-Lobos played not only guitar but piano and – just as Zanon and Gregory – the cello. Villa-Lobos, we learned, led the Brazilian search for national musical identity after World War 1 and, just as Sibelius in Finland and Grieg in Norway, he stood head and shoulders above the Brazilian rest.

    Zanon told Bognor that he first played six of the Villa-Lobos Studies as a high school teenager, followed then by a band doing Led Zeppelin covers. Did the Jimmy Page fans notice the Villa-Lobos qualities? Perhaps, as Brazilians, they intrinsically did. Zanon might well have grabbed their attention with Studies Nos 10 11 and 12 which contain far rawer musical elements of Amazonian rain forest people’s culture he set off to discover, thousands of miles from the seaside cities.

    For his encore, Zanon nipped across the border for Barrios’ Paraguayan Dance No 1. Having deviated from Brazilian for the first time, when called back for another, he took the precaution of heading off withdrawal symptoms in his audience by turning at last to something Spanish. After the Madridian, Torroba’s 1923 Sonatina first movement, with its dampened pizzicato and melody, Andalusian style, he took his Brazilian guitar by luthier Sergio Abreu, and finally departed.

    West Sussex Guitar Club founder Sasha Levtov vowed to his audience they had experienced “The Soul of the Guitar”. What they tasted, in a deliciously huge helping, was the soul of Brazil. May it yet become popular staple menu.

    Richard Amey

    Richard Bowen is an Eastbourne former pupil of Gregory, still much in touch with his then Cuckfield master. Bowen is in performing action this Wednesday 6 July lunchtime (2pm) at St Nicholas Church, Brighton, then he follows Gregory at Christ Church, Worthing on Wednesday 27 (12.30pm).