Sounds of Rain
Tocatta Arpeggiata
Laws of Perspective
Improvisations on Billy Joel’s Always a Woman to Me
Always by your Side
Solitary Woman
Jamaica Stopover
Beneath an Evening Sky
Miles Davis & Bill Evans
Doug de Vries
Noble Sentiment

Slava Grigoryan (classical guitars, amplified)
Wolfgang Muthspiel (electric guitars)
Ralph Towner (classical and 12-string acoustic guitars, amplified)

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 7 October, 2005
Venue: Octagon Theatre, University of Western Australia, Perth

The intimate (658-seat) Octagon Theatre at Perth’s beautiful and largely neo-Romanesque University of Western Australia campus on the Swan River provided an ideal venue for this concert (the penultimate in an Australia-wide tour) by three musicians who all started out as classical guitarists before going their diverse ways.

Slava Grigoryan is a well-known Australian classical guitarist; Wolfgang Muthspiel an innovative Austrian jazz guitarist; American Ralph Towner is, well, largely unclassifiable. Perhaps ‘genius’ fits, but that’s not really helpful. His compositions are a blend of classical, jazz, folk and ‘world’ music elements; his musical voice is nevertheless highly individual and instantly recognisable, as anybody familiar with his superb series of recordings for ECM will know.

The concert fell into two halves: the first featured solo sets by all three; the second duets and trios. Two encores finished the evening.

Slava Grigoryan opened proceedings with Lovelady’s Sounds of Rain, a dynamic multi-movement work alternating reflective minimalist passages with frenetic arpeggios. Grigoryan’s performance was equally intense, his virtuosity and mastery of timbral variety complete. The improvisatory, prelude-like Tocatta Arpeggiata by the Baroque composer Kapsberger, consisting wholly of gently unfolding arpeggios, proved a perfect foil to the Lovelady; dare I suggest it would have been even more effective if played without amplification?

By contrast, Wolfgang Muthspiel’s all-electric set demonstrated a graceful and limpid style adorned by various effects, such as using a delay to loop his own accompaniment. This was extremely effective in the Billy Joel improvisations, the arpeggiated backdrop strangely recalling the Kapsberger. Before this, Laws of Perspective and Shanghai captivated with their inventive alternations between plectrum and finger-style playing and gentle waves of sonic distortion.

By this time you could sense that each guitarist had in fact been establishing an individual aural space; Towner’s set only confirmed this, the elaborations on his own pieces harking back to the Elizabethan world of divisions on originals or ‘standards’ of the time in their sophistication and beauty; his consummate colouristic skills crowning his manual dexterity.

The second half provided the opportunity to combine these disparate spaces; Grigoryan and Muthspiel began with the charming de Vries waltz Noble Sentiment, each partner taking his turn either ‘comping’ or improvising. The differing textures of the instruments provided the necessary tension. Grigoryan was then joined by Towner for a more homogeneous sound in Towner’s own Tammuriata before Muthspiel returned to the stage for a trio version of Towner’s Beneath an Evening Sky and a duet (with Towner) of the famous standard Nardis.

The formal end was reached when Grigoryan rejoined his colleagues for Towner’s Icarus, allowing the individual acoustic spaces to maintain their identity while expanding to embrace the disparites. Chords, arpeggios, melodies and effusive improvised lines relentlessly searched for a consummation that the second of the two encores finally provided: a ‘free’ improvisation where each player fed off the others’ space, responding and reciprocating in an ever-expanding and expansive collaboration. This, for me, was where the real magic to an already magical concert occurred.

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