New York, CLASSICAL REVIEW Guitarist Denoth beguiles with color and nuance in South American program

by David Wright, New York, Classical review
Jun 2019

There was no tangoing in the aisles at Christoph Denoth's guitar recital at Subculture Monday night. But there was a lot of leaning forward in seats.
Even though tangos by Astor Piazzolla featured prominently on the program, the evening was memorable not for whiplash-inducing pyrotechnics but for the unparalleled intimacy of string tone produced not with felt hammers or with stretched horsehair but with the player's own fingertips.
Bar service at the underground Bleecker Street boîte was suspended for the hourlong duration of the performance, so that no extraneous rattles or tinkles would intrude on Denoth's subtle colorations and exquisitely nuanced phrasing.
The expression "hands-on experience" acquired new meaning as the Swiss-born guitarist rolled a left-hand finger over to soften the tone or rounded off a phrase by moving his right hand from near the bridge to mid-string as he played. Melodies floated free of layers of figuration, as if two or three instruments were playing instead of one.Once in a while, a showy run or a special effect such as whispery harmonics took center stage. But for the most part, Denoth deployed his formidable resources so fluidly that one was aware only of the musical result.Thus, a listener could savor each of the Brazilian folk influences (plus J.S. Bach) that Villa-Lobos celebrated in his Cinq Préludes, the repertoire standard that opened the concert. Peasants, urban Cariocas, and indigenous people of the forest all had their say in folk-poetic miniatures that, with their chromaticism and major-minor shifts, brought Chopin's mazurkas to mind. (With its left-hand "barring" technique moving down the neck, the guitar is a natural for chromatic sequences.)The shifting moods and rapid-chord technique of Villa-Lobos's Etude No. 11 made an eloquent coda to this section of the program.Here and throughout the evening, Denoth was sparing in his use of familiar guitar "intensifiers" such as vibrato and sliding portamento, relying instead on tone color and well-gauged rubato to get the expressive message across.The international perspective of Cuban composer Leo Brouwer's Sonata "for Julian Bream, 1990" brought a change of pace from the otherwise all-South American program. The opening movement, "Fandangos y Boleros," offered a humorous sendup of Spanish idioms, with consonant harmonies punctuated (or punctured) by the bonking dissonance of minor ninths.
A "Sarabande de Scriabin" seemed inspired by the Russian composer in one of his dreamier moods. In the concluding "Toccata de Pasquini"–which referred only obliquely to that Baroque composer's famous keyboard toccata "with cuckoo"–Denoth, a picture of calm and poise, rippled through fast, harp-like figurations, concluding with one twisty run up the fingerboard.
Of the four Piazzolla selections on this program, only one, Verano Porteño, brought the jazz-influenced tango fire for which this composer is best known. Denoth made the most of the piece's sultry rhythm, volatile tune, sforzando strums, and languid rubato interlude.
A different, less familiar Piazzolla emerged in the preceding piece, Chiquilín de Bachin, a tender waltz full of those melting diminuendos at which the guitar is supreme. Chopin came to mind again in Oblivion, as a peripatetic melody sang out over a swaying, nocturne-like accompaniment. Triunfal did indeed sound "triumphant" in its assertive allegro sections, but shifted to deep nostalgia when Denoth (for once) laid on the vibrato in soulful song.Not everybody recognizes Gerardo Matos Rodriguez's La Cumparsitaby its title, but one bar of that stalking, staccato tune identified this 1916 piece as one of the tango hits of all time, maybe the first tango you ever heard. Denoth closed his program with it, reveling in the florid interludes and welcoming that indelible theme back each time with variations.For an encore, Denoth played another guitar standard, the Serenata española by Joaquín Malats, giving especially fine voicing to the accompaniment.

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