Life Begins at 70 for Guitarist Gilbert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gilbert Biberian, Biberian at 70: Evelyne Beech (soprano), Wendy Nieper (soprano), Sarah Ellis (flute), Matthew Morris (flute), Fenner Curtis (Violin), Robert Perry (percussion), Like Dunlea (guitar), Raymond Burley (guitar), Gilbert Biberian (guitar, conductor), The Chapel, Francis Close Hall, Cheltenham, 1.3.2014.

Seagull (1994)
Epigrams (1967)
Six Haiku (1978)
Yosano’s Songs (1996)
Guitar Duos from Gradus Ad
Sephardic Songs (1988)

The classical guitarist and composer Gilbert Biberian has recently celebrated his seventieth birthday, and this recital, organised in conjunction with the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, focused mainly on his song settings. Born in Istanbul of Greek-Armenian parentage, educated in Britain and something of a world traveller, Biberian possesses a truly cosmopolitan outlook which was reflected in his choice of texts.

Seagull, for example, is a setting of an Old Maori lyric. Spacing out the two flutes, cymbal and rainstick across the platform created an all-round sound effect of a flock of gulls flying over calling to one another. This effect was heightened when soprano Evelyne Beech came off the stage into the audience uttering the call of a seagull.

Epigrams was written when the young Biberian became an admirer of Webern. Here he gives the Second Viennese School treatment to the short, pithy Epigrams of the seventeenth century French poet Jacques de Cailly, with the dissonant guitar and the vocal lines diverging bringing to mind Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Soprano Wendy Nieper gave a good account of the words, but the Webern-esque brevity of the four pieces required considerable concentration on the part of the audience.

Japan was the next port of call and in Six Haiku Gilbert Biberian took on the dual role of guitarist and reciter. Although each haiku was shorter than de Cailly’s epigrams the delicate, expressive music surrounding them reflecting images of mist, cherry blossom and butterflies transformed them into a much more intense experience. The strumming of the guitar later on conveyed the sadness of autumn and after which there was greater fluidity as the mountain-rose petals fell creating “waterfall music”.

Evelyne Beech returned to sing some sensual poems by Japanese poet Yosano Akiko who died in 1942 and whose thinking was far ahead of her time. Titles like Hair Unbound and Press my Breasts illustrate the flavour of the songs, sung to Gilbert Biberian’s guitar accompaniment, which varied between languor, playfulness, passion and eventually sadness in the spare sounding End of Autumn.

I was delighted that the programme found room for some of Biberian’s instrumental work, notably some of his guitar duos from Gradus Ad…… in which he was joined by Irish guitarist Luke Dunlea. There is a wealth of variety in this collection from a modal work which would have graced any Renaissance court to a contemporary study and to hints of Debussy.

In the Sephardic Songs Biberian returned to his roots in Istanbul where he first encountered  Sephardic Jews, their music and language. Evelyne Beech coped admirably with the Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) text supported by an ensemble of flutes, guitars, percussion and a violin which created an enticingly exotic soundscape. In the lilting Paxaro d’Hermozura Fenner Curtis’ violin soared majestically above the other instruments while the plaintive La Rosa Enflorence gave eloquent expression to the pains of love. Ven Querido was over, it seemed, in a trice but one had plenty of time to relish Evelyne Beech’s expressive voice in the haunting lullaby Durme, Durme. This wonderful climax to the evening suggested that Gilbert Biberian cannot yet be described as a spent force!

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Roger Jones