Very Pleasant Programme in a Haven of Musical Peace on the Fringe

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019 [4] – Aguado, Ferries: Stuart Murray-Mitchell (tenor), Gordon Ferries (guitar), St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, 24.8.2019. (SRT)

Tucked away in Edinburgh’s Old Town, only steps away from the Royal Mile, lies Scotland’s oldest purpose-built music venue. Opened in 1763, and named after the patron saint of music, St Cecilia’s Hall is a perfect oval that sits only 200 people. It’s now part of Edinburgh University, and the building also hosts the university’s collection of historic instruments, featuring some particularly marvellous harpsichords, shining jewels of ornate craftsmanship. Open five days a week, the museum is free and well worth a look if you’re visiting.

The concert hall itself has recently had a major refurbishment and is now a perfect venue for small scale concerts featuring only a few performers. The space is far from perfect, however. It has hosted the Edinburgh International Festival’s survey of the complete keyboard concertos of JS Bach this year: I only heard one performance, but the harpsichords were drowned out by the sound of only four strings, perhaps because of where they were placed on the miniature stage.

It’s a perfect venue for this recital of guitar music, though. The hall was, perhaps, half full, but the acoustic for this size of audience with only the guitar was rather delightful. Everything sounded clean and crisp, but with enough of a bloom on the sound to give it a sense of crystalline beauty. Classical guitarist Gordon Ferries chose a programme of his own music together with an extensive collection of pieces by Spanish guitarist and pedagogue Dionisio Aguado (1784-1849). Designed both to teach and to show off the guitar to its maximum ability, I really enjoyed listening to Aguado’s series of Minuets, Waltzes, Variations and Studies, a window into an all-but-forgotten composer (at least outside of the guitar world), but remarkably beautiful, something perhaps helped by the intimacy of the setting. Ferries also played a suite of his own music inspired by Byron’s Manfred, music that was similarly open, transparent and pleasing to the ear.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t so impressed by his songs. For these he was joined by tenor Stuart Murray Mitchell, who has a pleasant voice and admirably clean diction; but voice and guitar never sounded together, consonance eluding them almost completely. It’s as though the singer and the instrument had settled into different grooves that were playing in parallel but not together. That’s a terrible shame, because both components were very pleasant, and it’s hard to say whether it’s because of Ferries’s writing or Mitchell’s pitching.

That was only a blot on an otherwise very pleasant 75 minutes, however. The manic bustle of the Royal Mile was just outside the door but, in this haven of musical peace, we in the audience might as well have been in a different world.

Simon Thompson

For more on St Cecilia’s Hall and its museum of musical instruments, click here.

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