Review of Andrea Dieci’s solo guitar performance at the Hellys International Guitar Festival

The Hellys International Guitar Festival is a yearly event [pandemics excluded] which takes place in Helston, Cornwall. Hellys is the old Cornish name for Helston. It is now attracting more international guitarists than ever with a wider spectrum of styles. This year alone, guitarists from Germany, Belgium, Australia, the US, Brazil, Poland and Italy, as well as home-grown classical guitarists, folk and acoustic players and lutenists came to Helston to perform.

Andrea Dieci’s concert was at the end of the last day of the festival on an evening that included Nico G, an acoustic guitarist of Belgian origin, now living in Scotland, who gave us wonderfully innovative compositions of his own, referencing both classical and folk styles.

After Nico came the talented Clive Carroll with a series of accomplished acoustic folk and blues favourites, many written by himself, each tune introduced with a warm blend of anecdotes and laughter. For both these performers the auditorium was packed.

Last of the evening and clearly intended as the highlight was classical guitarist Andrea Dieci, so it was a shame that a large number of the audience left before he began. This was through no fault of his own. I have heard Dieci play a number of times over the years and his performances are always faultless. The problem lay in the timing of his concert. He was billed to start at a ruthless ten o’clock p.m. and the programme was running late. Poor Dieci arrived on the stage and started his 70 minute concert at 10.15p.m. I didn’t get home after this finished until half past midnight. No wonder so many of the audience had left. However, there were still a goodly number of dedicated classical guitarists who stayed and were well rewarded for their patience.

Andrea Dieci is Professor of Guitar at the Modena Conservatoire near Milan in Northern Italy. He is also a great friend of Ben Salfield, the organiser of the Hellys Festival who is an accomplished lutenist himself. Dieci is a regular performer at the Hellys Festival and often comes to Cornwall to give other concerts too.

Dieci had planned the programme he was playing in two halves but because of the starting time he had to play the whole programme consecutively. The programme started with two short Sonatas by Scarlatti which Dieci transcribed himself from their original harpsichord settings. These were followed by Mozart’s Variations on a Theme as arranged by Fernando Sor. The first half finished with the premier UK performance of Nicola Jappelli’s Amaritudo – ‘Mutations’ of Dowland’s lute music. This piece was written for and dedicated to Dieci himself. The rest of the programme was an homage to Segovia, whose influence and popularity did much to bring the classical guitar to the attention of the world.

When watching a Dieci concert the first thing that strikes you is the quietness and precision of his touch. His long fingers settle on the strings with no fuss, almost he seems to stroke those strings. When a piece is finished he lets the last notes linger in the mind before lifting his right hand away from the strings with infinite grace. His seated body is still; only his face and, particularly his eyebrows, reflect the feelings he has for his music. The atmosphere of concentration he builds sucks the audience in so that in the auditorium on this late hot night we were totally focused on watching and listening.
Beginning with the Scarlattis, without introduction, also acted as a funnel for our total attention. Only after these did he start to tell us what he was playing and a little about each piece. The colour of these pieces was brought out by strong contrasts in the bass and treble ranges. Contrasts also in pace made sense of the shape of the sonata form.

Variations are a way for a composer to play with a tune or an idea. The Mozart piece started with a gradual build of sound which then faded into piano. This was followed by an insistent throbbing bass note against a light treble in the first of the variations. There followed a pretty, typically Mozartian tune which led into a faster paced variation in which the tune was subjected not just to speed but to little skips in the rhythm. Slower, tuneful chords with bass and treble working in close harmony led into further variations. The most notable of these had left and right hand playing alternately, like question and answer. Finally the piece speeded up, ending with a series of bass runs followed by two final dramatic chords. Gorgeous.

The Nicola Jappelli piece came next. I am a lover of Dowland’s work so was looking forward to this. The source material is If My Complaints Could Passions Move, a song to lute accompaniment in which, in typical Dowland style, the melancholy lover sighs, suffers, and breaks his heart in hopeless love of an uncaring lady. Jappelli does a modern take on this, though throughout we frequently hear the echo of Dowland’s tune. Though a modern composition, the mood of the piece is always close to the original. The music contains melancholy plangent notes like water drops before setting off on a series of runs and single notes separated by huge jumps, perhaps to explain the disorder of the lover’s mind. The second page of the piece [this was the only part of the programme where Dieci had the music in front of him] referenced perhaps the second verse of the original song, where the lover is angry at his lady’s disdain. A set of chords and arpeggios storm along, settling at last into Elizabethan-style broken chords. This is followed by broken sounds, the breaking of the heart perhaps, followed by angry strong chords against broken arpeggios. Thus we have a different way of accessing Dowland’s mood, a louder, brasher twenty-first century sound, which settles finally into a form of acceptance, shown by a series of soft chords, slow, meditative with silences in between, ending at last in the last Dowland-esque broken chords. A superb piece of music, wonderfully played.

Without a break we went into the second half – the homage to Segovia. All the pieces were from the early part of Segovia’s career, from his debut in Paris in 1924 to around 1930. Segovia was such an instant explosion on the musical scene that composers all wanted to write works for him, even though they were rarely guitarists themselves. The two pieces that started the half were both French – Gustave Samazeuilh’s Serenade and Albert Roussel’s Segovia opus 29, both written in 1925. Both have a Spanish flavour.

The Serenade is a gentle piece with strong notes against chords and Spanish style intervals between the notes, interspersed with broken chords. The second piece by Roussel uses the rhythm of a Spanish dance – a fandango. It is a joyful melody with a strong bass melody and repetitive notes or chords against a playful treble, ending with a mischievous couple of high chords.

Finally came Ponce’s Variations and Fugue on Folia, written around 1930. This is a showy piece, apparently written for Segovia so that he could show off the full range of the guitar’s capabilities. It is stunning and showed off not only the range of the piece but of Dieci’s masterful rendering of it. As with the Mozart the Variations play with a central theme with which the piece begins: a pattern of strong chords which recur throughout. Then Ponce delivers the goods: harmonics, block chords, arpeggios of dazzling speed and range, rhythms that play with variations in time signature and the occasional break-out of gentle melodies. What a treat!

And yes it was a treat, but the exhaustion in Dieci’s whole demeanour by the end was obvious. Despite this, he delivered an encore – and still the applause continued after that, demanding still more. Luckily sense prevailed.

For me, it is a shame that such a master of his art was put through an unnecessary trial. Each day’s programme – a mix of music, competitions, literary talks and workshops – started always at 1.00p.m. On each day the final act was at 10.00p.m. Every day the programme was running late by that time. Surely the day’s programming could have started an hour earlier – or even two hours earlier? Let’s see common sense prevail by next year’s festival.

This article was previously published on Lark Reviews.