REVIEW: Sean Shibe in Brighton

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Sean Shibe (guitar) – Coffee Concert, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA), Sussex University.

Programme: John Dowland, Forlorn Hope Fancy, Fantasia No 1A (1604); Malcolm Arnold, Fantasy Op 107 (7 movements, 1970); William Walton, 5 Bagatelles (1972); Lennox Berkeley, Sonatina Op 52/1 (3 movements, 1957)); Benjamin Britten, Nocturnal after Dowland Op 70 (9 movements, 1963).

The Coffee Concerts have sexed themselves up! After a diet of violinists, violists, cellists, the odd double bassist, wind or horn players and pianists, they finally peered around a curtain into a Sunday morning world of sensuality only a guitarist can bring in on the bedroom breakfast tray.

Other strings, winds and ivories transport the ear. You may glimpse perspiration shed or spit spent in the performance, bodies swaying, elbows pumping, wrists cocking - but this is incidental excitement. What you hear outweighs what you see.

But a guitarist has extra arrows in his Eros quiver. He has six strings to his bow and, with his eight fingers and a thumb, and bits of his hand doing lots of different things at the same time or in succession, these combine to seduce with a myriad of sounds and probably more different individual effects than we see carried out on a violin or piano.

Aurally, this versatility can extend to resembling a harp or a lute. And the strength of a guitar enables a remarkable dynamic range. Shibe needed a smaller space than the ACCA so everyone could all see this going on up-close. But watch closely, see the dexterity, hear the results, and you begin to realise why guitarists and lutenists playing in intimate situations, modern or ancient, ‘score’ heavily. The double entendre is deliberate!

The sexiest the Coffee Concerts got before this was probably at The Old Market when Acoustic Triangle stretched out on the duvet heartthrob pianist Gwilym Simcock and saxophonist/bass clarinetist Tim Garland. Classical lovers would protest, “But that was jazz!”

Sean Shibe is classical, which intensified his conquest over most of the audience, whose number exceeded expectations and reiterated that the Coffee Concerts audience is now a willingly inquisitive and enquiring one, ‘up for’ an initiation. Shibe blogged afterwards that he’d not played to a livelier Sunday morning crowd.

They would have been taken aback by his intensity and taut concentration, astonished at his beauty and range of his sound and texture, enchanted by his sensitivity and the recurring exquisiteness of execution and scale he unveiled as the instrument regular currency, and entranced at the shared privateness of the experience he gave them. And also enamoured with another quality: his sharing of the leaning by many guitarists to being a raconteur.

Shibe, already awake five hours, was in a sober, greyish three-piece suit and matching reddish tie and breast-pocket handkerchief: very un-average for a guitarist. He strode onto stage then slowly unwound into conversation with his listeners, relaxing back into his seat, resting his guitar upside down on his lap, choosing his words carefully, relating stories, taking thoughful pauses, but being widely informative in setting the scene for the next piece. It’s the Scottish in him, rather than the Japanese, that may mean he has seen other expert guitarists going to work in folk clubs. He set his concert at that sort of pace.

If the Coffee Concerts have come to the guitar last, they are lagging only just behind the BBC in timidity. He has become the first guitarist New Generation Artist guitarist. If there have been none worthy before him you can see why.

Spanish guitar music is not everybody’s cup of Rioja. And the Italian Baroquians liked to compose for guitar too – Shibe studied with Paulo Pegoraro. But here came something few would expect: an all-English programme. In the 19th Century, much European music was composed for great violinists. In the 20th, there were enough great guitarists to attract the writers – Segovia, John Williams and, the man for whom four of these six works which Shibe played was written, Julian Bream.

Bream was also a lutenist and Shibe opened with John Dowland, the Elizabethan whose lute instrumental music and songs took him beyond England to Germany, Italy and especially Denmark. Shibe told in Helen Simpson’s valuable programme notes - and showed - how harmonically, chromatically and contrapuntally, Dowland was ahead of his age in his genre.

Shobe’s adept programme completed its own circle with Britten, a variations virtuoso, basing nine movements on Dowland’s song Come Heavy Sleep (ie death), having arrived at writing for guitar, said Shibe, with his Sixth Volume of Folk Song arrangements and Songs From The Chinese.

This music, Britten at his most insightfully and sympathetically inventive, completed Shibe’s revelatory route through the singularly edgy work of Arnold - brilliantly explorative and penetrating on his own inimitable terms - to Walton whose Bagatelles, even if less well-written for the instrument than Arnold’s, Shibe confided, still do the repertoire deliciously proud, and emanate from the composer’s Italian island home of Ischia.

Then came Lennox Berkeley’ amiably agreeable Sonatina, and after the Britten, Shibe’s deserved encore drew from Barcelona in Federico Mompou’s Cancion No 6. This, like two Walton movements, was in Drop D 6th-string tuning (as is some of Rodrigo’s Concerto). There was a startling effect Shibe told me was Arnold’s own (surprise surprise), when the bottom two strings are held across each other then plucked to sound like an accompanying side drum. And a capodastro was used for the Dowland, a modern pitching and resonance device Shibe does not rule out from being available in cruder form in Dowland’s own time.

Shibe plays an off-the-peg classical guitar from 2008 by Dutch luthier Bert Kwakkel, and is recording these works on Delphian Records.

A new young master of guitar is now before us. Will there be young composers ready to adopt him as their own Julian Bream?

Next Coffee Concert (ACCA, 11am) – Castalian String Quartet: Haydn’s Sunrise, Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters; Beethoven’s Rasumovsky No 1.

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