Sunday, July 30, 2023

Violinist skilfully showcases a world of music in "New Letters to Esterhazy"

Rupert Guenther performs “New Letters to Esterhazy.” Photo: Peter Hislop

by Tony Magee

Trained as a virtuoso concert violinist in Vienna, Rupert Guenther’s musical passions cover a diverse range of styles. 

Immersed in music from a young age, his parents hosted house concerts in their Toorak mansion “Carmyle” over a 50 year period. He thought nothing of local and international concert artists being engaged to play there, or sometimes just popping in the back door for a cuppa. The likes of pianists Leslie Howard, Paula Badura-Skoda and Yalta Ryce-Menuhin graced the stage as well as baritone Olaf Baer.

After an evening’s performance at Melbourne Town Hall, members of Concentus Musicus Vienna with conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra with conductor Karl Münchinger would seek out the warmth and no-doubt a night-cap or two on a cold wintery night.

Beginning with “New Letters to Esterházy”, Guenther played five movements, all stylistically different, as a homage to that giant of the classical music era, composer Joseph Haydn, employed at the court of the wealthy Esterházy family and also in Vienna. The premise was sending music back to Haydn, from the 21st century, as a reaction to his own works.

Completely improvised, this performance, whilst sticking to the premise, was unique for the audience, as it was all being invented on the spot as he played his violin.

Each movement did seem to have a key centre however. The first revealed a clear, almost penetrating tone, mostly using the high register of his instrument and in free time. 

The closest artistic parallel comes not from music at all, but painting. Watching an artist create spontaneously, the brush strokes on the canvas coming in free-fall straight from the head.

Deeply personal, the work continued with the second movement, contrasting in triple time and was much more legato and melodic. Guenther sometimes plays “within the cracks” - a musical term suggesting the inclusion of quarter tones or even eighth tones.  This movement saw the lower register of the violin revealed with dark brooding tones emerging.

The third movement saw intense double stopping as he created intense, bold harmonies in fifths and fourths. It was music full of drama and intensity which grasped the listener. An intense palette of tonal colours and shadings with greater dynamic range was also a feature of this section.

The fourth was the most cantabile of the sections, almost verging on a reflection on folk music from The British Isles and including some passages reminiscent of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The final movement was sparking and lively, notes skittering around in staccato, rather like birds at play. 

After interval, Guenther returned to play three pieces, beginning with “Hakone Maple”: a reaction to his time in Tokyo and Yokohama when he was 17.

Paradoxically, the piece is also aligned with Gypsy influences from Hungary and Romania, but combined with Japanese flute like qualities. Guenther was able to extract these qualities from his instrument and it was uncanny listening to and seeing how he did it. 

With prolific bending of the notes and featuring intervals mostly of minor seconds or major seconds the contrasting styles from around the world were a fascination.

“So Many Stars”, where in his terms, ’science meets art’, used a middle Eastern interval and scale system.

During a trip to Kashmir when he was 19, Guenther found himself attending prayers at dawn, meditating in the Himalayas and being transported on mystical journeys, but incredibly, combining his musical thought process with Australian indigenous art, drawing inspiration from paintings observed at the Desert Art Painters Gallery in 2004.

The result was a piece combining these two contrasting musical influences - worlds apart - to form his piece “Wandjira”, which closed the show. Evoking moths darting around the fire-light, the piece pays homage to The Rainbow Serpent.

Throughout the concert, Guenther’s improvisations demonstrated violin virtuosity, great skill, diverse and sometimes beautiful tone production, and a multitude of tonal shadings.

Not conventional in any way shape or form, Guenther admitted at the end, that his particular penchant for abstract improvisation was not easily assessable to some listeners, but I found myself, with dedicated persistence, accepting and enjoying what he created for us.

First published at Canberra City News July 29, 2023 and also at Tony's own blog, Art Music Theatre, July 30, 2023