I last saw Richard Durrant perform about ten years ago, at the Sidmouth Folk Festival. I realized then that he was the guy two tents from mine on the campsite practicing guitar scales for an hour at a time. The dedication and love of his art showed in the performance, which was both fluid and disciplined, and engaging too, virtuosic in a way that folk artists rarely are, for all their other merits. But this was hardly folk music. Durrant has done the serious classical slog at the RCM, and having mastered it diversified, so that by the time I encountered him he was playing against himself with sequencers and other electronic panopoly, pieces of his own composition and others of mildly adventurous modernists like Steve Reich. He had a willingness to push the boundaries which marked him out, and I was eager to see him again.
At last the opportunity came along in Kingskerswell church last Saturday. This is a rather unlikely venue for a variety of music events, but it reaches out like many such now to recover the lost function of community space. The church interior has an untidy, lived-in air, like the home of an aged relative; but it does seem to have an effective and enthusiastic team, and the barrel-shaped ceiling and the open nave promise well as a concert space.
Richard Durrant made the most of it. For this was quite a different sort of concert from my last of his. Most accoustic artists now rely on electronics of some sort, but Durrant has put all that aside for what he has called his Stringhenge Tour. He relied solely on the power of his two instruments, the classical guitar and the steel-string tenor guitar to make the most of the accoustic possibilities of the venue. And this was right and proper, since the instruments in his hands are stunners in sound and appearance. An elaborate guitar that departs from conventional appearance often does not bode well: you fear the sound has taken second place to the visual aesthetics. In particular, Durrant's classical guitar, made by Gary Southwell, has a back-story. Its back and sides are of bog-oak first grown in East Anglia fens five thousand years ago, and is disceetly decorated with neolithic motifs; and the tenor guitar by Ian Chisholm had a white horse inlaid at the headstock. But the consequence is that the instruments produce Roots music of a very literal sort, which in turn inspired much of the programme we were given. Well, one might except the Bach pieces, save that they were an indication of the artist's own musical roots and in performing which he clearly draws upon a major source of inspiration for his own compositions. His Bog-Oak Bach at the close of the first set told the audience a lot about where his heart lies.
But for my ear Durrant was at his most appealing as he moved away from the prescriptions of the Baroque form, and into the imagistic colourings of his own work, heard particularly well after the interval. The Sussex Suite for Tenor Guitar in particular was evocative of a rural England, even as it developed un-English, certainly un-folky, complexities.
On concluding, Durrant got a good ovation, which was as well, for the last treat he had saved for his encore. With the tenor guitar he played and ambled slowly up and around the nave and back to the chancel, while the sound remained consistent in volume and tone from whichever direction it came. It lulled and invigorated at once, like a warm shower. It's a tribute to the performer and to the venue, that the old church could be played upon just so.
Link: The guitars can be seen to best advantage on Richard Durrant's own website: <a href="richarddurrant.com/discover/stringehenge/ </a>