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Cornish Paganini sets the standard

(Review by David van der Hof).

Germoe Church was the cosy setting on a wintry night for a recital by international lutenist Ben Salfield last Thursday, supported by organist Trefor Bowen and best-selling authoress Patricia Finney.

Mr Bowen, a local Church organist, originally from Wales, opened with a half-hour set. An eclectic repertoire included around 400 years of music, and all the hard work was well appreciated by the audience.

After an interval that included such excellent fare as free Christmas spirit (brandy!) and mulled wine, plus Tudor cakes and biscuits, authoress Miss Finney stood at the pulpit to give readings from two of her best-selling historical thrillers. A regal figure with a theatrical air, she amused and delighted the listeners with an excerpt that detailed the politics in gift giving at the Court of Elizabeth I.

Huge applause greeted the entrance of lutenist Ben Salfield, and despite his gaunt, 'flu-ridden appearance, the maestro retained all of his stage presence. It is hard to put into words exactly just how dominating a personality he is. His playing was technically flawless, the emotive qualities of his style displayed great maturity and it was all served up with lashings of warmth, humour and old-fashioned stagecraft. This was a truly remarkable performance, and, had it not been for the over-keen elderly warden who leapt in to thank us all for coming, we would have happily heard several encores!

He opened with a Galliard by obscure renaissance composer Rosseter. It was highly melodic and accompanied by impressive sets of part-improvised variations. Then, a set of music by John Dowland, one of the most famous English composers of the 16th-17th century followed. Almains and Galliards, plus a long and involved Pavan - phrasing sublime - and a fiendish Fancy completed the group to tumultuous applause.

Pieces by Spaniard Luys De Narvaez from the 1530s were next. Two sets of diferencias were beautiful in their simplicity: Guadarme las vacas, or herding home the cows, was the eccentric title of the first, while the Segunda diferencia had a Moorish feel to it. Salfield finished the series with De Narvaez's intabulation of Emperor Charles V of Spain's favourite song by Josqin, Mille regres (a thousand regrets). As the performer wryly noted, his Royal Highness should have had plenty. One lady had tears in her eyes.

The evening concluded with excerpts from Salfield's own suite, Around, comprising short tone poems in the form of dances. They were interesting, accessible and highly enjoyable; I wish we had heard the suite in its entirety. Some audience members later described it as their favourite - ahead of the Dowland!

A pre-eminent guitarist once described Ben Salfield as "like some modern-day Paganini" - and he certainly seemed to have the devil in his fingertips on Thursday. I have heard most of the top lutenists in my time, from Bream to Hopkinson-Smith, but I think Ben Salfield just set the standard.

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