Most musicians with an arresting stage presence tend to command attention with an awe-inspiring magnetism. There are, however, a handful who possess a rare ability to mesmerize an audience just as much with a calm and phlegmatic demeanour. Early music specialist Rolf Lislevand is one such performer – devoid of affectation or excessive showmanship – and played to an extremely enthusiastic crowd in Brussels on Thursday night.

Rolf Lislevand © Francesca Pfeffer
Rolf Lislevand
© Francesca Pfeffer

A native of Oslo, Lislevand cut his teeth studying classical guitar at the Norwegian Academy of Music and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland, and was in Brussels to perform early Baroque works to coincide with a retrospective of the 18th-century French painter Antoine Watteau’s work, which recently came to an end at BOZAR, one of Brussels’ major arts venues. The lute and its near-relations appear frequently in Watteau’s work, who was a contemporary of many of the composers featuring in Lislevand’s performance. With stock characters of the commedia dell’arte often depicted in Watteau’s paintings, Thursday night’s concert was designed to plunge the audience into a musical ambiance worthy of this highly stylised aesthetic.

The evening was also a vehicle for showcasing two early stringed instruments, the Baroque guitar – a precursor to the modern six-string guitar – and the theorbo, a large, long-necked specimen with roots in 16th-century Florence. Lislevand’s childlike enthusiasm for these most obscure of instruments was palpable and infectious. And although equally adept on both instruments, there was no need for Lislevand to disclose his favourite of the two stringed relics – his beaming expression as he teased out the bright, honeyed chords of the opening Toccata by Giovanni Battista Granata on the Baroque guitar said it all. Alternating between these two very different instruments on the same programme was a shrewd move; the buoyant, playful timbre of the Baroque guitar was nicely complemented by the more ponderous depths of the theorbo’s soundworld. Lislevand himself confirmed that this was a conscious decision, the yin-yang tussle between the two aiming to evoke the chiaroscuro lighting effects of Watteau’s fêtes galantes paintings.

The entire programme was unknown to me and no doubt to the majority of those present at the opulent Protestant Chapel, so the evening served as a gentle introduction to a smorgasbord of French, Italian and Spanish composers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Having made Italy his permanent home, it was no surprise that a large chunk of Lislevand’s programme was given over to works from his adopted nation. Antonio Carbonchi’s Scaramanzia (the Italian word for “curse”) was particularly enthralling, the dark momentum of its chord sequences proving a suitable match for its title. It was, however, the works of Spanish composers Santa Cruz, Murcia and Sanz that seemed to connect most with the audience, their sun-drenched sequences and impish figurations conjuring vivid images of a pleasure-seeking Spanish royal court.

There were a few moments where the terraced dynamics typical of Baroque music could have been more pronounced. Nevertheless, Lislevand’s phrasing and articulation were superb throughout – he is a musician who genuinely makes his instruments “speak”. This was an uplifting, informative evening delivered by a consummate performer. Rolf Lislevand’s unruffled composure was summed up towards the beginning of the recital: a mobile phone rang very loudly for around 30 seconds during the second piece of the evening, but the ever-professional Lislevand shrugged it off with an amused raise of an eyebrow and a heavy dose of Scandinavian sangfroid.

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