An expectant hush descended on the audience as Denis Azabagić purposefully dropped his right hand from his forehead, onto the strings of his Steve Connor instrument to launch into 5 Préludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos. While they are dedicated to the composer’s wife Arminda (Mindinha), each Prélude is in turn subtitled in homage variously to the Countryman, the Scoundrel, Bach, the Brazilian Indian and Social Life respectively. Azabagić’s interpretation of this warhorse of the guitar repertoire was thoughtful, cerebral even, yet never losing its quintessential Brazilian flavour.

The not-so-well-known works on the programme were the real scene-stealers. Vojislav Ivanovic’s six Café Pieces were a revelation. They come from Ivanovic’s student days in Athens when his colleagues and he played “café” i.e.. genres of music considered lighter or “lesser” than classical repertory. “They represent my attempt to break away from being ‘serious’ at the expense of losing touch with my heart and the audience and with what I really was”, he writes. The fact that the composer himself endorses Azabagić’s performance of the work as “superb” says a lot. Tear Prélude seemed like soul-felt, almost cathartic outpouring. The inherent humour in Funny Valse with its gigantic leaps across the register, its turn-on-a dime switch from major to minor and back again, and its elegant conclusion, was apparent to the listener. Tango Café is a charming salute to the legendary Argentinian tango composer Ástor Piazzolla. Nostalgia, essentially a tremolo etude had quite obvious inspiration from Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra. Here, as elsewhere in the programme, Azabagić’s astonishing command of technique was self-evident. The tremolo was clean, never smudged, and the lower bass line was well-contoured. Lullaby written for Ivanovic’s son Srdjan had a languid sepia-tinted air to it, while Improvisation and Dance seemed to develop this idea further and the second section with its heady bossa nova rhythm brought the work to a resounding close.

In the second half of the programme, Joaquin Rodrigo’s Invocacion y Danza opened with harmonics tip-toeing gingerly over a quiet bass line. It picked up pace, getting increasingly agitated, rife with tremolos, insistent arpeggios and obsessive phrase repetition and winding down to an almost inaudible conclusion. Azabagić surpassed himself here, making Rodrigo’s work and the anguish in it his own.

American composer Alan Thomas’ “Out of Africa” suite was perhaps the main highlight of the entire evening. In Thomas’ own words “This is not African music, but rather music which is inspired by my distilled memories of particular African styles of singing.” The suite programmatically charts the course of a whole day, from sunrise to sleep. We did not hear Zenith or High Noon, but were promised its hearing at Azabagić’s subsequent concert. Call at Sunrise evoked African chant, which got progressively more complex, and then winding down again. Morning Dance was a robust affair, with cross-rhythms and drumming. Evening Dance has an upbeat, earworm melody that stays with you, long after. Cradle Song is a tender, simple yet beautiful melody that gently drifted away into the cosmos.

The last work was Fernando Sor’s Variations on a theme by Mozart, Op.9, one of the Spanish composer’s most famous compositions for the instrument. The theme in question is taken from The Magic Flute, towards the end of the first act. “Das klinget so herrlich” is sung by the slaves of Monostratos when they fall under the spell of Papageno’s magic bells, enabling him and Pamina to escape. In Sor’s hands, the theme is transformed into a showcase for the guitar’s histrionic and virtuosic range and a testing ground for every performer. Azabagić rose splendidly to the challenge, taking some variations at a gallop but clearly in control of the reins.

The encore offering was Paraguayan composer Agustin Pios Barros Mangoré’s Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios (Alms for the Love of God), a work steeped in religious fervour. Another tremolo study, it traverses into the realm of the sublime, a prayer without words, for words by then are superfluous.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 13 May 2012)