Sunday, September 15, 2013

Julian Bream: Guitar Master

English guitarist Julian Bream is about to receive a lifetime achievement award from Gramophone magazine. The Guardian has a big article up devoted to the retired guitarist. I normally like to criticize articles about music in the popular press, but the Guardian is really a step above: their classical music section is quite good. But I do think I can contribute a few insights that the article misses.

Julian Bream has been retired for quite some time now. I believe I saw him in his last international tour when he played in Montréal in the winter season of 1997/98. The first time I saw him play was in New York in 1975 and I saw other concerts in the 1980s on the West Coast and the 1990s in Montréal. I grew up, as a guitarist, listening to his recordings. He was a stunning interpreter of a great deal of 20th century music for guitar by Reginald Smith-Brindle, Benjamin Britten, Hans Werner Henze, Leo Brouwer, Lennox Berkeley and others. He inspired the composition of much of this music. His great rival, the other English (Australian) guitarist, John Williams, was also a close friend. They performed quite a lot of guitar duets together.

Bream was a spectacular performer who explored realms of timbre and dynamics that were largely untouched by the Spanish school of guitar playing. The Spanish players, led by the great maestro Andrés Segovia, generally cultivated a warmer sound. Bream used darker sounds alongside brilliant, crystalline ones for a wider palette. He wasn't afraid to use a bright, naily sound with a very dry staccato attack.

Apart from his performances of 20th century repertoire, he was also renowned for being a brilliant interpreter of Renaissance lute music. We are a lot more familiar with John Dowland as a result of his advocacy. He uncovered some virtuosic repertoire by Mauro Giuliani, the opera potpourris known as the Rossianiana, and recorded some outstanding sonatas by Fernando Sor. There really wasn't any guitar repertoire that he wasn't in command of, though it took him quite a while to start playing the music of Leo Brouwer. When he did, though, he inspired a wonderful concerto and sonata. Bream was a formidable concerto player, with significant recordings of Rodrigo, Berkeley, Villa-Lobos, Malcolm Arnold and Brouwer.

All that being said, I think it is also appropriate, in the context of this blog, to make some critical observations as well. Bream's status as one of the very greatest 20th century guitarists is not to be doubted, but he did have a few flaws as an artist. While I have always admired his powerful and expressive interpretations, I have found him to be a problematic model as a technician. There is no Julian Bream "school" of guitar-playing, even though he did have a few students. I spent a couple of years studying with one of his most accomplished students. He was an excellent guitarist, but like his teacher, not one to be emulated. Why is this?

I think the problem with the way Bream approaches the guitar is that playing is always a kind of heroic struggle. There is no sprezzatura (that I talk about here), no elegant lightness. Everything is done with excessive effort and tension. This leads to drama, yes, but at extreme cost. In Bream's playing this cost was evident in so many of his concerts. About half the concerts I saw him play were nearly technically perfect. The other half had all too many disasters! Sometimes he won the battle, sometimes he lost. Another indicator was his work as a concerto player. To be a really great concerto performer you need a technical confidence and ease, enough so that you can really interact with the orchestra. On the guitar, the artists who seem to have this the most are John Williams and Pepe Romero. Bream never seemed entirely relaxed when playing with orchestra--probably because he was never that relaxed ever with the guitar!

Sometimes this tension can lead to a mannered performance. His recording of the Choro No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos is an example. It is so choppy, naily and overblown that it permanently turned me off the piece. Here is the performance:

Villa-Lobos seems to be the one composer that Bream does not play well. No, wait, there is another: J. S. Bach. Bream did not record a great deal of Bach, but when he did that same tension and excess tends to mar the performance:

Flat-footed, rhythmically stiff, skittish tempo, clumsy phrases--there is not a lot to like in that performance.

But all that being said, we should admire the lifetime achievement of Julian Bream for the great one it was. When he started out there was no English classical guitar tradition. After a few decades of his influence as a concert artist and inspiration to composers, Great Britain is now a center of outstanding guitar playing. Artists like John Williams, David Russell and a host of others would likely never have achieved the heights they did were it not for the pioneering career of Julian Bream.

Let's end with a performance of the Fandango by Joaquin Rodrigo, an example of Bream at his incisive best:

Unfortunately it is not available on YouTube, but Bream's recording of the rest of those Tres Piezas Españoles by Rodrigo, especially of the Passacaglia, showed we guitarists how they should be played!

Thank you very much, Julian!


michaelenglish said...

You say that Bream does not play Villa-Lobos well
and certainly I have my own reservations about some of the preludes
but his reading of the guitar concerto is surely monumental

It swings. Such assurance is rare

Bryan Townsend said...

No, I'm not a fan of Bream's Villa-Lobos which is often brittle to the extreme. But I can barely recall his performance of the Concerto. I should have a listen!