Monday, July 15, 2013

Happy Birthday, Julian!

Today is Julian Bream's 80th birthday and he is probably tending his roses at his country place in Wiltshire. Norman Lebrecht has a tribute to him. Of course, Julian Bream was not at all shy and in fact did not suffer fools gladly. I have met him on a couple of occasions--just brief encounters after a concert. Here is a lovely performance of a lovely piece of music written for him. At the end we see the composer, William Walton, another musician who tended to the acerbic, who compliments him on getting it "better". Ah, the English!

I first saw Julian Bream in a concert in New York at Town Hall in 1975. The first half was played on the lute and the second, guitar. I was both impressed with the power of his expression and disappointed at his occasional struggles with the instrument. As I recall, the first half ended with a piece by Dowland that just fell apart. He didn't actually end the piece, he abandoned it!

A number of years later, I saw him play at Place des Arts in Montréal and it was just as expressive, but this time technically impeccable. One of his encores, the "El Mestre" of Miguel Llobet, was as fine a performance on guitar as I have ever heard. Alas, I can't find it on YouTube, but here he is playing another piece by Llobet, "El Testament de Amelia":

I also saw his final tour before retiring in 1997/98. It was an excellent program with a big suite by Bach and a Sonata by Brouwer. But as I recall, it was again plagued by some struggles with the instrument. A couple of things people have said about Bream: a friend of mine and ex-student of Bream's said that every concert was like an heroic battle. And John Duarte has said that yes, on occasion Bream makes mistakes in concert, but he would still rather hear Bream make a few mistakes than just about anyone else play all the right notes! I think I would agree with that.

Julian Bream is a serious guitarist who took a very serious approach to the music. He commissioned and performed the most demanding music and did a fantastic job playing it. I think that the audience, in later years, became a little less knowledgeable and less able to appreciate his caliber of musicianship. His last few tours had lower attendance than before. But few guitarists had the musical depth and command of the instrument that Julian Bream had. Perhaps none...

Here are Julian Bream and John Williams with a nicely spectacular performance of a piece by Isaac Albéniz:

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