Sunday, October 11, 2015

Retro Record Review #7: John Williams: The Spanish Guitar Anthology

Listening to these discs is like wandering down memory lane for me as it was the classical guitar recordings of John Williams and Julian Bream in the 60s and 70s that shaped to a large extent, my development as a guitarist.

Sony has been frantically cranking out budget boxes from its extensive library which includes the legacy repertoire from the Columbia, RCA and Epic labels. The John Williams Spanish Guitar Anthology is the third economically-priced box I have purchased recently (the others being of Boulez conducting Schoenberg and 20th Century Masterworks). Most of the discs in the current box contain music I originally owned on vinyl in the 70s and 80s. I haven't heard most of these recordings in 20 years or more.

What the box contains are seven discs of recordings of Spanish music for guitar originally recorded beginning in 1964 when John Williams was a 23-year-old at the beginning of his career and ending with recordings dating from 1991 when he was a 50-year-old at the peak of his abilities. Williams early on backed away from the constant touring that most classical artists are condemned to and has, since the early 70s, been very choosy about when and where he gives concerts. One famous, and very brief, tour, was with guitarist Julian Bream in 1978 when they played three concerts of guitar duets in New York, Boston and, I believe, Washington DC. Williams has an extensive discography that you can view here. Most of his significant recordings of the repertoire were made in the 60s and 70s when he pretty well exhausted what was worth playing. In the 1980s he took various jaunts into crossover and film music and a few guitar concertos. Most of the recordings since then have been reissues of older ones.

One interesting exception is a recording he made in 1991 that I had somehow missed the first time around. More about that later.

The first disc in the box is the earliest, consisting of the core virtuoso Spanish guitar repertoire of pieces like Sevilla by Albéniz (transcribed from the piano original), Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tárrega, Homenaje by de Falla and Variations on a Theme by Mozart by Sor. With the exception of the latter these are all the fruits of late-19th century Spanish nationalism with a great deal of regional "color" which, since the region is Spain, is largely derived from the guitar, which is why transcriptions of the piano music of Albéniz and Granados are so successful on guitar as the original inspiration was the guitar.

What is surprising to me, listening at this remove, is first of all, the tone-color which is, most of the time, harsh and naily. This partly comes from a heavy-handed approach. I think that nowadays, with high quality sound amplification systems easily available, we forget how classical guitarists back a few decades had to be constantly beating their instruments to death just to be heard. I heard Segovia give a recital in an enormous hall holding 2000 people (and every seat filled) and he managed it. And with better tone than this, I might add. In these first recordings Williams shows a few things: he has an unexcelled technique that not even Segovia (or Bream) could equal. He is rhythmically more incisive and more precise than either of them. And he is brutally heavy-handed. Few bars go by without an excessively hammered-out downbeat or bass note. A few pieces, such as "El Testament d'Amelia", a Catalan folk-song arrangement by Miguel Llobet, show a more expressive and lyric side. But most of the disc is rather one-dimensional virtuosity. Mind you, when Williams take a moment to shape a phrase and cultivate some vibrato, he shows a genuine musicianship.

I'm not going to go through every disc in the box. A lot of the repertoire is repeated. We get Asturias, Sevilla and Córdoba by Albéniz each twice and the Concierto de Aranjuez three times! Asturias is at its naily, rushing tempo worst in the first version, considerably more careful and tidier in the last (1980) version but at its best in the 1969 version that made a big impression on me at the time. But he rushes all of them!

Williams collaborated with a lot of musicians over the years, but the most exciting collaborations were with his rival and colleague Julian Bream. They had a very different approach, but I think this in itself was the source of a lot of the excitement. The only Grammy award he won was for a 1973 recording with Julian Bream. One disc in this collection is devoted to selections from their two studio and one live albums. My favorite guitar duet performance has always been the "Oriental" by Granados played as an encore at one of their concerts.

John Williams has recorded every guitar concerto worth the trouble (and a couple that probably weren't) but this collection contains only two concertos, both by Joaquin Rodrigo. True, his Concierto de Aranjuez is The Great Guitar Concerto, but there are some others worth a listen. What we get in this box are both William's recordings of the Fantasia para un Gentilhombre from 1967 and 1983 and all three of his recordings of the Aranjuez, from 1965, 1974 and 1983. They offer a way of tracking his development as a musician over the years as each is a kind of culmination of a stage. The first one is fiery and enthusiastic from a young virtuoso. The 1983 one is tidier with a warmer sound, but fairly conventional as well. But the one from 1974 is always the one that I have liked the most and the reason is a brilliant creative idea in the second movement. Williams really takes his time with the cadenza in the middle movement, the G# minor section of which sounds like it begins somewhere far out on the plains of La Mancha and makes a powerful crescendo. Hardly any guitarists have ever explored the interpretive possibilities of this concerto, being usually too busy just trying to play it. But in this recording Williams shows that he has considerable depths as an interpreter.

Now for the most interesting disc in the collection, the one from 1991 that I missed first time around (I was busy that year moving to Montreal). This is the only one that surprised me because of the absolutely lovely sound, completely lacking the harshness of many of his other recordings. It is also the most lyric and expressive. The big piece of repertoire is, again, a piano transcription, this time of the Valses poéticos of Granados. Back in the late 1960s Williams had done a partial transcription of this piece lasting about seven minutes. This version is nearly 15 minutes long and, I think, contains all the movements of the original. It is a brilliant achievement both in terms of a successful transcription and a lovely performance. All I can find on YouTube is a clip of the first, truncated, version which is technically brilliant, but lacking the lyric dimensions of the later transcription and recording.

Also on the disc from 1991 are some other gems. One of the greatest guitar pieces ever written is the Invocación y danza by Joaquin Rodrigo, composed in 1961 as a homage to Manuel de Falla. This is a complex and atmospheric piece that was, frankly, beyond the interpretive capabilities of every guitarist when it was written.

One of the first to attempt it was Pepe Romero who has made an excellent recording. Another was Julian Bream who has sorted out the musical challenges in more than one piece by Rodrigo. So this recording by John Williams was important in that it fills in one of the few blanks in his Spanish repertoire. He does a wonderful job with it. Also on the disc are nine of Llobet's Catalan folk-song arrangements including the greatest of them, "El Mestre". With this 1991 recording Williams achieves a higher level of musicality than ever before--and with his best tone-color.

Wandering a little away from this collection, I think that most of William's greatest performances date from the 1970s with this brilliant Aranjuez, his terrific Scarlatti and Villa-Lobos recordings and his equally outstanding ones of Ponce and his discovery of a lot of the music of Barrios that was not well known before his recording in the late 1970s. He also did the first integral recording of all the Bach lute music on a double vinyl album in 1975.

John Williams has just recently retired from performing, but he remains one of the greatest guitarists of the last 100 years. I suspect that if the guitar repertoire had contained more substantial pieces, then he might have become an even greater interpreter.

Let's listen to Sevilla by Albéniz recorded in Sevilla in 1993:

UPDATE: Reading this over, I see that I have short-changed John Williams in one respect. It was due to him and to Pepe Romero that all guitarists were shown, for the first time, a really solid, reliable and consistent technique.


Marc Puckett said...

Am giving a listen to Invocación y Danza and the other pieces you name here. Although the fact is that the first music I did listen to, when I could begin purchasing my own LPs! in the late 60s or early 70s, was 'Elisabethan' stuff, (including Julian Bream Consort albums), my recollection is that I moved away from that fascination pretty quickly: perhaps it's finally time to become better acquainted with the classical guitar repertoire.

Bryan Townsend said...

There is some good stuff. Not a huge amount, but some! There is also a lot of fine music for lute, of course.