DOWLAND: Flow, My Tears.* Lachrimae Pavan. Fantasia. Now, Oh Now I Needs Must Depart.* Frog Galliard. The King of Denmark, His Galliard. What If I Never Speed?* The Earl of Essex, His Galliard. Can She Excuse My Wrongs?* Fine Knacks for Ladies.* If My Complaints Could Passions Move.* Captain Digorie Piper’s Galliard. Die Not Before My Day.* BRITTEN: Songs from the Chinese.* The Shooting of his Dear.* Master Kilby.* The Soldier & the Sailor* / *Peter Pears, ten; Julian Bream, lute/gtr (live: Aldeburgh, June 7, 1958) / TELEMANN: Concerto (Trio Sonata) in D, TWV 42:D6 / Bream, lute; Aurèle Nicolet, fl; George Malcolm, hpd / TURINA: Sonatina for Guitar, Op. 61. SCHUBERT: Selection from Waltzes, Op. 9 (arr. for flute & guitar) / Bream, gtr; Nicolet, fl (live: Aldeburgh, June 23, 1959) / Doremi DHR-8060
When RCA-Sony issued The Julian Bream Collection five years ago, the then-80-year-old guitarist-lutenist told The Guardian, “I’m a better musician now than when I was 70!”
But Bream was always a good musician—in fact, one of the greatest classical guitar and lute players who ever walked the planet.
Part of this is attributable to his background. As a young boy, he and his father were huge fans of jazz guitarists. While other would-be classical guitarists were listening to Andrés Segovia, the most boring blowhard in classical music history, he and his dad were listening to the likes of Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian.
Alas, too many classical guitarists follow Segovia’s lead. An upper-class snob who took up the guitar to make it “respectable” and who played mostly soft ballads, Segovia did so because he HATED the Gypsy and Flamenco traditions. Like Paul Whiteman, who endeavored to “make a lady out of jazz,” Segovia de-masculinized guitar playing. He had a poor technique but plenty of chutzpah. Bream had both chutzpah and technique. To this day, when a classical guitarist asks me to review one of his CDs, I’ll ask him, “Do you sound more like Julian Bream or Segovia?” I would also put Pepe Romero in that category of classical guitarists who play with oomph.
Bream could play delicately, to be sure, but he always had a rhythmic lift to his playing that most others lacked, and in faster or more exciting works he played with a stronger plectrum attack on the strings. For all I know, he still does; I haven’t heard him in some decades.
But these wonderful live performances date from early in his career, before he became a real household name worldwide. These are taken from pristine copies of BBC transcription discs and, although the microphone placement is close, it is not abrasive-sounding. Among the interesting things about this album is the fact that this is the world premiere performance of Benjamin Britten’s Songs From the Chinese.
Peter Pears’ voice has always been a source of contention among listeners. Even though he used a fair amount of chest voice, it always sounded as if he were constantly singing in head, and the tone tended towards nasality. As he aged, it also showed an unsteadiness in the tone, particularly on records but not in person where the sound dissipated. (I know; I heard him in person twice, once in the Metropolitan Opera production of Death in Venice and once in a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art accompanied by harpist Osian Ellis.) Here the voice is pretty steady, and as usual his interpretive skills were first-rate. I also found it interesting to note that Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavan is essentially the same tune as Flow, My Tears. Bream’s rhythmic acuity is felt strongly in his wonderful performance of the Fantasia and the little mordents he plays in Now, O Now I Needs Must Part. Take THAT, Segovia! He also plays beautifully behind Pears’ excellent rendition of What If I Never Speed?
Some of Britten’s Songs From the Chinese sound a bit like the old Elizabethan lute songs, using a fairly simple harmonic pattern, yet have enough odd changes within them to indicate that they are indeed from the 20th century. In “Dance Song,” about a unicorn, we have clearly arrived in the world of modern music. These performances find Pears in much better voice than his much later studio recording with Bream on RCA, issued as part of the large RCA-Sony set (listen to Pears’ wonderful vocal control in the soft high passages in “Depression”), thus these are clearly the preferred versions.
This performance of Telemann’s Concerto in D, arranged for the trio of flute, lute and harpsichord, would never pass muster with today’s HIP crowd: the phrasing is too elegant, with too much legato in it. Well, who cares? It’s wonderful, although George Malcolm is rather poorly miked; they all sound as if they’re having a ball playing the music. Oh, how awful! They need some Historically-Informed lessons! Bream is especially excellent in the “Vivace.” Happily, no one should complain of Bream’s performance of Joaquin Turina’s Guitar Sonatina; it’s lively and played with great attention to musical detail, and I love the Spanish “metallic” sound he elicits from his instrument, including a small bit of terminal vibrato on one note at the end of a phrase.
We conclude this second recital with arrangements for flute and guitar of Schubert waltzes—not great or inspiring music by any means, but certainly fun to listen to, particularly the way Nicolet and Bream play them. Nicolet’s flute is so bright in these that it almost sounds like a piccolo at times! All in all, a wonderful recital and highly recommended, particularly (but not exclusively) for Pears’ wonderful singing of the Dowland and Britten songs.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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