A Wonderful Tribute to Julian Bream

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DES PRES: Et in terra pax. HOLBOURNE: Pavane. BATCHELER: Alman. CUTTING: Walsingham Variations. DOWLAND: Fantasia. 3 Sacred Songs.1 3 Lute Solos. 4 Lachrimae Pavans.2 REUSNER: Suite in G min. DE VISÉE: Suite in D min. BRITTEN: Nocturnal, after Dowland’s “Come, Heavy Sleep.” TRAD., arr. NIN: Granadina.3 TRAD., arr. OBRADORS: Con amores la mi madre.3VILLA LOBOS: Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5: Aria.3 GRANADOS: El majo discreto.3 La maja dolorosa.3 El majo timido.3 El tra la la y el punteado.3 HAYDN: String Quartet Op. 2, No. 2, guitar version.4 RODRIGO: Concierto de Aranjuez.5 BERKELEY: Songs of the Half-Light, Op. 65.1 DODGSON: Partita No. 1 / Julian Bream, lute/gtr with 1Peter Pears, ten; 2Bream Consort of Viols; 3Carmen Prietto, sop; 4members of Carimelli Qrt; 5Scottish National Chamber Orch., cond. Sir Alexander Gibson / Doremi DHR-8151/52, mono (live, London, 1956-1965)

There are some albums I review that are an adventure, some that end up being a chore because the performer doesn’t deliver a good reading, and a few that are an unalloyed pleasure from start to finish. This set is one of the latter, because I’ve been a huge fan of Julian Bream ever since I first heard him in the late 1960s.

In my view, Bream was not only the greatest lutenist and one of the greatest guitarists of his time but the end of a tradition that is now lost and gone because he was self-taught and came to the music with an enthusiasm and a zest in his playing that most classical lute and guitar players of today completely lack. For just one example of what I mean, listen to his performance here of Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez, then tell me if you’ve ever heard it played with this much excitement.

The one fly in the ointment is the atrocious sound quality. While I certainly applaud Doremi’s ability to acquire these rare broadcasts and issue them here, I must castigate them for not caring one whit about the quality of the sound they present. Every track has a loud rumble, hum and heavy surface noise from the original tapes or acetates, and Doremi did about as much to correct this as the late Edward D. Smith did on his LP issues of rare old records and broadcasts of famous singers, which is absolutely nothing. I realize that not everyone can afford a restoration engineer of the high caliber of Holger Siedler, Ward Marston or Mark Obert-Thorn, but a little care and perhaps one hour’s work with even an inexpensive sound editor would have worked wonders. I used my little $50 GoldWave program to select the initial offending noise, reduce the volume by 14 db, then select it to a clipboard and use it to remove most of the noise. Then I used the Reduce Hum feature to eliminate the bad low-level hum on every recording. No,. the results aren’t perfect—you can still hear a very soft sort of grinding sound in the background—but the noise level has been reduced by at least 80%, which allows you to hear the delicate playing of Bream’s lute and guitar with much better clarity.

Although I didn’t mind the opening selection by Josquin des Pres too much, I felt that Doremi should have started the album with track 2 since a BBC announcer introduces “a lute recital by Julian Bream,” and that is a much better way to start the album. And the selections he chose were hardly cookie-cutter fare: music by such obscure early composers as Anthony Holbourne, Daniel Batcheler and Francis Cutting. Granted, these pieces don’t sound terribly different from the usual Dowland fare, but at least he provided something a bit out of the ordinary, and as usual his performances are several cuts above the average that you hear nowadays. Every note is crisp and clear, individually sounded as if it were a pearl on a string. In the three Dowland religious songs he acts as accompanist to the singer who admired and used him the most often, Peter Pears, and although I could live without the religiosity I admired his sensitive work with the tenor. It’s also interesting to hear Dowland’s Four Lachrimae Pavans, based on his famous song Flow, My Tears, with the “Bream Consort of Viols” (all unidentified on the album’s back cover) even though one of them is distinctly flat by about a quarter tone.

The suite by German composer Esaias Reusner (1636-1679) is also a rarity, and more interesting musically than some of his British contemporaries. In the Suite in D minor by Robert de Visée, particularly in the Prelude, Bream demonstrates how one can change the tone and color of certain notes by the way one plucks them—a lost art today. For Britten’s Nocturnal based on Dowland (but not too closely), Bream switches to the guitar, demonstrating just how great he was on that instrument as well.

The second CD begins with several Spanish songs sung by soprano Carmen Prietto. She was an American, born and raised in San Diego, whose mother was Mexican and whose father was Peruvian, and who had also been a singer (no voice range specified). She made her operatic debut as Gilda in 1947 with the Pacific Opera Company but, faced with such competition as Mattiwilda Dobbs and Roberta Peters, could not catch a break in this country, so she went to England where by 1955 she was making recordings of Latin folk songs in gussied-up arrangements. According to what I read online, she also performed Britten’s Les Illuminations that same year and appeared in a performance of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1954. She had a wonderfully bright voice that sounded authentically Latina, which was perfect for these Latin-based songs and arias (including the famous one from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5). It’s a shame that no one ever invited her to record Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne; she might have given Netania Davrath a run for her money.

Also of interest is this version of the Haydn Quartet Op. 2/2 in which Bream plays one of the violin parts—and wonderfully so. This disc also features the world premiere performance of Lennox Berkeley’s Songs of the Half-Light with Peter Pears, an excellent suite performed superbly.

One of the biggest reasons why we don’t have lutenists and classical guitarists like Bream amy more is that the historically-informed historicals have ordained that one should never play these instrument with energy or feeling; in fact, this attitude eventually claimed Bream himself as a victim. His playing changed during the 1970s and ‘80s, and he began to sound generic and somewhat uninteresting like all his HIP contemporaries, which was a shame because with it we lost feeling in music. With all due respect to Doremi’s Vol. 1 in this series, it is this 2-CD set that gives one the broadest range of Bream’s abilities; along with his recording of Elizabethan lute songs with Peter Pears (one album each for Decca and RCA), it presents Bream in his best light as an artist. Worth getting, then, but caveat emptor regarding the sound quality!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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