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Friday, August 14, 2020

In Memoriam: Julian Bream

MY TWO MOST MEMORABLE concert-going experiences both were recitals by guitarist/lutenist Julian Bream. It’s difficult to describe what made them so special. The music, of course – he had impeccable taste in programming – but there also seemed to be a spell that fell over the audience as he held us in thrall to his elegant way with the pieces he chose. Bream died today at the age of 87 at his home in England. He had been retired since 2002 – he once said that he gave up performing when faced with the prospect of lugging along merchandise to sell – but performed privately until 2011. His influence on the guitar and lute, in terms both of appreciation and repertory, is inestimable, and there’s plenty of info on the internet to pursue. I’m paying tribute to his memory today by offering my review of the performance I saw at the Troy Music Hall in 1992.


TROY CHROMATICS DID IT AGAIN: they scooped the rest of the area’s presenters to give us one of the most gifted and sublime artists on the concert scene. Julian Bream hasn’t performed in the Capital District in a decade, and his return was every bit as sparkling as that earlier gig.

Julian Bream
One of the distinctions Bream brings to his concerts is a deeply-felt and (dare I say it) intellectual approach to programming. He has commissioned a number of major works for his instrument. He presents off-beat, underheard pieces. In doing so, he has enlarged the guitar’s repertory and continued the work Segovia started in ensuring its place as a vital part of the classical music world.

All of which was exemplified by last week’s concert.

A fairly chronological pair of sets spanned some four hundred years, beginning with 17th-century pieces by Frescobaldi and de Visée. Although the program booklet provided good notes on the piece, Bream broke the silly tradition of performer mumness and commented, work by work, on most of his program. It’s a nice practice when a performer can pull it off, and sure helps diminish classical music’s high snob quotient.

The opening Toccata by Frescobaldi was a good all-around warm up. The sound of a single guitar fills that hall quite nicely, but the audience needed to simmer itself down a bit.

Bream played two Baroque-era suites, written within a few decades of one another, to demonstrate how Bach took the form much farther in complexity and richness of expression than his predecessors. Which is not to diminish the effectiveness of de Visée’s four-movement Suite in A Major (after all, it was written to satisfy the grumpy, insomniac King Louis XIV). Characteristic of music (and buildings) from that time is fancy ornamentation: notes are turned and trilled and twirled, which is a special challenge for the guitar (or lute, for which most of these early pieces were written).

It’s one of Bream’s impressive skills to be able to roll his chords and spice up his notes with a deft, spontaneous-sounding precision. And he’s so accomplished that he calls little attention to himself when doing it.

The same was true of the more technically demanding suite by Bach, a six dance movement filled with composer’s delightful rhythms and out-of-nowhere fugues. Bream hid all that technical stuff behind an easygoing, effective presentation.

French and Spanish dances comprised the second half, with a fascinating survey of late-19th- and early-20th-century Spanish stylings. Joaquín Turina’s music is especially convincing in Bream’s hands because it’s an interpretation once-removed, and therefore intellectually challenging. Turina impressionistically redefines the Fandango in his Fandanguillo, and the Fantasia Sevillana is a portrait of an idea of music from Seville, with its own characteristic rhythms and harmony.

A high point of luster was Bream’s way with the Valses Poeticos by Enrique Granados, a gentle suite of three-quarter time dances that brought out all the many voicings of which a guitar is capable. The evening ended in a burst of fire with two showpieces by Albeniz and a single encore, the Serenata Espanola by Malats.

Julian Bream
Troy Music Hall, March 19

Metroland Magazine, 26 March 1992

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