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Julian Bream My Life In Music
Julian Bream (guitar)
Directed and presented: Paul Balmer
Produced: Judy Caine.
rec. May 2003.
AVIE AV2109 PAL [195.00] AVIE AV2110 NTSC [195.00]


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25 September 2006 this DVD is essentially a reissue of the same material that appeared several years ago. 

In the spring of 2002, and after 55 years ‘on the planks’ Julian Bream made the difficult decision to retire from the concert platform. In 2003 director Paul Balmer returned with Bream to Aldeburgh, revisiting the original manuscript of the famous Op. 70 at Britten’s home.  This culminated in Bream coming out of retirement to record complete movements of Nocturnal and De Falla’s Homenaje in the wonderful acoustics of the Maltings Concert Hall, Snape. 

The presentation format of this DVD is very well conceived and is divided into two sections: a two-hour narrative and a section of bonus features that lasts just over one hour. The narrative on the life of Julian Bream has copious film clips, photographs and a most spontaneous and entertaining dialogue by Bream. Much of it was photographed in his beautiful home in Semely, Dorset and in the surrounding countryside - Thomas Hardy country. The second part contains ten fascinating segments.

Guitarists will be very interested in the section entitled Guitarist’s Delight wherein Bream talks about such interesting subjects as the history of nylon strings and how he obtained a set of the very first made by the Albert Agustine Company of New York. So treasured were they that after a concert he washed them, hung them out to dry and then put them back on his guitar for the next concert. 

In the segment Archive Music Clips Bream plays the Aguado Rondo from Op. 2. To describe it as magic hardly does this particular rendition justice. In another segment, friend Jill Balcon reads Bream’s favourite poem Ithaca by Constantine P. Cavafy and for those interested in the challenges and logistics of making such a DVD, this can be found in segment entitled The Makers Of ....

Someone once noted that to understand history you must first understand the historian. The uniqueness of Julian Bream among 20th century guitarists is often challenging to articulate; much of that challenge dissipates having once viewed this DVD.

While many have designated Bream as the successor to Andrès Segovia in reality they had little in common; that both were autodidactic is obviously one commonality. Such circumstances create significant individuality as is well evidenced by Segovia, Bream and NarcisoYepes to mention but three examples. So many of today’s guitar graduates from famous music schools play well but sound like clones of their institutions.

One must concede that irrespective of his chosen instrument Bream would have been an outstanding musician.  The guitar is fortunate that he made it his instrument of choice. Early influence on his guitar playing included exposure to cello and piano the latter of which was the basis on which he was admitted to the Royal College of Music where there was no guitar tuition.

Although as a young man Bream possessed an innate sense of phrasing, he speaks at length of experience accompanying tenor Peter Pears.  From this he learned, for the first time to accompany and to be aware of the singer breathing; it changed his whole concept of even his own solo playing because he realised how terribly important phrasing is. I am reminded of a comment, equally relevant but about a different craft. It was said of writer John Banville:  ‘He is the kind of writer whose spaces and silences are as critical as what is clearly delineated.’ (Bibliofemme). 

A number of additional eclectic musical experiences combined to forge the foundation of Bream’s formidable musicianship: he played renaissance lute, four-course guitar, vihuela and baroque guitar; he also played jazz guitar and is enamoured of the style of Django Reinhardt. He describes jazz as influencing his playing of classical music by creating an atmosphere of ‘here and now’.  Bream played duets with harpsichordist George Malcolm and guitarist John Williams and visited India to play improvisational sessions with sarode player Ali Akbar Khan; he described Khan as the greatest musician he has ever heard.  Bream established the Julian Bream Consort, a group that began a revival in early consort music which still continues. During his early career Bream also played plectrum guitar in several different bands.

Interestingly Segovia championed the guitar as a solo instrument and with the exception of orchestral music made no recordings of the guitar in any other context. 

One other thing that Bream shared with Segovia was a desire to expand the rather meagre repertory. Although Bream’s appeals for new guitar compositions failed with Paul Hindemith and Stravinsky, he succeeded magnificently with composers such as Alan Rawsthorne, Lennox Berkeley, William Walton, Richard Rodney Bennett and of course Benjamin Britten. A total of twenty-four composers of international repute have written original compositions for Bream. After playing for Walton his interpretation of Bagatelles for Guitar, Bream commented:  ‘I played it exactly as you wrote it’ to which Walton responded: ‘you got it better’. Bennett noted that while others may play his Concerto for Guitar more intellectually, Bream played it with a poetry, mystery and darkness like no other. 

Not only was Bream responsible for numerous important new repertory additions, in 1951 at his first London recital at the Wigmore Hall, he set a new standard for classical guitar concert programmes by playing the entire J.S. Bach Lute Suite No. 3.  In concerts, Segovia had traditionally only played single movements from suites.

Bream expresses his considerable empathy for the Spanish culture. He also says that his interpretations of some Spanish music - e.g. that of Albéniz and Granados - may be un-Spanish for the Spaniard but for others it is an image of Spain that they comprehend, understand and are charmed by. The same could be said of Bream’s interpretations of music by Villa-Lobos. Prior to the initial release of his recording of the Villa-Lobos preludes, Bream had the opportunity personally to play them to the composer. Contrasted with a rather critical reception and demonstration of alternative interpretations by the composer, Villa-Lobos subsequently purchased copies of the recording as personal gifts for friends and associates. The interpretations of Spanish guitar music by Jose Luis Gonzalez may be in a class of their own, but Bream’s interpretive approach is something that this writer can ‘comprehend, understand and be charmed by’ to put it conservatively.

In May 2003 Bream summarised his fifty-five ‘years on the planks’ as: ‘passion and desire to communicate - that’s the key’.

At the conclusion of this DVD, and in similar vein to the completion of a particularly enjoyable book, I felt at a loss in that, like all things, this experience  ‘too had come to pass’. I also reflected on concluding remarks from Bream’s biography with Tony Palmer, A Life On The Road: ‘Most people have someone.  He has no one’. Twenty- three years have passed since the publication of that book and, now in his retirement from the concert platform, we know that along with Bream’s beloved music his dog, Django, fills some of that void.

This is a splendid presentation with wide musical appeal, but to guitarists it is an Aladdin’s cave.

Zane Turner 

Footnote (Aug09)

While it is a general truism that Segovia only ever recorded solo or with an
orchestra, two exceptions have subsequently come to my attention.

In 1936 Manuel Ponce arranged his Weiss pastiche 'Prelude' for guitar as a
duet with keyboard. It was a wedding gift on the occasion of Segovia's
second marriage to pianist Paquita Madriguera. In 1959 Segovia recorded this
with harpsichordist Rafael Puyana.

In 1963 Segovia made a film for N.B.C. television. One item included was a
guitar/string quartet arrangement of Andante Cantabile from Boccherini's
Second Concerto.





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