The reputations of Julian Bream and John Williams' are undisputed. Individually their interpretations of the guitar's solo repertoire, recordings of concertos for guitar and orchestra plus, with other ensembles, are without question some of the finest performances available. There was an inevitability to their collaboration. However, be clear, these recordings are not an example of great guitar duet playing. Their ensemble is not up to the standard of some of the renowned partnerships in this field such as the late Ida Presti & Alexandre Lagoya or Sergio and Eduardo Abreu and more currently the Assad brothers, Sergio and Odair.
What we have here is two great soloists who are making
music together for the sheer enjoyment of it. This comes across in these
recordings. Indeed I seem to recall Bream saying that for their first
album they sight-read the music whilst recording. If this is the case
then the result is an achievement in itself. Usually it takes years
to develop a high level of rapport between two players.
In 1971 the first album of Julian Bream and John Williams
"Together" was my introduction to guitar duet playing. I still
regularly listen to this with fondness. This experience led me to the
investigation of Presti & Lagoya, the Abreus and the like. In 1973
there followed "Together Again" and, in 1979, "Julian
Bream & John Williams Live" a two record set recorded in America
the previous year.
This French double CD set is made up of material from all three of these vinyl releases *. Both discs were released separately with identical track listings but with audience applause deleted on Compact Disc in 1993 (RCA 09026 61450 2 and RCA 09026 61452 2 respectively). The live recordings were available in CD format on RCA RD 89645, minus the encore, "Oriental" by Granados; presumably necessitated by lack of space.
The present digital re-mastering retains the sense
of intimacy crucial in a recording of this kind. Background hiss is
present, but if a realistic volume is used is unobtrusive. These discs
do not supply details of the stereo placement of the two guitarists,
so after consulting my old vinyl albums I can disclose, for those interested,
that Julian Bream is on the right and John Williams on the left.
As one might expect, all the music is played with the assured air of two experienced recording artists. The early music, represented by John Johnson and William Lawes (transcribed by Bream), has all the hallmarks of his enthusiasm for the period.
Both Williams and Bream have recorded music of the baroque, notably that of J S Bach, Scarlatti and Cimarosa. Prior to this time in their careers neither had recorded any of the works of Georg Philipp Telemann, who, in my opinion, is underestimated. Apart from allegedly being the most prolific composer ever his standards often equalled, if not exceeded that of his contemporaries. Bream and Williams deliver some of their most spontaneous playing with his "Partita Polonaise". This is in six movements scored for two lutes. It was written during a stay in Poland and is one of the first pieces to use the traditions of folkdance.
The classical selections of the guitarist/composers Sor, Carulli and Giuliani, written as guitar duets, display joyful interplay. Fernando Sor wrote "L'Encouragement" as a duet for teacher and pupil, with the teacher taking the more demanding part and the pupil taking the easier accompaniment. It is presented here in an arrangement that shares the 1st and 2nd guitar parts in a more democratic way, giving the individual guitarists an opportunity to shine.
Spanish composers have always been a source of inspiration for what is regarded, after all, as their national instrument. The piano works of Albeniz and Granados abound with the romantic flavour of the Iberian peninsular. These pieces are augmented by Manuel de Falla's earthy "Spanish Dance No.1" from the composer's opera "La Vida Breve". This is definitely one of the high points of the collection. The nuances of French impressionism are not lost in transcription from piano to guitar duet. Gabriel Fauré's "Dolly Suite" misses none of its charm. Even if the Bream and Williams rendition of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" does not match the Presti/Lagoya version, remember, for a live recording by two players who do not make up a regular partnership, this is pretty good stuff.
One sour note relates to the presentation. The front cover artwork is so inappropriate as to be untrue. The gross error at the start of the liner notes is indefensible. Doesn't RCA have proof- readers to check such things while in production.
Apart from that, this collection is a fine historical document
of two of the finest classical guitarists of their generation each enjoying
the musicianly company. This is essential listening for anybody remotely
interested in classical guitar music.
*Missing from this compilation are three of the works recorded live,
Fernando Sor Fantasia, Op.54
Johannes Brahms Thème et Variations, Op.18
Isaac Albeniz Castilla (from 'Cantos de España') Op. 232