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Joaquín RODRIGO (1902-1999)
Concierto de Aranjuez (1939) [22:33] a
Toru TAKEMITSU (1930-1996)
To the Edge of Dream (1983) [12:55] b
Malcolm ARNOLD (1931-2006)
Guitar Concerto [22:37] c
Julian Bream (guitar)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
rec. Butterworth Hall, Warwick University October 1990a and December 1992b, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London June 1991c DDD
EMI CLASSICS CDC 7546612 [58:16]

Experience Classicsonline

When I saw this ArkivCD reprint announced, I was convinced that the well-meaning company had shot themselves in the foot somewhat by issuing, at near to full price, recordings that have been in the catalogue for years. I was rather surprised, therefore, that these definitive concerto performances are indeed no longer in EMI’s catalogue. Shame on them.

This was Bream’s fourth recording of the Concierto de Aranjuez. I do sometimes feel that artists sometimes re-record repertoire too frequently without actually having much new to say. Karajan was somewhat spoilt by the early 1980s appetite for perfect performances in pristine digital sound, resulting in the wholesale re-recording of virtually his entire repertoire; ditto Bernstein, although with markedly superior results. Reading Gareth Walters’ excellent notes to the present issue, I was somewhat intrigued to find that Bream nominally performs this work once every few years; that this performance was recorded a good thirty years after his first only adds to the impression of a grand old master returning one more time to a seminal work.

Bream’s tempos broadened slightly over the years, but not greatly. The remarkable precision, fluidity and sheer charm never deserted him and I am happy to report that this late performance is spellbinding. If Bream is a known quantity in this work, then it is Rattle and his excellent CBSO that emerge as the real stars. Rarely have I heard the orchestral accompaniment so lucid, atmospheric and expressively played. These are, of course, traits that Rattle has been wont to exaggerate in recent years. But, back in the late-1980s-mid-1990s, Rattle and his team released an astonishing series of recordings reflecting the diversity of their repertoire, very much a product of the hugely exciting musical scene in Birmingham at that time. The works on this disc represent the partnership at its very peak. Special praise must go to Peter Walden (cor anglais) for his solos in the second movement; truly beautiful playing, improvisational in tone without ever sounding arch. The whole performance is incredibly intimate, the dialogue between orchestral soloists and concertante soloist remarkably balanced, yet nothing sounds contrived or unspontaneous. The famous second movement may well strike some as being a little too refined but, my goodness, Bream and Rattle really do make you listen. I found it to be the most magical performance of that movement that I have heard.

Bream’s 1975 recording of the Rodrigo (with John Eliot Gardiner) was coupled with Lennox Berkeley’s Guitar Concerto. For his 1990s recording, he chose to couple it with another British work, Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto. Here the virtues of the Rodrigo performance are intensified; this really is chamber music, scored for flute, clarinet, horn and string quintet. Once more the effect is magical. Those unfamiliar with Arnold’s concerto will no doubt be won over by its beguiling charm; it is certainly a hard-hearted man who cannot respond to the sublime second subject of the opening ‘Allegro con spirito’. In these hands, the wealth of subtle nuances tickle the ear and make one appreciate the sentimentality of Arnold’s invention rather than disparage it. There is a vein of modality running through this work that marks it as distinctly English rather than influenced by the Iberian rhythms and harmonies that are usually associated with guitar music. The second movement is, if anything, even more seductive than that of the Rodrigo. Quite why we do not hear more of this work in concert I do not know, but then that pretty much applies to most of Arnold’s compositions.

Sandwiched between these two masterpieces of the genre is Toru Takemitsu’s To the Edge of Dream. From time to time, Takemitsu seems to be hovering on the fringe of being a mainstream contemporary composer. For some reason, he has never quite gained the following that he deserves. Rattle certainly believes in this music and that belief certainly shows in this recording. At one time, it was possible to describe repertoire such as this as being quintessentially Rattle-ian. His extraordinary ear for texture, sonority and balance and his undoubted intelligence serve music such as this admirably. For the entirety of the 1990s this conductor was responsible for perhaps the most exciting and ambitious series of concerts the UK has seen for a long time, his CBSO ‘Towards the Millennium’ series. Each year of the 1990s featured a programme of concerts of music composed in a certain decade of the twentieth century. This, in my mind, marked the absolute peak of Rattle’s tenure in Birmingham and makes one wish that he would go back to doing what he does best - pretty much anything post-Mahler - and stop giving us puzzling recordings of the Central European classicists.

Even without the presence of Bream, this would be a recording to rank with Rattle’s discs of the Second Viennese School, Messiaen, Stravinsky and Ravel; Bream’s input pushes it way over the boundary into the category of ‘sublime’. One of Rattle’s best albums, undoubtedly, and Bream certainly does not let himself down. EMI’s recording is all that we have come to expect from a Symphony Hall recording; lucid, warm and with every detail perfectly audible. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that the recordings were made at Abbey Road and Butterworth Hall. Warwick University. And, so, a wonderful example of conductor, soloist, orchestra, engineers and programme coinciding to create a work of art that deserves to live on until people (God-forbid) stop listening to great music. Probably the finest disc that I encountered in 2007. 2008 marks the fifteenth anniversary of its original release; EMI please take note.

Owen E Walton


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