Julian Bream: the British classical guitarist's best recordings
British guitarist Julian Bream is one of the greatest players of the 20th century. We name some of his must-have discs
- Six of the best... classical guitarists
- Five of the best young classical guitarists
- Six of the best... female classical guitarists
Julian Bream: Live from Aldeburgh Festival 1958 & 1959
Julian Bream was a frequent visitor to the Aldeburgh Festival and, in 1958, he performed with Peter Pears in a well-paced set of Dowland songs and lute solos, which found both at the top of their game.
Pears is too forward in the balance of this live recording at times, though, and this also affects Britten’s Songs from the Chinese – its premiere – where some of the detail of Julian Bream's guitar is lost. In 1959, Bream was teamed with Aurèle Nicolet and George Malcolm in Telemann and had his own solo spot in Turina’s Guitar Sonata, an energetic performance, and in better sound.
The Golden Age of English Lute Music
Works by Dowland, Holborne, Johnson, Morley et al
Julian Bream (guitar)
Alto ALC 1338 (1962)
Purists might raise an eyebrow at some of Julian Bream’s expressive interventions, and the recorded sound betrays its age, but the eloquence and artistry of these pioneering performances remain gloriously undimmed.
Works by Turina, Mompou, Torroba, Gerhard, de Falla, Ohana
Julian Bream (guitar)
RCA Gold Seal 09026 61353 2
Of the many fine guitar records Julian Bream has made, this is one of the finest, displaying not only his extraordinary command of the instrument but also musicianship of the highest level. The subtlety and tonal variety of the playing in these 20th-century pieces is quite extraordinary, and Julian Bream is recorded with superb realism. Presented as a celebration of the work of Andrés Segovia, this is one master guitarist’s tribute to another. Review by David Michaels
Julian Bream (guitar, lute), plus other artists including: Peggy Ashcroft, David Atherton, Colin Davis, John Eliot Gardiner, George Malcolm, The Melos Ensemble, Peter Pears and André Previn
RCA Gold Seal 09026 61583 2 ADD/DDD (28 discs)
Which other instrumentalist can boast a repertoire that extends so comprehensively from the 16th century to the late 20th? This mammoth collection from his 31 years with RCA spans almost 300 works by more than 80 composers. The eight CDs featuring (mostly English) music for lute include a thorough survey of the works of John Dowland (one of the chief delights of the set), incorporating around 40 pieces for the solo instrument plus over a dozen songs. Two discs feature the Julian Bream Consort, in both its enthusiastic original and its more polished reconstituted forms.
Julian Bream stays with the lute for concertos by Vivaldi but uses the guitar for solo pieces from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, and chamber music by Boccherini and Haydn. The 20th-century guitar renaissance, for which Julian Bream can take no small amount of credit, is represented by six discs (two of concertos), including works by Arnold, Berkeley, Britten, Brouwer, Maxwell Davies, Henze, Rawsthorne and Walton – many written specially for him. Villa-Lobos and Rodrigo merit a disc apiece, as well as appearing on others (with no fewer than three versions of the Concierto de Aranjuez), and there are four discs of Spanish classics – including a superbly played group of Albéniz/Granados transcriptions. Review by David Michaels
The concentration and energy of Bach’s Chaconne triumph over antique sound, and the offbeat repertoire maintains its grip. This is the playing of a master. Review by Robert Maycock
Two national treasures are rightly celebrated here. If you have RCA’s colossal Bream Edition and the superb DVD My Life in Music, you’ll still need these 1950s Westminster recordings: they combine Julian Bream's special intensity with the freshness of a new-found passion for Dowland, whose lute music he’d recently discovered. Bream’s Bach (on the guitar), is impressive too, the Chaconne poetic and inward where his 1992 EMI version is dramatic and rhetorical; the selection of works from 1956, though, is undoubtedly more bitty.
What makes this reissue really indispensable is DG’s inspired decision to add 20 Dowland Ayres, in which Julian Bream partnered Margaret Field-Hyde’s wonderful, unjustly forgotten Golden Age Singers. Full-on vibrato, rare blemishes and cut stanzas (no texts, either) are irrelevant, alongside such exemplary diction (greatly helped by Westminster’s excellent sound, well remastered) and a sincerity which qualifies as true ‘original mastery’. Tully Potter’s fascinating booklet note is one of the best I’ve read. Review by Nick Morgan
No one apart from his mentor Segovia has done more to enhance the standing of the guitar than Julian Bream. This generously filled set concentrates on the Spanish repertoire, including the popular Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez, but there is room also for Julian Bream’s artistry in early music featuring the lute. The programme is thoughtfully chosen, the performances are splendid, and the recordings, which date back to 1959, are entirely reliable. In all, this collection justifies its ambitious title. Review by Terry Barfoot
The recital’s centrepiece is the broadcast première of Tippett’s The Blue Guitar. Julian Bream, who advised on its composition and is its dedicatee, never got round to recording it commercially, but proves to have handled its quirks and non-sequiturs and startling moments of beauty with an ease and confidence rare in others’ performances even now.
His own two-guitar transcription of an early Schubert quartet shows off some ingenious imitations of lower-string pizzicato and gives plenty of opportunities for lively interplay in what was the last-ever recording by Bream and Williams together. Sound styles vary but are collectively a credit to the BBC balance engineers of the time, all listed as ‘unknown’. Review by Robert Maycock
Collection: Spanish Guitar Music
Julian Bream (guitar)
DG Westminster 471 236-2
A chance to hear the young Julian Bream in a recital of core repertoire – not all strictly Spanish. Villa-Lobos’s inventive and idiomatic Preludes are musically the most interesting and best show off Bream’s eloquent, colourful playing, along with Falla’s brooding Homenaje.
Julian Bream performs everything with his customary technical mastery and singing tone, but a little of guitarist-composer Fernando Sor’s Classical salon music goes a long way, and the Turina and Torroba pieces are pleasant, but lightweight. Recorded sound is close, emphasising string squeaks and breaths, and there is a distracting background hiss. A collector’s item. Review by Emma Baker
To the Edge of Dream; Concierto de Aranjuez; To the Edge of Dream; Guitar Concerto
Julian Bream (guitar); CBSO/Simon Rattle
EMI CDC 7 54661 2
This is Julian Bream’s fourth recording of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez and it is a very good one; every bit as idiomatic as you would expect, and with a particularly responsive account of the famous slow movement. The Takemitsu is little more than a filler, but the jazz-influenced Arnold concerto is an attractive alternative coupling and is again very well performed.
If I find it hard to get too excited about this disc it is perhaps due to the recording balance, which is a shade too natural for its own good. The engineers give Bream no help at all in projecting his instrument, which, as can happen in the concert hall, tends to get swamped by the orchestra – the CBSO on excellent form. Julian Bream's many admirers will want this disc, but for anyone just looking for a good recording of the Rodrigo the version by Bonell on mid-price Decca is hard to beat. Review by David Michaels
No guitarist since Segovia has done more to enlarge the repertoire than Julian Bream. Many of the composers who wrote works for him were not otherwise associated with the instrument, yet the results have lasting significance. Walton is a case in point, since the Five Bagatelles rank among the finest guitar pieces of the post-war era.
The other items recorded here display great imagination, but they have not yet established a wide currency – Henze’s atonal suite on Shakespearean characters is particularly worth investigating. Julian Bream performs the recital with all the panache one would expect, while the recording is excellent. Review by Terry Barfoot
A change of instrument can entail a change or loss of character in the music. Certainly the famous Chaconne from BWV 1004 sounds more dramatic and exciting on the violin than it does on the intimate, soft-toned guitar. What makes this disc so enjoyable, however, is the sheer quality of Julian Bream’s playing.
His subtle shadings, lilting rhythms and pellucid articulation bespeak the immaculate touch of the real virtuoso. He’s especially captivating in the Partita in E, its dreamy Loure and graceful Gavotte en rondeau making it the loveliest of the solo violin suites. Bach may not have composed for the guitar, but I suspect he’d be as happy as I am to hear this beautiful recital of his music by a master guitarist.
The RCA reissue pays tribute to Sir Peter Pears and Julian Bream, whose explorations into Elizabethan music led them into what was then relatively unknown territory. Their approach is highly dramatic – some might say over-blown – and Pears’s cut-glass tenor, combined with Julian Bream’s wiry lute sound, seems rather dated now.
Nonetheless, Pears’s immaculate diction highlights every nuance of the texts, resulting in unquestionably intense, heartfelt readings. Forty years after these recordings were made, it is impossible not to admire the integrity and artistic sincerity of these two towering figures in the revival of early English music. Review by Kate Bolton
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.