MUSIC / On frets and fitfulness: In the week of Julian Bream's 60th birthday, Bayan Northcott pleads the case for the classical guitar

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The Independent Culture
IT IS 600 years since it emerged as a distinct instrument and a century since it settled into its standard form. This week, its most distinguished living exponent celebrates his 60th birthday. Yet the musical public and profession still seem in two minds about the classical guitar. How to explain why an instrument capable of inspiring such popular affection simultaneously retains for many the forbidding aura of a ghetto cult?

Doubtless Julian Bream's Wigmore Hall concert next Thursday and the 28-CD special edition RCA /BMG is releasing of his recordings will sell out - and rightly, after 45 years of peerless playing, adventurous commissioning, dedicated editing, teaching and research. Yet unless rising young players have been lucky enough to land recording contracts, they are still liable to find themselves facing audiences mainly of fellow players and the specialist guitar press. Critics on the nationals, who think nothing of pulling apart the techniques of pianists and opera singers, regularly excuse themselves from guitar recitals on grounds of knowing too little about the instrument. Eminent composers have even turned down the dazzling opportunity of a commission from Bream himself on the assumption that the guitar is impossible to write for idiomatically unless one actually plays it. Or, if that is not the point, there remains the notion that it is next to impossible to disentangle it from its Spanish sound-world.

Actually, the problem of its sonorous heritage over the centuries has been less its provenance - pretty international, in fact - than its fitfulness. True, the earliest printed music specifically for the guitar, by Alonso Mudarra, duly appeared in Spain in 1546 - though the Renaissance guitar was much smaller than the modern instrument and only had four (double) strings. It also seems to have been something of a second-best to the universal lute and, in Spain, to the vihuela - a larger, guitar-shaped instrument, but tuned like a lute - for which a noble and historic repertoire also survives. Bream, equally proficient on lute, guitar and indeed the vihuela, and well aware, if not uncritical of, the advances of 'authenticity', has been able to do justice to all three repertoires. But a guitarist seeking to transfer, say, Spanish or English lute music to his own instrument already faces a problem in that the lute's bass range was always more extended.

In any case, the earliest culture to go for the guitar in a big way was neither the Spanish nor the English, but the French - who, together with the Italians and Germans, were largely responsible for the Baroque repertoire. Perhaps the greatest disappointment of the period is that J S Bach never wrote for the guitar, since the aptness of much of his instrumental music for transcription has subsequently been demonstrated over and over again. In a pioneering article on composing for the guitar, which he published in William Glock's journal The Score in 1957, Bream held up Bach's solo violin music as the very model for the kind of harmonic and contrapuntal textures that work best on the instrument. But the mid-18th century was to prove the first of two dead patches in the guitar repertoire. Not till the appearance of the new six-string guitar around 1780 did things begin to perk up.

But where the high Baroque guitar had often served a courtly function, as in the music of Louis XIV's guitarist Robert de Visee, the instrument re- emerged in the early 19th century as a vehicle of bourgeois music-making - supplied with an endless stream of variations, pot-pourris and easy-going sonatas by such composers as the Spaniard, Fernando Sor, and the Italian, Mauro Giuliani. The real charm and skill of this light classical school is not to be sniffed at, but it remains the work of specialists. One can only speculate fondly on what might have become of the guitar had one of the major Romantics such as Schubert written a body of works for it. Berlioz actually played the instrument and Bream - an inveterate Berlioz fan - says one can often hear from his orchestral spacings how he must have plucked his basic harmonies out of the guitar. But for its repertoire he left next to nothing.

The mid-19th century was in fact the other dead patch as far as serious guitar composition was concerned: a more grievous one, to the extent that today's concert life is still so largely founded on Romantic repertoire. And when the tradition picked up again around 1900 with the perfecting of the modern classical instrument and the arrival of the great Segovia, it was commonly assumed to be back in the Spanish corner - think only of that ubiquitous Concierto de Aranjuez of Rodrigo. In fact, Segovia transcribed a vast amount of music from other European traditions to beef up the guitar catalogue; invoked new solo pieces and concertos from composers as far afield as Castelnuovo-Tedesco in Italy and Villa-Lobos in Brazil, and, not least, inspired the echt-English talent of the young Julian Bream.

Bream's virtuosity, range, integrity and historical standing hardly need emphasising by now. But other qualities are still worth pointing out. When he wonders ruefully whether the still off-putting reputation of the guitar may be partly due to the heedlessness with which some players plan their programmes, it is evident he thinks deeply of the contrasts, lengths and balances of his own; thinks, too, about the notorious problems of the instrument's limited power in concerted work or larger halls, when he notes, for instance, the propensity of even solo strings to drown the guitar far more easily than woodwinds. And, aware of how much his own career, that of Segovia before him, and indeed the entire revival of the classical guitar has benefited from recording, he has thought not least about the optimum placing in the optimum acoustic by which individual pieces sound best to the sympathetic ear. For many years, he and his favourite recording producer, the late and much-missed James Burnett, would go to ground in an 18th-century Wiltshire chapel at dead of night, and the results have a quite special fullness and bloom. Yet, inspired by the verve of Simon Rattle, his fourth and latest version of the Concierto de Aranjuez has a renewed pungency and snap.

But perhaps his major achievement after all is to have persuaded so many outstanding but non-guitar-playing composers that, with a simple fingering chart propped up before them and himself to advise, writing for the instrument need not be so terrifying; that its limitations in range, volume, sustaining power and the number of notes the fingers can reach from any particular position, can actually serve to focus invention and distil poetic feeling. Among the many concerted works he has inspired, Malcolm Arnold's already-classic little Concerto and Takemitsu's sumptuous recent To the Edge of Dream are also on the new disc with Rattle. Yet some of his solo commissions have proved even more remarkable. To hear the range of colour, touch, attack and atmosphere he finds in his RCA recording of the Britten Nocturnal is to be convinced anew of the future possibilities of this ancient instrument whose limitations - as Henze once memorably remarked while composing his Royal Winter Music for Bream - contain 'so many unexplored spaces and depths', indeed 'a richness of sound capable of embracing everything one might find in a gigantic orchestra; but one has to start from silence to notice this . . .'

Julian Bream birthday concert: 7.30pm 15 July, Wigmore Hall (071-935 2141). Rodrigo, Takemitsu, Arnold (with Rattle): on EMI CDC7 54661-2. BMG / RCA Julian Bream Edition: see page 26 for special offer

(Photograph omitted)