John Williams Plays Vivaldi, Bach, Weiss, and O’Carolan on Latest Release

BY THÉRÈSE WASSILY SABA | From the Summer 2019 Issue of Classical Guitar

A new release by John Williams is always a cause for celebration. Vivaldi, etc! is the sixth in a series of albums that the guitarist has produced on his own JCW Recordings label. Remarkably, this is the first time that he has recorded his solo arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto Op. 3, No. 9. “I have recorded it with strings in the past on an all-Vivaldi CD, which was done with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra [John Williams plays Vivaldi Concertos, Sony 1991], but for many years, I have played a solo version of the concerto, which really works amazingly well. And people love it.” 

Vivaldi, etc! also includes pieces by Bach, Weiss, and Turlough O’Carolan. “These are pieces that I love, and that is where I usually start. Then I have to find a context for them—for this one, the context was that Vivaldi, Bach, Weiss, and O’Carolan were all very close contemporaries. I thought between the Vivaldi and the O’Carolan, I would put this absolutely gorgeous Sarabande by Weiss from one of his suites I used to play—it actually pops up in two or three different suites because Weiss used to juggle around the movements from his suites.” 

While most of us are in awe of his recordings, Williams himself is more critical. Speaking about one of his early recordings of Bach, he says, “I recorded the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro many years ago, when I was about 22, but I find it so boring and so staid. A lot of people like Bach played like that; I, now, don’t. I really wanted to do it again, especially since I’ve learned more about the style. Also, in the Prelude, I think there is a copying mistake and there is a whole bar missing, and I have put it in. The great Colombian harpsichordist Rafael
Puyana had a wonderful response. He said: ‘It saves us performers the harmonic embarrassment we feel at that point.’” 

The Prelude, Fugue and Allegro are followed by Williams’ arrangements of the Sarabande and its Double from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1 in B minor: “The Double I don’t harmonize at all,” says Williams. “Not only does it not need it, but I think it really shouldn’t have it because the whole magic of Bach’s single melodic line is that you wait for the harmonies to develop and pass, and you don’t want to compromise that by having a bass note; three succeeding melodic notes might happen to fit in a chord but if you add a bass to it, it becomes an arpeggio and is no longer a melodic line.”

Williams is so enthusiastic about his new recording that he felt the need to play and demonstrate it during our interview to fully get his message across. Unfortunately, I cannot transcribe that here, but I can confirm that it was a heavenly experience! The next best thing, of course, is to have a copy of Vivaldi, etc! And why is the recording called Vivaldi, etc! and not Bach, etc!? “I first heard this Vivaldi Concerto many years ago played by Rafael Puyana and the memory of it has stayed with me ever since.”

In 2015, in celebration of Williams’ 75th birthday, Sony released a comprehensive and inspiring overview of his life’s work—a box set called John Williams: The Guitarist, containing his 57 original Columbia and Sony albums from 1964 to 2006. However, there have been many other recordings, including his three albums for Fly/Cube: Changes (with the Stanley Myers Orchestra), The Height Below, and Travelling; his recordings with the group Sky; and even a release by Decca recorded in London in December 1958, when he was just 17. The recordings he has been releasing on his own label are special projects. The first, From a Bird, was released in 2014 and is a solo offering of music written and arranged by Williams. Vivaldi, etc! was released on CD on March 29, 2019, and it is also now available digitally through Amazon, Apple, and other online outlets. johnwilliamsguitarnotes.com