When Bream Met Brouwer for the ‘Concerto Elegiaco’

Left to right, Julian Bream, Gareth Walters and Leo Brouwer. Photo by Colin Cooper.

“Could we go from three before L? Because that is very tricky. I have to change gear.”

Julian Bream was rehearsing Leo Brouwer’s 3rd guitar concerto, the Concerto elegiaco, at the BBC in readiness for his concert at St John’s Smith Square with the Langham Chamber Orchestra. Conductor Leo Brouwer obligingly raised his baton, and Julian Bream duly changed gear. In fact, he went into superdrive once or twice, an act of commitment that one has come to expect from this supreme artist (but which one should never take for granted). This, by the way, was only the rehearsal!

Note: This is part of our ongoing series celebrating the legacy of Julian Bream, who passed away this year at the age of 87.

To have one of the world’s most famous guitarists playing a new concerto by a leading composer of the stature of Leo Brouwer makes for quite an occasion, and it was a considerable coup for composer and BBC producer Gareth Walters to obtain this commission from his Corporation. The BBC remains this country’s biggest guitar patron, and this enterprising commission will do its reputation no harm at all.

The lunchtime concert at St John’s Smith Square on 6 July was the first public performance in Britain of the Concerto elegiaco, though it has been broadcast before. The BBC runs a series of lunchtime concerts from this attractive church with its usually excellent acoustics, broadcast live and repeated a week later, perhaps for the benefit of those who missed the first broadcast on account of having attended the actual concert. This is no mere jest; listening a week later, I heard much more of Julian Bream’s guitar than I did at the time—as much a criticism of the amplification system as praise of the BBC engineers. In the performance, the guitar was sideways on, pointing at the conductor rather than the audience, and at times some distinctly odd sounds were coming from the loudspeakers. There was, of course, a lot of excitement in the old church, but it was the broadcast that revealed the guitar in all its true beauty. The BBC is a friend of the guitar in more ways than one.

Classical guitarist Julian Bream, Gareth Walters and Leo Brouwer

Above: Left to right, Julian Bream, Gareth Walters and Leo Brouwer. Photo by Colin Cooper.


This was also the first time that Leo Brouwer had performed publicly in this country with a baton in his hand instead of a guitar, and he showed that he is as able in the one role as in the other. He has a clear beat, easy to follow, with gestures that are fluent and expressive, never over the top yet always strongly rhythmic and dynamic enough to make good television (if any producer happens to be reading this).

The Concerto elegiaco is an attractive work, rather less immediately tuneful and rhapsodic than the second concerto, but with a brilliance in the guitar part that is matched only by some telling percussion effects. What is perhaps more surprising is the well-knit string writing—”very well put together,” said Bream. He told me that he was very happy with the work, so full of drama and with so rewarding a guitar part. In the past he has often been outspoken about the guitar concerto repertoire, feeling that too many pieces for the form don’t “fizz” enough. To him, a concerto must have something of the quality of a bottle of good champagne; the more subtle delights of claret and burgundy are perhaps better left to the solo recital.

Well, the performance duly fizzed, Bream maintaining the spirit of the thing in the way that audiences have come to expect and invariably enjoy. In the more lyrical parts, such as the exquisite cadenza at the end of the second movement, he was superb, undoubtedly modifying Brouwer’s poetic insight with his own brand of that rare commodity but at the same time making you feel that this was the right way to do it.

The concerto is a dramatic study in which tragedy and elegy share the stage—not, as in life, the one following the other, but both interwoven into the texture. It reaches its apotheosis not in the last act, but (as in the Aranjuez concerto) in the middle movement, where at one point the solo guitar is joined by three soloists from the orchestra in a passage described by the composer as “a little romance”—surely one of his happiest inspirations.

Will this music last a hundred years? I haven’t the faintest idea. I really think it’s time we stopped asking ourselves these portentous questions, and settled down to a bit of sheer enjoyment. If it lasts a century or two, all well and good; if not, who on earth is going to care? We certainly shan’t be around to do any agonising, and it all seems rather a waste of time to do it now. We would be better employed in cleaning up the environment for the benefit of those who come after us, leaving the choice of “great” music to them and them alone. But critics love to categorise music, and I suppose they must be allowed their fun.

Leo Brouwer is not writing for the critics; he is not writing for the musicologists; he is not, so far as I know, writing for posterity. He is writing for himself, for musicians and for audiences; he is using his talent, his creativity and his originality to produce music that is a direct and honest expression of what he feels about his composition at this precise moment in his life towards the end of the 20th century. That is what makes him an artist and deserving of the respect of even those superior beings who think he should have gone off in another direction—or possibly continued in the old one. But artists have an awkward way of not going in the direction that musicologists want them to, and musicologists will never forgive them for it.

Leo Brouwer has been to England before to conduct the Langham Chamber Orchestra in a broadcast performance. They like him, and they play well for him. It does not always happen to conductors from overseas, and the fact that this one happens to be one of that strange breed—a guitarist—does not help much. But the professional and unprejudiced LCO responded properly, as good orchestras should always do but somehow do not on every occasion.

His own appreciation is no less apparent. “I always learn something from you,” he told them at one point in rehearsal. I hope the feeling was mutual.