Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto

Malcolm Arnold took up the trumpet after hearing Louis Armstrong play! You may learn something new every day, but it’s rarely as satisfying as this tidbit about a composer I haven’t thought much about in the last fifty years, but once revered – and not for his trumpet playing.

Arnold wrote a guitar concerto for Julian Bream in 1959 and Bream recorded it the same year. I must have bought the record (you remember them?) not much later, I’d just gotten an acoustic guitar and put nylon strings on it because I knew that’s what they used on classical guitars. (Not close to the most clueless thing I did as a teenager, believe me.) I had a record of Bream playing short guitar pieces and I played it over and over, and the clerk at our record store who knew that suggested the Bream/Arnold disk. (Does that sound even possible? What a different and distant world that was.)

To my clueless working-class ears the music sounded like the furthest out ‘modern’ stuff, as wild as Copland! (My sophistication didn’t get layered on until way after my sophomore year.) All I knew about music was what I read on record jackets and I didn’t have any records that touched on the SECOND Viennese School. I felt daring for loving this music.

And I did love it. Bream seemed to caress the music and it caressed me. The simplest melodic lines, ones even I might pluck out, were so dense with expression that I suddenly understood what guitar musicianship was all about.

Here’s an example torn out of the second movement marked Lento:

I didn’t adopt the ability to play like that as a goal or anything. That would have been crazy. But I did let it increase my love of the instrument. The classical guitarist comes intimately closest to the instrument in playing – there’s no valves, no bow, no keys, just fingers on the strings. (Okay, voice is even closer, but I don’t sing.)

That performance is still available on disk, but it’s eighty bucks new from Amazon! What’s up with that? $25 used. $140 collectible (huh?). Bream recorded it again in 1991 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. That’s available at Arkiv for about fourteen bucks.

I can’t honestly recommend that you rush out and buy the CD (or stay in and download the MP3) because I can’t dispassionately evaluate the music at all. It lives in the deepest most primitive part of my ear, the part reserved for passionate moans and kvelling sounds made over comfort food. I’ve heard all of Arnold’s symphonies and I think they’re nice. But Bream is a master and if you like the guitar, this should satisfy and maybe even enchant.

The Bream performance isn’t available on the web, but here Alen Garagic performs the Concerto with RTVE Sinfonic Orquestra on You Tube.


About charles thiesen

I live in Dorchester, MA with five housemates and a cat named Chat Cousteau. I write novels and ride a recumbent bike, among other things.
This entry was posted in Classical, what I love and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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