Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bream: Master of the Frets

"Mr. Bream" asked the German Ambassador after young Julian played some solos "you play this Spanish music so marvellous, you must have Spanish blood, nein?". "Wot me" answers Julian in his usual Cockney vernacular "I was born in Battersea, between the Pah (power) station and the Dogs 'Ome." Yes, true, but his commercial advertising Dad liked to play guitar jazz with the local lads of an evening. His little boy found the guitar about the house and was soon strumming, jazz-style riffs. But one day Dad brought home a 78 record of the great Spanish virtuoso, Andres Segovia, playing that fascinating Tremolo Study by Tarrega. In an instant Julian was converted to the classical repertoire – although he continued to play jazz.

From time to time, Julian played little gigs in people's parlours. Ladies fell for the young prodigal and raised money to send the lad to the Royal College of Music. No guitar teacher but he could learn the rudiments and music history. The guitar and Julian became popular among the students, so much so, that the Principal of the College actually forbade young Jules to bring his guitar into the building. More little gigs, his fame spread, bigger gigs. Julian was taken under the wing of Tom Goff (maker of harpsichords, pal of the Queen); he eventually persuaded Julian to play the lute, making for him a beautiful instrument so that Julian became the ruler of ancient staves as well as classical, romantic and modern 'dots', as Julian dubbed printed music.

He began a concert-giving career, broadcast, made gramophone records, became a favourite at the Aldeburgh Festival, inspiring Benjamin Britten to write the song cycle Songs from the Chinese (tenor and guitar) in 1957 and the solo Nocturnal after John Dowland in 1963. When Britten was ill or too busy, Peter Pears and Julian gave recitals together, sometimes with guitar, sometimes lute. In time Julian formed a consort 'playing the ancient stave' with players including Joy Hall on the gamba and (my wife) Olive Zorian on violin.

Julian organised his life with skill and artistic sensability. When he toured in exotic places, India for example, he would extend his tour in order to get to know the place, its people food and drink. He also made a deal with his record company so that he had a free hand to record what he liked, where to record it and who should engineer the disc, an almost unique and profitable system.

Many composers wrote music for Bream: William Walton a song-cycle Anon in Love 1959 and some solo Bagatelles 1972; and Malcolm Arnold his Guitar Concerto in 1959 (lollipop tune in the first movement, deep blues second movement).

Love life: vigorous and varied, including a lengthy affair with the cellist Amaryllis Fleming, and three marriages, the second short and not sweet, the other two lasting longer but not ending well.

Julian's vernacular continued to be salty and fruity. He described himself at the festival in Elmau, Germany, as being 'knee deep in girls'; on entering a Royal Academy exhibition room dominated by a large nude: "crikey, I know 'er – what a smashing pair of plonkers". At one time he would offer a cigarette: "have a choob of narcotic joy" and, anticipating government warnings, "have a cancer rod".

Cricket was a passion, slow spin, occasionally with gloves to protect his 'German bands' (hands); every year at one time there was an annual match against the local Dorset farmers, pre-match net practice obligatory. I was warned that the opposing team were sometimes stroppy and refused to 'walk', arguing the toss with the umpires. Julian wittily circumvented that by engaging as umpires a couple of local Jesuit priests.

Julian had a penchant for fast cars. Once on the way to Glyndebourne a naughty driver cut rudely across our path. A bit later we spied the same car waiting to turn right at a traffic-light. "Shall we put the wind up the bugger?" says Julian and revs up the car; we whistle past the car; but the space was less than anticipated so that it was us who got the wind-up. Silence for ten minutes then Julian says "bloody hell, Amis, that was fag-papers".

He came no less than eight times to Darting ton to the Summer School, to play, teach, smoke his Gauloises, entertain and cut a swathe thought the girls. One day in class he criticized the sound one student made. "All very well for you, you've got a custom made box." Julian said he had a point and went round the class playing on all the students' instruments one by one (making a good sound on each one, as it happened).

One day Julian bashed his car and himself on a local bridge going home after a jar or three "I knew that bridge well, but that night it had gotten smaller". He recuperated, then started playing again. But some of the magic seemed to have gone; Julian was never the cleanest of players (unlike his friend and colleague, John Williams). The great thing about Julian's playing was his power of communication with an audience. Despite the occasional squeak.

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