on 14 October 2013
Born in Australia in 1941, John Williams received his first lessons from his guitar playing father. The family relocated back to England in 1952, after which John undertook formal training at Siena in Italy and at the Royal College of Music in London. His London concert debut was at the Wigmore Hall in 1958, and by 1963 he had already performed in Paris, Madrid, USSR, Japan and USA.
This collection comprises seven discs of previously released material, recorded across a wide timespan - from 1965 through till 1995. All the discs are housed in matching thin card sleeves, featuring the same photo image and green cyan colouring, with just the disc number and italicised sub-title to distinguish them apart - plus the track names are on the reverse side. There is no booklet. The discs are kept together in a card clam-shell box (the industry name for a folded box where the lid lifts open from one side but cannot be detached).
It is possible some of the earlier material may not have previously been re-issued onto CD, although I do not know. Completists should enjoy the fact that there are three different recordings here of Rodrigo's popular Concierto de Aranjuez, plus two recordings of his Fantasia para un Gentilhombre. These are from different dates and with different orchestras, and collectively take up two of the discs (numbered 6 and 7). One other orchestral piece is included, by Albeniz, which takes up part of disc 4 - more on this later. Disc 5 is a selection of pieces from the three albums recorded with Julian Bream, which are also available in the Julian Bream box-set - and from the looks of it I'm pretty sure they are the same recordings but in a different playback order (and while it may sound odd, sometimes that's all that's needed to breathe fresh life into a familiar set of tunes). Four of the tracks on disc 3 feature a duo with Australian guitarist Timothy Kain, and everything else across this collection is solo John Williams.
In addition to the orchestral Albeniz piece on disc 4, the whole of disc 2 is solo performances of more Albeniz works, plus other tracks are on some of the other discs within the set; including different interpretations of some pieces. For example there is a 1969 recording of John Williams' own arrangement for solo guitar of Cordoba, a 1971 recording of Emilio Pujol's arrangement for two guitars where he plays Cordoba in a duo with Julian Bream, plus a 1980 recording of Cordoba once again solo but without revealing who made the arrangement. Likewise there are other pieces which crop up more than once across these seven discs.
Isaac Albeniz was a virtuoso pianist and often regarded as the top Spanish composer of his generation. He did not actually write any tunes for guitar, but many of his works have been transcribed and performed on guitar down the years. The orchestral piece here consists of three movements from his Iberia suite, arranged by Steve Gray. The full Iberia Suite for solo piano consists of 12 movements in all, written between 1905-1907, and lasts around 80 minutes all told; there is a nice recording by pianist Alicia De Larrocha that Decca released a few years ago. An orchestral arrangement of the Iberia Suite by Enrique Fernandez Arbos, former chief conductor of the Madrid SO is quite well known, but does not include a guitar part. The guitarist/composer Leo Brouwer made a concerto arrangement from three movements of the Iberia Suite as a 60th birthday gift for Julian Bream in 1993; although it was Timo Korhonen who recorded that piece. The arrangement here was made by Steve Gray, former keyboardist and collaborator with John Williams in the experimental crossover group Sky; it features one of the same movements (El Albaicin) as the Brouwer arrangement, but its other two movements differ. Another more recent guitar concerto arrangement of Albeniz was recorded by Xuefei Yang; Steve Goss had made that arrangement by cleverly inter-leafing movements from the Iberia Suite with movements from the Suite Espanola No.1, Op.47, (much of which suite is included here in its solo guitar versions - including the concert hall favourite Asturias (Leyenda) in two different recordings). The arrangement here by Steve Gray and its recording is very sumptuous and enjoyable, my only momentary reservation being that the sforzando of the trombones appeared to go into distortion a little (which, if it's on the original tapes, it cannot be fixed; but having paid less than £20 for seven discs I'm perfectly able to put it aside in the greater scheme of things - the tune is far too good to let that become the focus, and it actually may be a fault with listening on the somewhat limited computer speakers rather than through my better quality hi-fi!).
Within the inner confines of the guitar playing community there is an important distinction sometimes made between classical guitar and Spanish guitar. The term Spanish guitar being thought of as a sub-genre within the broader classical guitar repertoire. The other Spanish composers to be included across this set include Granados, de Falla, Torroba, Tarrega, Turina, Sor, Sanz, Mudarra and Llobet - all composers with tunes that draw on the rich variety of melodies, rhythms and dance forms contained within the broad spread of Spanish national folk music traditions, sit easily on the ear, don't present challenging harmonies to negotiate, and many of which will sound welcomely familiar.
Across a lengthy career, John Williams has sometimes received momentary criticism from certain quarters for a few of his experimental career choices, but of course one listener's dismay is another's pleasure. There surely can be little doubt that any blips that some would identify have been greatly outweighed as he provided many successful innovations and, as here, a very solid body of consistently top-notch core repertoire recordings. This box-set compilation is for listeners everywhere and should give much pleasure.