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Customer Review

29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the finest guitar solos on record, 13 Mar. 2010
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This review is from: Hamburger Concerto (Audio CD)
I was reminded of this classic album just recently when I made the delightful discovery that the opening theme of the side-long title-track, Hamburger Concerto, was in fact a straight lift of a piece by Haydn, known as St Anthony's Chorale. I discovered this by virtue of the fact that it provides the theme for Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op.56a, as heard on my newly acquired Brahms: The Symphonies etc. Needless to say Focus and Brahms take the theme into radically distinct territories, but such is my affection for the Focus version that I would not wish to be pressed to choose which of these musical marvels to be without. If we accept that the essence of the prog project was the attempt to import into the evolving rock idiom the methods, and perhaps even some of the values, of the grand classical tradition, then Focus provided one of the few examples of genuine and authentic success in that effort. Even at the time one could feel that this was a swansong effort, with moody and restless guitar ace, Jan Akkerman, clearly having lost interest in the collaborative composition process with his flute and keyboard virtuoso counterpart, Thijs van Leer. Despite this growing rift however they left us with an album of terrific quality, having perfected a studio sound that could move easily between amazingly heavy and ethereally clean, and including, for me at least, two clear moments that rank among the finest in prog history.

The first of these moments appeals to me as a guitarist, who as a boy sat for hours in his bedroom attempting to decipher Akkerman's themes and licks from the records of their Moving Waves and Focus III albums. How successful I was in getting these solos down is beside the point. While I found the shapes and forms that I was hearing strange and exciting, I at least felt that I understood what I was hearing, and had some kind of insight into its construction. When Hamburger Concerto came along I was initially disappointed by the sparsity of Akkerman's soloing input, which had been so much to the fore, indeed a key ingredient, of their earlier albums. However, the fourth section of Hamburger Concerto provides the one sustained guitar solo of the whole album, and when I duly set about trying to emulate it in some form I hit a complete brick wall. The solo is in several sections, starting slow and getting louder, easy enough so far, then suddenly dropping to a dramatic hush. It is at this point that the playing shifts by several gears into something so fleet and nimble that the ears just slip off it like glass when you try to listen close enough to decode it. It's not just that it's fast, it's that it's so harmonically wild as it skates across the growling organ chords that roll beneath it. This was Akkerman's finest moment in all the Focus years, and though I followed his subsequent solo career he never came close to repeating it, in fact it seemed, rather sadly, that he stopped even trying. Since those days other guitarists have emerged who have broken all sorts of new ground and opened up all sorts of exotic and exciting new dimensions. But, that single solo from Hamburger Concerto still stands proudly against the offerings from any of them in terms of dexterity, ingenuity and sheer musical brilliance.

The second golden moment of this album is the achingly beautiful track La Cathedrale de Strasbourg. A `song' in two parts, the first of which is one of van Leer's finest homages to old master Bach. Grand and delicate by turns. Massive yet infinitely warm and kind. This section finishes with music that evokes the heavy tolling of Cathedral bells, that with a sudden sparkle transforms into a brief but exquisite middle section, which is a jazz waltz that feels like walking on air at sunrise. It culminates with Akkerman's laying down of a simple but incredibly pretty repeating figure, underneath which van Leer places a miraculous sequence of chords, that hover on the same key but into which richer and richer harmonies are inserted with each repeat. It is in moments like this when van Leer's grasp of classical harmony make Focus, in a certain sense, the most accomplished and authentic of the prog era bands. Too soon, the miraculous chord progression slows to a halt, the pretty guitar figure ends and gives way once more to the tolling bells, which themselves expire with a haunting whisper. Cathedrale de Strasbourg is an extraordinarily original track, with nothing to compare it to, either in the Focus corpus or anywhere else in music.

So, to those esteemed souls who are approaching the prog classics from a new generation, then this is a masterpiece with which you should acquaint yourself at the earliest juncture. Focus is often overlooked when people are nominating their prog pantheon, but to me they belong in any top five. I can't really say that this is the best Focus album, because it and the two aforementioned are so distinct in character and intent. Nonetheless, forced to choose for a desert island this would be the one for me. To anyone with an interest in serious guitar playing then you just have to hear that guitar solo.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Apr 2013 00:17:48 BDT
Last edited by the author on 3 Apr 2013 19:12:33 BDT
Daveyboots says:
Nice review. I am still in awe of the music of Focus. La Catherdrale de Strasbourg is exquisite and sublime. Progressive rock appealed to me as a schoolboy in my teens and I lost interest in it as I grew older. Focus were something quite different and no other group came anywhere near them in musical maturity, creativity and genius. For that reason their music hasn't dated and their albums remain among the most treasured within my music collection.

Posted on 30 Jul 2013 18:28:43 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 Jul 2013 18:36:32 BDT
mancheeros says:
An enjoyable review. I'm also a massive fan of 'La Cathedrale de Strasbourg' - a seriously playful, wistful masterpiece. Ah, la nostalgie, se reveille...

Posted on 19 Jan 2014 19:50:54 GMT
Last edited by the author on 19 Jan 2014 19:52:51 GMT
Andy Briggs says:
Thank you for such an intelligent and informed review. I agree with every word you wrote about Akkerman's brilliance and technique. I saw a video of him from just a couple of years ago, at the North Sea Jazz Festival, and I am pleased to say he is still unbelievable as a guitarist. "La Cathedrale de Strasbourg" is indeed unique - inspiring, powerful, rich, dynamic - and 40 years later I still play it often - and it still surprises! Kind regards.
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John Ferngrove
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Location: Hants UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 270