Concierto op. 67
In a small series I would like to introduce the most beautiful guitar concerts to you. Some people might think that I am carrying owls to Athens with them, but unfortunately many people only know the “Concierto de Aranjuez”. But all those wonderful works that are still around have almost completely disappeared from our concert halls.
This surely has to do with the fact that there are hardly any guitar concerts by famous composers. Joaquin Clerch once said: “If Mozart or Beethoven had written a concerto for the guitar, we would play with the Vienna Philharmonic every year!
And I’m sure he was right about that. Because to fill a concert hall today, you need either the name of a famous virtuoso or a famous composer, and above all the second is almost completely missing for the guitar.
But so many concerts, which may not have the grandeur of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, but which are nevertheless full of beauty and inner richness, are pushed further and further to the margins and finally disappear completely from consciousness.
Therefore, I would like to give you a small overview of what there is still to be found apart from Rodrigo’s great throw. I would like to introduce you to works that touch me personally, make me dream and, at least for a moment, make me forget the pain of life.
But first I want to talk briefly about what is meant by a concert. It can be a little confusing for laymen: You may go to a concert, but this term can actually mean anything, the enjoyment of a cultivated chamber music evening as well as that of a bizarre orchestral work.
But when we musicians speak of a concert, we mean a very specific musical genre. We only speak of a solo concerto when a single instrument performs a piece of music in interaction and in conflict with an orchestra.
Piano and violin concertos are certainly the best known, but there is hardly an instrument for which there is no contribution to this genre, as can be seen in concertos for harmonica or jew’s harp.
The predecessors of this form can be found quite early in European music history, but it was only with the emergence of middle-class concert culture in the second half of the 18th century that it acquired its present form and significance.
Before that, there were only a few virtuosos who performed in a “chamber” of the aristocracy (the most famous example is certainly the little Mozart). But due to the great musical understanding of many aristocrats, pure virtuosity was naturally curbed.
But when a middle-class audience began to flock to the concert halls, musical taste changed dramatically. The majority of the listeners now sought distraction from the dreary everyday life and wanted to be “well” entertained – a need that the solo concerto met in the most perfect way.
Especially when the soloist’s personality came more and more to the fore. In the course of time, this finally took on such bizarre excesses as we know from the stories around N. Paganini or F. Liszt.
In its most well-known form today, the solo concerto consists of three movements in the sequence fast – slow – fast.
In the first movement the orchestra introduces a theme and the solo instrument responds with a variation of it or its own material.
The second movement is in a slow tempo and gives the soloist the opportunity to demonstrate his subtlety and lyrical qualities. Finally, in the final movement there is usually a virtuosity that resembles a “Kehraus”, i.e. the kicking out of a dance orchestra.
A special feature of the classical concerto is the solo cadenza, in which the soloist can shine without accompaniment. Originally, this part was improvised, but today the cadenzas are composed out and it is no longer a question of their invention, but rather of their most personal interpretation possible and the skill of the musician to integrate them into the overall concept of the musical work.
The Concierto op. 67 by Malcolm Arnold, which I would like to present to you today, is also traditionally conceived in its three-part form, and although it makes use of a modern musical language, it hardly breaks through the boundaries of tonality, but always remains rooted in classical compositional principles.
This is not surprising, since the Englishman Malcolm Arnold (besides Benjamin Britten the most famous English composer of the post-war period) was a comparatively conservative composer.
While most of his colleagues indulged in their desire to experiment and sought to break free from the shackles of tradition, he wrote music full of vocal melodies, uninhibited and not very concerned with the spirit of the times.
Because of these virtues and because of his work as a film composer, one is easily tempted to think of him as a “shallow” musician. But in his most important works, especially the nine symphonies, one sees a completely different artist at work. They are characterized by spiritual depth and dark passion and show a grandiose composer at the peak of his creative output.
Popular as he was, he was also repeatedly asked to write for different instruments. In the course of his life, he wrote more than twenty solo concertos, among them for such renowned musicians as Yehudi Menuhin, Benny Goodman or even the Concerto op. 67 for Julian Bream.
This concerto, first performed in 1959, wonderfully reflects the attitude and musical taste of the two musicians.
Here a composer rooted in tradition, willing to make a contribution to modern guitar literature that goes against the spirit of the times, there an interpreter who, in addition to the guitar, also played the lute masterfully, and who strove above all for the classical repertoire.
The result is a work that is already full of graceful themes in the first movement and captivates the listener with a dialogue between solo instrument and orchestra that alternates between places of technical brilliance and intimate chamber music.
The slow movement was inspired by the guitar playing of Django Reinhardt. A long, blues-like theme brings the listener’s emotional life into deep waters and casts a dark glow over the entire work.
An eccentric minuet follows, restoring the balance between the first two movements, and the whole thing ends tragically, with short interjections from the guitar.
The composer’s biographer, Piers Burton-Page, calls it: “One of Arnold’s most outstanding inventions. … Once heard, never forgotten” (“Philharmonic Concerto”, Methuen, 1994).