Monday 15 November 2010

John Williams @ Bridgewater Hall

Classical guitarist John Williams is often compared to his contemporary 'rival' Julian Bream, the former the precise technician, the latter the soulful emoter.  Unfortunately, this comparison still rings true today.

For the discerning guitarist, the program was tantalising.  Williams walked out in his striped woolen jumper and addressed the audience with an air of informality, though this somewhat seeped into his playing with very little preparation time to tune between pieces.  He was almost impatient to move on to the next piece.  My key criticism of his playing is his lack of emotion, stemming primarily from his choice of tempo.  Much of his playing was too fast, with phrases merging relentlessly into long melodic marathons.  By contrast, other pieces were played too slow, seeming laboured and as if Williams was merely going through the motions. 

This was particularly evident in the first half.  The second of the Villa-Lobos Preludes lacked the bouncy and lively rhythms necessary, whilst the fourth was so fast it was as if Williams was sprinting to the interval.  Disappointingly, his rendition of Brouwers Black Decameron fell victim to the same problems, though the second movement is stunning played at any tempo.  I realise I'm being particularly critical being familiar with these pieces, much of the audience did erupt in rapturous applause.

Fortunately the second half took a turn for the better, due largely to the emphasis on Williams' own compositions which he clearly feels more comfortable playing.  These pieces felt much more relaxed and offered some beautiful playing.  In the final part of the programme, Williams relapsed into the same frame of mind as the first half.  However, the playing was largely more relaxed as, understandably, first half nerves dissipated.  More so, Williams' precise playing style is more suited to the Baroque sensibility of Barrios' music.  Of course, it must be stated that the pieces were technically incredibly challenging and in this Williams must be praised.

William's technical skill is unparalleled and certainly a sight to behold.  But I can't help feeling that the old master is, sadly, past his prime.