A Fine Recital Heralds the Departure of John Mills from the RWCMD

12/03/2018

Various composers: John Mills (guitar), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 7.3.2018. (GPu)

John Mills (c) Paul Ransome

John Mills (c) Paul Ransome

Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986) – Six Pieces in Modo Polonico
Hans Haug (1900-1967) – Preludio
Moreno Torroba (1891-1982) – Suite Castellana
Joaquin Turina – Sevillianas (Fantasia)
Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909) – Capricho Catalan
Enrique Granados (1867-1916) – Danza Española
Antonio Lauro (1917-1986) – Variaciones sobre una tema infantile Venezolano
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) – Prelude
Dilermando Reis (1916-1977) – Xodó da Baiana
Jorge Gomez Cespo (1990-1971) – Norteña
Isaias Sávio (1900-1977) – Batucada
Agustin Barrios (1885-1944) – Aconquija, Julia Florida, ‘Jha, Che Valle’
Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) – Variations on a Theme of Cabezón

Looking back to a time at the beginning of the 1970s, when I was a postgraduate student in Oxford, I can vividly recall a guitar-playing fellow student returning from London full of enthusiasm for a young guitarist he had heard in London – called John Mills. Mills was born in 1947, so he would have been in his early twenties then. Looking at Mills’ website ahead of this concert, I found that his concert debut was in 1971 (at the Wigmore Hall) – that may well have been the very concert my friend attended. Thereafter, I looked out for the name of John Mills and, though I never heard him in concert, I did hear recordings and broadcasts by him and was able to understand why my ‘informer’ was so keen on his work – he played the Spanish repertoire (particularly, but not exclusively) with great insight and sensitivity. At some point – probably in the second half of the 1980s I ceased to encounter Mill’s name (and work) so much. I now realize that that was because, although he did continue to give concerts, he took up important teaching positions; for some 20 years he taught at the Royal College of Music in London, before becoming Head of Guitar at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 1992. He formally retired from this latter position in 2012 but continued to do some teaching at RWCMD. In the summer of 2018 he will retire fully from the College. This concert marked, in anticipation, his departure from the College. Over the last ten or twelve years I have got to know quite a few people, both staff and students, at RWCMD, but somehow it had entirely escaped my notice that the same youthful guitarist I had heard of (and heard) was now based there as Head of Guitar! He must have been a fine teacher, to judge from the very accomplished performances I have heard, from time to time, given by some of those he must have been teaching.

It is only natural (indeed inescapable) that a guitarist of Mills’ generation should have been influenced by the example of Andrés Segovia. Indeed, in the summer of 1968 the young Mills took part in masterclasses with Segovia. (The great Spanish master praised Mills’ work for its ‘purity of technique and musical sensitivity’). In this ‘farewell’ concert (a farewell to employment at RWCMD but not, one hopes, to the concert stage) Mills devoted the first half to works which were integral to Segovia’s repertoire, including pieces specifically written for him (such as those by Tansman and Haug) or which he transcribed for guitar (e.g. the pieces by Albeniz and Granados). Mills’ admiration for Segovia is very evident and I suspect he would be happy to echo the words of Alexandre Tansman: ‘J’ai été fascine par le genie d’Andrés Segovias dès mon premièr contact avec son art unique’.

Coincidentally, it was with Tansman that Mills began his recital, with his set of pieces ‘in Modo Polonico’. Not for the first time when hearing works written for guitar by Tansman I was struck by the way in which (for all that these pieces carry titles like ‘Mazurka’ and ‘Tempo de Polonaise’) the echoes of Tansman’s Jewish heritage make this music sound rather ‘Spanish’ – not just because the composer was writing with Segovia specifically in mind but because the Jewish population of Spain, like the Arabs and the Gypsies made important contributions to the creation of a distinctively Spanish musical language. Of the six pieces Mills played on this occasion the third, the ‘Kujawik-Mazurka’, was particularly lovely, a lulling, yet playful, folk dance of considerable beauty.

It would be otiose to list and comment on every item in this recital. What needs emphasizing is that Mills’ technique remains assured, his articulation of melodic line and judgement of phrasing being marked by considerable musical insight. Highlights, as far as I was concerned, included the Preludio by Hans Haug, beautifully paced and emotionally evocative without any hint of the sentimental; the infectious rhythms and colourful texture of the ‘Danza’ which closes Moreno Torroba’s Suite Castellana, and the strummed chords, precise yet vigorous, in the piece by Turina. These ‘choices’ all come from the first half of Mills’ programme. But there was also much to admire and enjoy in the second half – given over to Latin American music for guitar. Segovia’s ‘presence’ remained important here too. He recorded works by most of these composers, sometimes the very works featured here. Jorge Gomez Crespo was a close friend of Segovia. His piece ‘Norteña’ was one movement in a longer work entitled Serie Argentina, which Segovia ‘isolated’ to play as a single work. Amongst these Latin American pieces, John Mills was heard at his considerable best, it seemed to me, in the dignified beauty of the ‘Prelude’ by Villa-Lobos, the vigorous pseudo-samba of Sávio’s ‘Batucada’, the delicacy of Barrios’ ‘Aconquija’ and Ponce’s ‘Variations On A Theme of Cabezón’, a richly developed work of real substance,

In truth, though, there were pleasures to be had and things deserving of praise in every single item in this fine programme. Called back for a number of encores by a large audience, John Mills apologized for a couple of ‘silly mistakes’, explaining ‘my memory is not what it was’. Speaking as someone born in the very same year as Mr. Mills, I have to say that his memory seemed to be considerably better than mine, and his manual dexterity is certainly infinitely beyond mine. I noticed only one slight lapse of memory, but Mills is so thoroughly at home in the language of these pieces that a bar or two of his own invention soon put him back in line with the score.

It is a great shame that John Mills hasn’t given more recitals during his time at RWCMD – whether that is because he wasn’t invited (shamefully short-sighted) or because he was too modest (altogether unnecessarily) to do so. Even if this was his farewell to employment in Cardiff, it surely needn’t be the last time he graces the stage of the Dora Stoutzker Hall?

Glyn Pursglove

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