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The vast royal gardens at Aranjuez, an oasis 30 miles south of Madrid, are wind-blown and a little bleak in early February. Yet their waterless fountains, their pecans and Montezuma cypresses hint at the springtime glory that spurred the creation of the world’s most famous guitar concerto, the Concierto de Aranjuez, 75 years ago. Its composer, Joaquín Rodrigo, had been left almost blind by diphtheria at the age of three. But as its latest interpreter, Milos Karadaglic, says: “With each note it paints a landscape Rodrigo could never see, inspired by what he could hear and smell – the scent of flowers; the sound of leaves, water drops, singing birds.”
Milos (known professionally only by his first name) was speaking to me in Chinchon, a neighbouring village where, the night before, he had given an intimate guitar recital spanning Bach and Rodrigo, in the presence of the late Spanish composer’s daughter, Cecilia, now in her early seventies. That Milos, born 30 years ago in former Yugoslavia, is embraced in Spain, the 20th-century birthplace of modern classical guitar, is testament to his talent and seriousness of purpose.
A child star in Montenegro, the tiny republic on the Adriatic where he won his first national competition aged 11, at the age of 16 Milos earned a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music, graduating with first-class honours and leaving as a junior fellow. His debut solo album The Guitar (Mediterráneo) married Spanish classics by Albéniz, Granados and Tárrega with Greek and Italo-Turkish sounds. It won him Gramophone’s Young Artist of the Year for 2011 and topped classical charts.
Latino in 2012 extended his repertoire through Latin America, from the tango of Piazzolla and Gardel to Brazil’s Villa-Lobos and Jobim, and scooped a Classic Brit award. In the same year, he gave the first solo guitar recital in the Royal Albert Hall, creating a magical intimacy in the huge arena.
“I played the concert I had imagined in my head 12 years earlier, when I went to my first Prom,” he says. “When I told my colleagues that I thought it was the perfect place for the guitar, they thought I was a crazy Montenegrin kid.” He now has a flat in Battersea overlooking the Thames. “Montenegro is my home; London is where I live,” he says.
One of today’s strongest advocates of classical guitar for a new generation, Milos emerged after the decline of what he calls the “rock star status” of John Williams and Julian Bream in the 1970s. The instrument has, he argues, a “power to unite worlds that are constantly being separated: the classical and the mainstream. We play melody and accompaniment, so it sounds like more than one instrument. When I’m performing, it’s like I’m conducting my own orchestra.”
On his first concerto recording, Milos willingly ceded to the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road studios. While his earlier albums were “like tasting menus”, Milos sees his third, Aranjuez, as a “true feast – it’s the most intense and substantial.” The centrepiece is Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, whose swelling lament in the central Adagio has inspired musicians from José Carreras and Frank Sinatra to Miles Davis, in his Sketches of Spain – Milos’s favourite non-guitar version. Milos says: “Davis said something I was able to apply: ‘The softer you play the melody, the stronger it becomes.’ If you speak quietly, people listen harder.”
The concerto was inspired when Rodrigo and his bride, the pianist Victoria Kamhi, honeymooned in Aranjuez. But Rodrigo actually wrote the piece later, in 1939, just before returning from Paris at the end of the Spanish civil war. Milos, who grew up in a time of war, sees the piece as escapism. “To me, it represents life. The first movement is full of optimism, because Rodrigo had just married and was in love.” The slow movement, sometimes thought to be a response to the bombing of Guernica, more likely “reflects the pain when they lost their first child,” who was still-born. The cadenza “draws the last drop of your creative juice – I’m shaking when I finish it. Then the music shifts into a major key and signals optimism and that life must go on.”
Born in 1983 in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, Milos was eight when Yugoslavia began to break up. He recalls food shortages, power cuts and “something sinister in the environment”. At just this time he found a dusty guitar with broken strings on top of a wardrobe. His parents, both economists with “proper jobs”, were supportive, while the state conservatory in a country without a guitar tradition “felt like child’s play”.
When the war ended and the country opened up, Milos played in Paris, aged 13, and “finally saw the world in full colour”. After graduating in 2007, he struggled, accepting “every little church concert in far-away English counties” until his breakthrough came when Deutsche Grammophon signed him in 2010.
While his early albums were of “music that inspired me to fall in love with the guitar”, Aranjuez pays homage to musicians who elevated it to a concert instrument. The album includes “Homenaje” by Manuel de Falla, the Spaniard’s 1920 homage to Debussy, who was influenced by Spanish cante jondo (deep song).For Milos, the solo is crucial as being “the first instance of a major composer dedicating a piece for the guitar.” Rodrigo’s “Fantasía para un gentilhombre”, based on 17th-century baroque dances, is a courtly concerto written for Andrés Segovia, whose records inspired Milos as a child.
Milos’s first visit to Spain was to pick up a guitar. He now plays a fine Australian instrument lent to him by a British businessman who said that if he made a top international career within five years, he could keep it. Milos agreed with alacrity. “I’m a Balkan boy. I’ve been refined by 13 years in England but I can be blunt,”he says. “Now the guitar is mine.”
‘Aranjuez’ is out on Deutsche Grammophon on February 17.
Tour dates from milosguitar.com