Entertainment & Arts

Milos Karadaglic: 'The Beatles are as important as Bach'

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Media captionA Beatles masterclass from Milos Karadaglic

Virtuoso guitarist Milos Karadaglic argues The Beatles are "as important as Bach" and should be considered part of the core classical music catalogue.

Milos Karadaglic is the world's most popular classical guitarist, renowned for his fluent and expressive playing. But he always wanted to be a rock star.

Born in the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro, he was eight years old when he found an ancient guitar with broken strings on top of a dusty cupboard in his parents' bedroom.

He fell in love with this unlikely instrument, throwing poses in his bedroom and dreaming of stardom. But that phase was short lived.

"I always liked to sing, and the guitar seemed to be the perfect accompaniment to that," he says. "But the formal education in Montenegro was such that I was thrown immediately into the very serious world of classical guitar.

"The first thing I noticed was that I was picking things up much quicker [than other people]. There was one moment where I was working on some sort of Spanish Flamenco or Malaguena and, after a week or so of trying, I just suddenly felt as if my fingers were flying off. It was very exciting and really thrilling.

"And because Montenegro is a very small country, people very quickly noticed I was talented and put me in front of an audience. And when I first experienced playing in front of an audience it was like I tasted blood and wanted more."

Image copyright Andy Earl / Mercury Classics
Image caption The 32-year-old's style has been called "lithe, subtle of timbre and transcendentally beautiful"

His progress was dizzyingly swift. By the age of 11, Karadaglic won his first national competition. At 14, he was invited to play at a concert hall in Paris. He later travelled to Italy to meet classical guitarist David Russell, who advised him to enrol at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

He graduated with honours and went on to earn a Masters in Performance, as well as the Ivor Mairants Award and the Julian Bream Prize.

Just five years ago, he released his eponymous debut album on Deutsche Grammophon (the world's oldest surviving record company), topping classical charts around the world and earning him Gramophone magazine's prestigious Young Artist of the Year Award.

The guitarist's reputation has only built since then, selling out major performances with some of the finest conductors and orchestras around the globe - from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the Bangkok Symphony.

"In the beginning I was quite stunned," he says bashfully. "Suddenly, from playing a handful of concerts in local churches, I had a schedule from Tokyo to LA. And it wasn't just anywhere - it was in was the biggest concert halls and the most prestigious venues.

"I was immediately pushed into the forefront of classical guitar and it was a huge responsibility. So it took a couple of years for me to find my feet and not feel the earth was constantly shaking."

He also, somewhat unwillingly, became a heartthrob - once protesting to an Australian newspaper that he was not "just all smiles and cheekbones".

Amidst all the acclaim, this charming but serious young man never gave up his dream of soloing for a stadium of screaming fans. So it's not entirely a surprise to discover that his fourth album is comprised of Beatles' songs...

"I felt it was time to have fun," he explains. "To go back all those years and complete the circle."

The album was unexpectedly hard to record, though. "Technically and musically, there was quite a lot I needed to work on," the 32-year-old confesses.

"I had to focus on the rhythm, on getting an 'edge' to the sound - which is not the most natural thing within the classical training."

"It was out of my comfort zone but I felt I was in the field of musical opportunities and I could take whatever I fancied. I felt much less restricted than I do when I'm recording something very, very classical."

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Media captionMilos Karadaglic plays Yesterday

The album was recorded at Abbey Road on some of the original equipment used by The Beatles. Karadaglic, a self-confessed "control freak" says he spent an entire day getting the sound of his guitar right, with up to a dozen microphones positioned around the studio to capture the colour and texture of his playing.

A further link to the Beatles was provided by Anoushka Shankar, whose father Ravi taught George Harrison to play the sitar ("One of the most important cross-collaborations in music history," says Karadaglic.)

She joins him on Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, closing the album in a kaleidoscopic blur of strings.

"The difference and the similarity of the two instruments is just extraordinary," says the musician. "It's almost like two magnets which bounce away from each other. There are all the spices of the world in that track."

Other collaborators include jazz musician Gregory Porter and singer-songwriter Tori Amos, who puts a unique spin on She's Leaving Home.

"I loved her approach," Karadaglic says. "She told me that, when she sang it years ago, she would sing it as a daughter who left home but now she sings it like a mother.

"She became very emotional in the studio, because it was the start of the school year and her daughter was actually leaving home. I think many women will relate with her emotions on that song. She really gave it a special voice."

Image copyright Andy Earl / Mercury Classics
Image caption Milos says he was "never worried" his Beatles project would become "something light - because I'm not light, nor is the music."

Interestingly, the guitarist was not aware of The Beatles during his childhood in Montenegro. His first exposure to the band's work came when a teacher at the Royal Academy suggested that he learn Yesterday, in an arrangement by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.

"After I studied the piece, I fell in love with it completely," he says.

In fact, he now argues that The Beatles should have a place in the classical catalogue.

"I don't see a difference between those songs and Schubert. The Beatles left such a big mark on how we hear music today, so it feels equally natural to play the Beatles as it does to play Bach."

He doesn't say it explicitly - but the new album gives Karadaglic the chance to expand his audience after establishing his classical credentials with three albums of traditional repertoire, including "the holy grail of the guitar," Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez.

Significantly, the US leg of his 2016 tour opens at New York's historic Blue Note Jazz Club, rather than a traditional concert hall - and he says would be open to playing Glastonbury's acoustic tent.

So does he feel the guitar is under-rated as a classical instrument?

"Maybe in some circles - but that's not really my problem," he bristles.

"Our repertoire is not as big as for piano or violin but I feel there's more and more and more people who want to hear guitar - and who actually would rather hear guitar than any other classical instrument because there is nothing about it that scares them or makes them feel intimidated.

"The guitar is the instrument of the people."

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