28 May 2009

Andres Segovia: the American Decca recordings

Deutsche Grammophon has recently done a huge favour for fans of the great Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, by re-releasing the first six of the albums that he recorded for American Decca in the 1940s and 1950s, when he was at the peak of his performing career.

Andrés Segovia was central to the revival of the guitar as a solo instrument for the performance of classical music, rather than simply an instrument for the accompaniment of the human voice. Born in Linares near Jaén in southern Spain, he moved as a teenager to Granada, home of the last of the Moorish kingdoms to be overthrown by Ferdinand and Isabela, and a city that everyone should try to see at least once in their lifetime.

There is debate about the most important influences in his tuition on the instrument. Segovia himself claimed in an autobiography to have been largely self-taught. The principal stylistic influences seem to have been Francisco Tárrega and Miguel Llobet. Llobet had begun the process of reviving the guitar, but in an age before recording, broadcasting and intercontinental travel made it possible for one person to have as great an effect as was possible later. Segovia inspired the composition by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos of his Twelve Études and several other works, and Joaquin Rodrigo’s 1954 Fantasia para un gentilhombre was composed for Segovia at his request. Mexican composer Manuel Ponce composed his lovely Concierto del sur for Segovia, who premiered it in 1941 with the composer conducting.

This first release contains six CDs in their original LP couplings, in mini-LP sleeves with the original artwork front and back. They are:

- Andrés Segovia Guitar Solos

- An Andrés Segovia Recital

- An Andrés Segovia Concert

- An Andrés Segovia Program

- An Evening with Andrés Segovia

- Andrés Segovia Plays ...

The set has been remastered from original tapes or tape copies of the original glass masters. They have been nicely cleaned up, but with a minimum of intervention, and the resultant sound quality really is very good. The playing is superb, and for anyone who is not familiar with the classical guitar as a solo instrument this set is a good place to start – one of the great musicians of the twentieth century playing works spanning the centuries from the sixteenth to the twentieth.

These days it is fashionable in some quarters to put Segovia down on the basis that he allegedly plays early and baroque music (from say 1530 to 1750) too much as though it were late nineteenth century or early twentieth century Spanish romantic or nationalistic music. My main response to that is that, as anyone who has ever read a referee’s report about someone they know is aware, every assessment is a statement about two people, the assessor and the assessed. I think this particular assessment is unfair; there was no settled view of historically accurate performance in Segovia’s heyday, there is still debate about what constitutes historically accurate performance, and in any event I would like to be convinced that early and baroque musicians all played in as academically “correct” a manner as modern purists would insist.

Certainly Segovia has a very personal and individual style of playing, but when you listen to Segovia you are not only hearing a master of his instrument but a part of the history of twentieth century music – he is the reason that a good proportion of the guitar music of the twentieth century was written, he transcribed many other works, popularised the compositions of others and produced an enormous volume of fingered editions.

To hear for yourself you can acquire this lovely set here – scroll down to the item headed Andres Segovia – The American Decca Recordings.

Happy listening.

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