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Andres Segovia: A Remembrance

Next year, 2007, marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Andres Segovia, the father of the classical guitar for almost the entire 20th Century. This remembrance of what was to be one of his last concerts, a 1985 performance at the Arlington Centre, Santa Barbara, is a tribute to his extraordinary and ground-breaking influence on the classical guitar repertory.

By Tuppy Glossop

Segovia was born in Linares, a village in southern Spain. Originally he was taught to play the violin, but after discovering a guitar at the home of a friend he rebelled, determined to make the guitar a "respectable" instrument on the concert stage. Both his family and teachers at the Granada Institute of Music objected, but to no avail. Unable to find a teacher capable of instructing him, the young Segovia became his own guide. "To this day," he has commented wryly, "teacher and pupil have never had a serious quarrel."

His first public appearance was in Granada at the age of 16, where his performance was described as a revelation; his name was soon known throughout Spain and the rest of Europe. In 1928 he played the first ever guitar recital in New York, at the Town Hall, which received rapturous reviews. After that he played repeatedly in the United States and attracted a wide and loyal following. His influence was threefold; he established the guitar as an important concert instrument; many of the world's greatest contemporary composers wrote works for him (including Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Villa-Lobos and Rodrigo), and he uncovered a wealth of older literature, either original works for guitar or transcriptions of works by Bach, Haydn and others.

His recital at the Arlington ranged freely over the body of music available for the guitar, from Luis de Narvaez' "Differencias on a Spanish Theme", written around 1538 to "Danza Pomposa" by Alexandre Tansman, which was written at Segovia's request in the 1950s. The "differencias", or variations, utilising striking contrasts between the sonorous chords and dazzling scale runs, are based on a popular folk song of the 16th century, known as "Guardame las Vacas" (Guard the Cows).

As was true of all the evening's music, they displayed a master's command of dynamics and sheer musicality, but it would be foolish to ignore the fact that Segovia had by then lost much of his technical skill. He was after all, well over 90 years old, and a guitarist needs great strength and control in his hands. The repertoire he chose reflected an admission that he was growing old. Instead of exploiting mechanical virtuosity, his concert celebrated the breadth of musical dynamics which he displayed and the close communion created between performer and audience, even in a theatre the size of the Arlington.

The ovation that Segovia received, at the end of a recital which left the audience rapt, seemed to me a recognition of what he had been, not what he now was. But that was only a fraction of what he deserved; without his influence, the world of the classical guitar would have been much poorer.

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The Art of Segovia

DG has put together a fascinating compilation of Segovia's art that reminds us what a protean figure he was. Segovia single-handedly put the instrument on the map by making classical guitar concerts popular events, broadening the instrument's repertory through commissions and transcriptions, and convincing even doubters that it could be a vehicle for serious music. He's heard here in brief pieces recorded between 1952 and 1969. Even in those made when he was well into his 70s, his fingers remain nimble and interpretations lively. Listening straight through, one hears many all-time Segovia favorites as Turina's Sevillana and Albeniz's Asturias and Zambra Granadina and renews appreciation for path-breaking composers like Castelnuovo-Tedesco. He wrote extensively for Segovia and his Capriccio diabolico and Tonadilla are pieces of real substance. Disc two is largely made up transcriptions and it's amazing how well so many of them work on the guitar, at least under Segovia's magic fingers. Thus the transformations of Bach's violin music and even a Chopin Prelude sound idiomatic, and the gorgeous melodies of the Canzonetta from Mendelssohn's Op. 12 String Quartet are irresistible here. An entrancing set. --Dan Davis