Given the popularity today of the great Paraguayan guitarist/composer Agustin Barrios (1885–1944), it’s hard to believe that his name was relatively obscure until the mid- to late 1970s. That’s when John Williams first played pieces by Barrios on British TV and recorded an entire album devoted to him, John Williams Plays Barrios, released in 1977 in Europe and 1979 in the U.S. (To be fair, there were several recordings of Barrios pieces by popular guitarists pre-Williams, such as Laurindo Almeida and Alirio Díaz.) Less known even that Barrios’ compositions, however, were the recordings he made during the first decades of the 20th century. Those recordings—many scratchy and barely audible—provide a valuable window into Barrios’ genius as guitarist and composer, and also a reference point to understand his intentions for his work beyond what any published music, much of it not overseen by him, could provide.

Barrios’ recorded legacy is a subject that has fascinated me for many years and has been a focus of my own investigations. And now my interest has been piqued again by the recent publication of two huge, indispensable volumes from Les Productions d’Oz of the complete recordings of Barrios transcribed by Dutch guitarist, scholar, and collector of early guitars Chris Erwich: The Agustin Barrios Recordings.

First, a bit of personal background. It was through John Williams that I originally entered into the world of Barrios; it was seeing a TV program that encouraged me—and many others like me—to look for any published music by Barrios. That led me to Richard “Rico” Stover’s four-volume The Guitar Works of Agustín Barrios Mangore (the first part of which was published by Belwin Mills in 1976), as well as publications by the Peruvian guitarist and Barrios expert Jesus Benites, the first of which was published by the Japanese company Zen-On Music a year after Stover’s first volume. Both researchers’ works were the culmination of much travel around the Americas, unearthing every manuscript they could find, whether by Barrios himself (rare) or by others attempting to transcribe the recordings.

It was in Stover’s preface that the magic words, “He left a legacy of recordings” leaped out at me. There were precious few details provided there—just enough to whet my appetite—so after much searching, I acquired cassettes from the U.S. of a lot of the recordings. Upon realizing that a large number of the recordings were not in either Stover’s or Benites’ publications, and that even the ones that were often differed significantly from those published versions, I decided then and there to set about transcribing all of them. It took me three years, from 1980 to 1983.

Of course the quality of the recordings, taken directly from 78s, varied from OK to awful, with the majority of them being the latter. Still, the recordings were made available subsequently on LPs, and then on CD, by which time new recordings had also been discovered and included in Barrios box sets. By this time, my completed transcriptions from the recordings had been published as The Recordings of Agustin Barrios (I believe I was the first to do so), and then a number of other books sprang up in various sizes from a number of sources, but nobody attempted to do a complete set again. In 2002, Rico Stover revised his volumes into two large Mel Bay publications, asking permission on the way to include my transcriptions, which by then had fallen out of print. The only exceptions were Barrios’ recordings of works not written by him, which did not go in the Mel Bay volumes, but were amalgamated into a Lathkill Music volume, Barrios: The Arrangements, which is still available.

And so everything remained until this year when Chris Erwich’s two books came out. I asked Chris to explain his motivations and his modus operandi.

“First of all, I felt a need to make transcriptions of Barrios’ work because I found out there were significant differences between his own playing and the available scores, sketches, and manuscripts. The early records seemed, in my opinion, better maybe even [than] ‘final’ versions of some works. Besides that, a lot of works did not even appear to be handed down at all on paper.

“The point of view behind my publication is that I wanted to have a score which could be interpreted. I did not want to write down Barrios’ interpretation [precisely], because he would sometime lose the beat and/or generate strange rhythms.

“When we listen, for instance, to Segovia, Rubinstein, and other romanticists, there is a difference between what they play and the original score because of their phrasing. With Barrios this is even more the case. Not only does Barrios play extremely freely, but there are also many examples showing that he had difficulties in keeping long notes held down. Because of that, I had to go back to basics. Quite a few pieces are based on well-known tunes, so I did research into this music and started to listen to folkloric music, listening to the beat and how the measure is built up by those specialists, and then, after doing this, trying to reconstruct the score.

“A second difficulty was how to get the right notes. Pitches change, because of the wear and tear of these old records, and overtones may even become dominant. Audio editing software—changing the sound waves into .wav files—makes it possible not only to slow down the file while remaining at the right pitch, but also to change or take out dominant or weird sounds. Even so, there were problems to overcome writing down the right notes. I therefore asked Carlos Salcedo Centurion to make new digitizings of several records with special gear supplied by Michael MacMeeken and Federico Sheppard, which resulted in my hearing more frequencies. This whole process took me many years.”

Each of the pieces has an appendix afterward explaining details Erwich feels are important, and these in themselves are often fascinating and enlightening.

Not all the known recordings of Barrios’ have been included, as there are some that appear in catalogues and lists but which have not been found, such as two pieces from one double-sided Atlanta-label recording—La Morocha Paraguaya by Raccioppi and Estilo Regional, a Barrios original—and five of the six one-sided discs recorded in 1921 for Odeon—Madrigal, El Hijo Prodigal, Pagina D’Album, Geromita, and Rapsodia Americana, all Barrios compositions. Perhaps these will be discovered one day and could be included in an expanded edition.

Of the 68 extant recordings of Barrios playing, just two are not in Erwich’s books. Fernando Sor’s Minuet, Op.11 No. 6, recorded for Odeon in 1928/9, was not included because it already exists in a published version, and Barrios made no attempt to “arrange” it, (which is not the case with the two versions of Tárrega’s Capricho árabe, which exhibit a few minor differences and therefore are included). The second is Barrios’ arrangement of Franz Lehar’s Oro Y Plata Vals, a very free version which bears little resemblance to the original. This is absent because there were copyright issues and the necessary permission was not granted; a shame.

The story of Barrios and his recordings is an ever-evolving one, and should the seven known other recordings come to light one day, our knowledge will evolve once again. Until then, however, this latest edition should be in the hands of any lovers of Barrios.