Performance and Recordings: Is There a Conflict? by Graham Wade

Recordings of classical-guitar music go back over a century. The earliest are those by Simon Ramírez (recorded c. 1897–1901) and Tárrega (1899 or 1900), available on Volume 12 of Andrés Segovia and his Contemporaries (Doremi). The first prolific recording guitarist was Agustín Barrios Mangoré, whose studio experiences from 1910 to 1942 resulted in some 60 tracks.

Segovia first heard his own playing on record in Cuba in 1923. But his studio career began in 1927 when EMI released 78 rpms of Sor’s “Variations Op. 9,” and Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau, and Courante. Miguel Llobet first recorded during the 1920s. Throughout the 1930s, guitarists such as Emilio Pujol, Daniel Fortea, Regino Saínz de la Maza, Julio Martinez Oyanguren, and Luise Walker contributed to the legacy of recorded sound.

With the advent of long-playing discs at 33 rpm in the late 1940s, the field broadened. Segovia produced nearly 40 LPs, and Narciso Yepes, Laurindo Almeida, Julian Bream, and John Williams, among others, followed with a mass of recordings over the decades, issued on a basis of one or two albums a year.

With the new generation, recording became a different art from concert performance. Segovia always recorded his tracks in one take. He disliked altering tapes, preferring to play the work again rather than be subject to editing. The late Ron Purcell discovered in the  more than 60 tracks Segovia recorded during the 1950s that there was no evidence of a second take in any sessions. This contrasted with the recording techniques of Bream, who, with RCA, aimed at perfection within LPs, editing various takes to produce immaculate versions of the highest quality.

A divide naturally occurred between recordings and performance. With modern equipment, listening to a record can be equivalent to sitting next to the player with an ear close to the soundboard. The same problem occurs with recording quiet instruments such as lutes or clavichords, where too enthusiastic deployment of the volume knob produces distortion. Ideally, the volume should be turned down to produce a realistic effect but this rarely happens. Instead, magnificently expensive amplifiers boost the plucked string sound to orchestral proportions of rich sonorities.

Classical-guitar enthusiasts listen to more recordings than they attend recitals. As a consequence, listening to recordings and going to concerts have become disparate activities. Without amplification, a classical guitar in concert is magical and beautiful, but very different from recordings played at home.

Some players have for years used amplification in concerts to bridge the gap. John Williams has expressed the view that he does not admire the concept of the guitar tinkling from afar in a large concert hall. Segovia loathed amplification, whether playing with an orchestra or solo, while Bream’s concerts were not amplified unless he was playing a concerto.

It is no accident that in the theater, actors almost never amplify their voices when playing Shakespeare or classical-theater works. Amplification, some believe, destroys the humanity of the sound, whether with the natural plucked string or the speaking voice. But recordings, especially with the volume turned up, now resonate as if dealing with an amplified guitar.

Various guitarists on the concert platform have felt a need to amplify, to enlarge the details of the performance in an unambiguous manner. This is a kind of reaction to the Segovia/Bream tradition of whisperingly intimate guitar sonorities in concert, where the message of the music is as much in the distant enchantment of the web of sound as in anything explicitly loud.

To meet the need, many guitar makers have tried to create louder instruments, sometimes disregarding the essentially subdued nature of plucked sound. Such instruments may indeed sacrifice emotional subtlety for overwhelming volume and the homogenized intensity of a keyboard. A different kind of classical guitar is often now in vogue—different, that is, from the sensuous, silky essence of traditional Spanish instruments. In flamenco circles, massive amplification has been popular for many years, though solo flamenco delivered without amplification possesses its own intensely spiritual appeal.

As they say, the world moves forward and we cannot resist the tide of progress with all its vagaries. As for myself, after 60 years of attending concerts, I still prefer the sweet attractiveness of an unamplified classical guitar. For the same reason, I continue to listen to recordings with due regard to an appropriate volume emanating from the speakers. This may seem a personal idiosyncrasy. But in terms of concentrating on the actual qualities of guitar music, for me, serenity and receptivity are usually associated one with the other.

Listen to a symphony orchestra or a big band, etc., and different principles apply. But surely every classical-guitar recording should be a true image of the performance itself, not like a vast sonic balloon expanded to unrealistic limits. Recording engineers have been obsessed for years with the problems of verisimilitude in reproducing the actual qualities of guitar sound.

Hearing tracks from Barrios to the present day brings home the immense variety of approaches that have been attempted in terms of technical expertise in the studio.


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Classical Guitar.

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