From the Archives: David Russell on Playing Baroque Music; a 2014 Interview

BY THÉRÈSE WASSILY SABA from the JANUARY 2014 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR 

David Russell‘s recording and concert output continues to be refreshingly inspired and inspiring, with a depth of musical understanding that includes his wit and sense of drama, expressed through his remarkable technical control in beautiful tone colors. In the first issue of Classical Guitar, published in September/October 1982, Colin Cooper wrote in his review of David Russell’s Purcell Room recital: “Clarity, incisiveness, simplicity, power—any of these in combinations of one, two, or even three can carry a recital, but David Russell can combine all four in a way that makes him one of the most exciting young guitarists on the scene.” Thirty years-on and 30 recordings later, he is still “one of the most exciting guitarists on the scene.” His Telarc albums Air on a G String: Baroque Masterpieces by Bach, Couperin, Saint-Luc and Weiss, his witty all-Giuliani recording, Music of Giuliani, and his all-Albéniz recording, Isaac Albéniz—Spanish Music for Classical Guitar, with 70 minutes of Albéniz, all received great critical acclaim. His Aire Latino—Latin American Music for Guitar won the 2005 Grammy award for best instrumental soloist. I spoke with David Russell about his latest recording, The Grandeur of the Baroque, and more.

Classical Guitar: The Grandeur of the Baroque has some superb works by Bach and Couperin, but what I found extra-exciting is this new recording of the Handel [Suite No. 7, HWV 432], which you recorded many years ago.
David Russell: Yes, I did record it before, so this is the second recording of a piece which has been really important for me. When I recorded it the first time, I think it was one of my best achievements, certainly my best transcription up to then, and it was a big challenge technically and musically to play the piece.

CG: When was that the first recording made?
Russell: The first recording was made around 1984.

CG: In the sequence of solo recordings, would that have been about your third recording?
Russell: If we include the duo record with Dennis Milne, and one or two other things, it was the fourth recording I did, so I was kind of a beginner at it. What really happened was that I felt that I wanted to play the piece again. It’s a challenging piece to play and at the same time, it’s very rewarding. I toured with the piece several years ago and then I decided I would like to try to improve some of the details that I thought I could now do better than 25 years ago, because some parts of my playing have changed and so also has my attitude to the music itself.

CG: I imagine that it is the attitude more than anything.
Russell: I think so. We get older and we perhaps have more time; I hope that maybe this new recording is more thoughtful. Perhaps it’s less brash because I’m 25 years less brash than I was then! I love to listen to the early recording, but it has some parts that I don’t really enjoy any more.

CG: Do you often listen to your early recordings?
Russell: Well, I had to when I was going to do this one. In this particular case, of course I listened to my old recording of the Handel Suite, as I wanted to keep the good things and try to improve on the aspects that I felt could be better. As far as listening to my own recordings is concerned, I sometimes do it, but for many different reasons: choosing repertoire for concerts, listening to the sound when I am preparing for a new recording, and so on.

CG: I imagine that it is inevitably a different version when you record a piece for a second time—even you could not reproduce an identical version of yourself, even though every other guitarist might be trying to do it!
Russell: I didn’t really want to make it identical, although if you listen to both versions, there is going to be a similarity. I didn’t want to replicate what I did before; I wanted to improve on it and to do some things better.

CG: Aren’t they two different interpretations and therefore neither one is necessarily better than the other? I would be happy to even have a third version!
Russell: Well, I would only do it a third time if I wanted to make some kind of radical change. I don’t think I am going to be doing that piece again. I’d love to be able to play it for the rest of my life, because if you can play that, you can basically deal with everything, as it’s a really hard piece to play.

There are very few pieces that we get a chance to record twice. I’ve recorded Capricho Árabe by Tárrega twice.

CG: Are your two versions of Capricho Árabe very different?
Russell: The first recording was part of an all-Tárrega CD, and then there was a later album that I was asked to make with popular pieces on it, so I put on Capricho Árabe and Recuerdos de la Alhambra. I also have two recordings of the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez. The opportunities came up: one was in Poland and it is on a CD that is no longer available, and the second one was for Telarc.

CG: In the case of concertos, the orchestra and conductor make a big difference to the final result, don’t they?
Russell: Oh yes, the result is more different than when you record a solo piece.

Sometimes I listen to my old recordings and it surprises me that it’s not so different. I thought after 30 years I would have changed a bit, but the change is not so enormous.

CG: What about with regard to the ornamentation you have used, because that is quite a distinctive part of the Handel? Did your style of ornamentation change?
Russell: I’m much better at it now than I was when I first recorded it. At the time of the first recording was really when I was developing that kind of ornamentation and those kind of trills. Of course, I’m not the only one to do them, but for me they were a new kind of technique, so some of them were just flung in all over the place. Now I know what I want with them and I’m much more confident in my knowledge than I was at that time. In the Couperin that is on my new CD [from Vingt-Sixiéme Ordre], there is a lot of ornamentation—a lot more than I could have done at that time, because I know how to do it better now.

CG: You didn’t record any Couperin at the beginning of your career, did you?
Russell: No, I discovered him later in life.

CG: This is a new, luxury item that we all love!
Russell: There are many works by Couperin that can be transcribed successfully for guitar and they sound wonderful on our instrument.

CG: The four Couperin pieces on the recording are not the pieces that I have been hearing you play in concert recently, are they?
Russell: No, those ones that you’ve heard in concert I recorded a couple of years ago on a CD called Air on a G String. They were Les Silvains, Les Barricades Mystérieuses and the Les Tours de Passe-passe. Those pieces I recorded four years ago. Couperin wrote his pieces in Ordres, like suites, and with these ones, the whole suite has five movements, but there was one movement that I couldn’t fit onto the guitar and it’s not actually a very pretty movement anyway. So I recorded four movements from the 26th Ordre.
Russell plays two by Couperin:

CG: You have also recorded a [lute] suite by Weiss [Suite No, 14].
Russell: I recorded the whole suite; it’s the one that finishes with the famous Passacaille in D major.


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CG: What did you use as a source for your version?
Russell: I used [Ruggero] Chiesa’s book. So it’s an arrangement from that, which is basically a transcription from the tablature.

CG: What about the ornamentation in the Weiss?
Russell: Well, it’s almost impossible to do the ornaments that Weiss suggests, because of the differences in the instruments. The tuning is different and he often has passages across strings that we simply can’t do. I included the ones that I think are important. Then, when I took away some of the ornaments, I decided to add other ornaments in some places. Ornamentation is part of your interpretation when you’re playing Baroque music, so where you choose to ornament is also going to give a certain kind of character to the piece.

I didn’t follow strictly Weiss’ ornamentation, nor did I strictly use his slurring. Weiss marks in slurs that fit on the lute and they are also not consequent in the way that Bach is with his bowing [on bowed instruments], which is usually consequent with the phrase. Whereas Weiss follows where the fingers fall. This works very well on the Baroque lute but it stands out badly on the guitar. That’s my opinion, so I prefer to be more consequent with the slurring, and if I am going to slur in one phrase, in the next phrase I try to slur in the same place.

CG: So that there is a regularity of pulse and accent?
Russell: Yes, because the slurring also affects the performance; it’s one more part of the interpretation, which can be negative or positive. I hope that it is always positive, if you put them in the right places.

CG: Did you use D tuning on the sixth string for the Weiss?
Russell: Yes, D tuning.

CG: So only altering the sixth string?
Russell: Yes, you know some people have made arrangements of Weiss where they have tuned the first string down to a D. It’s interesting because you do get certain harmonies that would be otherwise hard to achieve, but with the Passacaille and the rest of this suite, I didn’t find it necessary. I could play almost all of the notes. The only problem was that some of the basses had to be bumped up an octave at times, because Weiss had so many more basses to play with. But the other notes I didn’t change at all.

CG: What about the tuning for the Couperin? Did you alter any string tunings there?
Russell: The whole thing is in straight tuning. With the Couperin, you can play almost all of the notes; you hardly have to change anything. The only challenge really is the ornamentation. I always feel that if an ornament is so difficult that it hurts the music, then we should just forget it and not play it. We should choose the ornaments that really do embellish the piece and make it sound more beautiful, which is the origin of the idea. The ornaments are supposed to make the simple notes sound better. I think that I found ways of including many ornaments that maintain the character of Couperin’s music.

CG: There are the four Couperin pieces that you recorded on the Air on a G String CD and now there are another four on this new recording. Are there many more Couperin transcriptions sitting on your desk, waiting to be played?
Russell: Yes, but usually, before I include a piece into my repertoire, I have often transcribed another five that I have to reject.

CG: Do you choose one piece from a selection of pieces?
Russell: Yes, so I can go through them and decide whether they will really work; it was quite lucky that four movements from the same Ordre all worked really well. My next plan is to try to do another whole Ordre of Couperin pieces.

CG: That’s great news because we all love your transcriptions and performances of Couperin. Will you publish your transcriptions?
Russell: I have sent the transcriptions to Doberman-Yppan in Canada, who publish my Collection David Russell series, and the first ones have already been published: Les barricades mystérieuses, Les Silvains, and Les tours de passe-passe. I will tidy up the next ones soon and be sending them for publication as well. [Ed. note: Handel’s Suite No. 7 was published by Doberman-Yappan.]

CG: How did it come about that you recorded Hubert Käppel’s transcription of the Bach?
Russell: Hubert and I have been friends for many, many years; since we were 25-year-olds or something. When he made that beautiful transcription of the whole Bach suite [Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830], it became identified as “Hubert’s piece”; it was a piece that only he was playing and he really played wonderful performances of it. As the years have passed, I thought, “I really want to play that piece.” I had often doodled with it and played around with it, just for my own pleasure. Then when I was thinking of making this recording, I spoke with Hubert and I asked him how he would feel about me playing it. He said it was great and that he would be really happy; he faxed me his arrangement of the music straight away.

I only played the Toccata and Fugue, rather than the whole suite. When I made the recording, I had enough material already for it not to be there, because I really didn’t know how I was going to feel about it. In the end, it worked out really well and so it’s the first piece on the CD.

CG: Have you followed a similar style to Käppel’s version for the ornamentation?
Russell: There are a few little differences. I studied his version against the original and his transcription really includes all the voices, so the only difference would be me choosing my own fingering. Apart from that, it’s very much what he did.

I did listen to his version a few times, but then I really wanted to do my own thing. It’s easy to get caught into other people’s way of interpreting a piece. This is the way I go about it: Once I decide about something which I want to play, I only listen to myself until my own way has been consolidated enough. Then I am able to listen to other people and take ideas from them, but the core of the interpretation really has to be mine.

CG: I didn’t think you would have to worry about that as much as the rest of us do.
Russell: Yes, it’s not such a big problem but I know it happens.

CG: Do you think it is an issue with guitarists more than any other instrumentalists with regard to copying interpretations?
Russell: Well, I think that in the music world, everyone is influenced by what they listen to and especially what they admire. In that sense, I think that it affects all instrumentalists.

For someone really to develop, they have to have their own, distinctive interpretation. Of course, you listen to other people to get inspiration and to hear what others are doing, but if you listen to a single piece many, many times, it is almost impossible not to be influenced.

I used to play like a miniature copy of Segovia. I tried desperately to do every single phrasing that he was doing. Maybe that was OK when I was 12 or 15 years old, or something like that, but there came a day when I didn’t want to continue it because I sounded like a really bad version of this great player. If you’re trying to do a copy, you’re never going to do it as well as that other person, because the other person is doing it in their own way with their own character.

I think we all have to discover our own personality. The best way to do that is to play pieces that you’ve never ever heard other people play, to completely make up your own mind first and then listen to others. This is very hard to do as far as the famous pieces go, because we all have heard so many versions.

CG: Yes, we could all benefit from thinking about how to approach learning pieces and how to have a more personal connection with the piece.
Russell: I am not against copying somebody purely as a learning experience, not in terms of building your own character and your own way of doing it. If you can imitate what somebody else is doing, then you can understand how they achieved it; that is, what they did with their information, with their phrasing. That doesn’t mean that you should use it, but we should be able to make that imitation. Hopefully, you have your own ideas as to how the music should be interpreted.

I think that if you can’t imitate something that you hear somebody else do, then how can you produce the idea that you have in your head? So if I have the idea that the phrase should go in a particular way, basically then I have to translate that onto my fingers. If you play a phrase and you play it really beautifully, and I am not able to replicate it, then how can I replicate the idea that I have in my head? Many people simply play what their fingers will do for them. You must have the idea first and then get your fingers to do it!