BY GRAHAM WADE | FROM THE MARCH 1993 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
From 1927 onward Andrés Segovia‘s international fame extended throughout the world by means of recording. In Britain the critics fastened on his playing with a singular rapture (though the nature of the repertoire was often less cordially received). The first record to be released and reviewed in England was HMV D1255, featuring Sor’s Theme Varie (Op. 9) and Gavotte by J.S. Bach. The Gramophone (August 1927) commented on the “truly astonishing playing on the guitar.” But, on the adverse side, Sor’s composition was dismissed as “pleasant childish prattling” and Segovia’s performance of the Gavotte as “interesting” but “hardly Bach.”
Note: This is part 2 of a 17-part series from the Classical Guitar archive.
In April 1928, The Gramophone was enquiring, “When are we to have some more of this great artist’s playing?” In the following month a new Segovia 78/12″ record was reviewed, HMV D1305, with Turina’s Fandanguillo and Tárrega’s Tremolo Study. This was judged to be “a most entertaining and complete recording.”
Segovia is an uncanny player. His rhythm and, above all, variety of tone colour, are as unusual as his musicianship is excellent.
The next record issued was HMW E475: Moreno Torroba, Sonatina (Allegretto movement) and J.S. Bach, Courante (Third Cello Suite). It was reviewed in August, 1929 initially but recommended in September 1929 by the editor, Compton Mackenzie, and in November, 1931 by Watson Lyle, who commented on “that wizard of the guitar, Segovia,” and “his perfection of phrasing, nuance, and tone.”
However when Ponce’s Folia de Espana Variations were released on HMV DB 1567 /1568, the critic remarked (June, 1932) sourly that it would be a pity if “Segovia’s incomparable genius were too often to be wasted upon music of the level of this four-sited Folies D’Espagne … in their musical and emotional ranges they are terribly dull.”
The reviewer preferred the playing of Bach’s Prelude in D minor, Allemande, and Fugue on HMV D1536, where the critic was willing to “sink a good deal of my purist prejudice for the sake of enjoying such miraculous playing.”
For the next recording British record buffs had to wait no less than six years, until the review in March 1938 of HMV DA1552 of Ponce’s Mazurka and Petite Valse, “a record that will delight the listener again and again.” In July 1938, Moreno Torroba’s Prelude and Fandanguillo on HMW E526 was reviewed, the verdict being very favourable. Once again the “variety of effect he gets” was praised and the compositions endorsed as “good vehicles for the display of Segovia’s genius,” while “the music, beautifully recorded, exhales a sweet melancholy, which in the circumstances, is heartbreaking to listen to.”
As far as the recital repertoire was concerned, the 1930s were extremely fruitful. Segovia first met Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in 1932 during his eventful trip to Venice with Manuel de Falla. From their friendship and collaboration several masterpieces of the guitar saw the light of day. After the experimental Variazioni Attraverso i Secoli, Op. 71 (1932), Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote Sonata, Omaggio a Boccherini, Op. 77 (1934), Capriccio Diabolico (Omaggio a Paganini) Op. 85 (1935), Tarantella, Op. 87a (1936) and the famous Concerto in D for Guitar and Orchestra, Op. 99 in 1939. There were other works for guitar by this composer in the 1930’s, but these constituted a hard-core repertoire which Segovia performed many times over the years.
Manuel Ponce was also hard at work in the 1930’s as he had been in the previous decade. Segovia’s particular favourites composed during these years included Sonata clásica (Homage to Sor) (1930), the re-working of Sonata by Paganini (1930), Suite Antigua (under the name of Scarlatti) and Sonatina Meridional (1932).
Halfway through the decade, in Paris in 1935, Segovia premiered his transcription of Bach’s Chaconne. This was a milestone in the history of the guitar and ever since has remained a challenge for recitalists who henceforth were required to prove their mettle on this piece or die in the attempt. The magnitude of Segovia’s musical imagination in the presenting of this work in a guitar context would seem self-evident. Every guitarist who has ever confronted the formidable cathedral-like architecture of this superb Baroque masterpiece has cause to bless the name of Segovia for this legacy alone. Only those ignorant of the steady expansion of the guitar in the 20th century as Segovia carved out the instrument’s historic developments could be ungrateful for such a gift to subsequent generations.
For his debut in Holland on 27 November, 1936, Segovia could offer the following repertoire:
Canzone e saltarello (ed. Chilesotti)
Pavane et Gaillarde (Sanz)
Preambulo et Gavotta (Scarlatti)
Chaconne (J.S. Bach)
Torre Bermeja (Albéniz)
It was during the 1930s that Segovia transcribed Frescobaldi’s Aria con Variazioni detta La Frescobalda (published 1939, Schotts), another repertoire piece destined to be much loved. For Segovia’s Wigmore Hall recital on 3 December, 1938, the last in Britain for nine years, the programme was as follows:
Aria con Variazioni (Frescobaldi)
Prelude and Mazurka (Chopin)
Choro No.1 (Villa-Lobos)
Three Pieces (Granados)
Variations on Felia de Espana and Fugue (Ponce)
Six Catalan Folk Songs (Arr. Llobet)
Capriccio Diabolico Op. 85 (Castelnuovo-Tedesco)
The subtle blend of transcription and original pieces within the programme’s structure was now complete. The guitarist’s treasury was richer than it could ever have been at any previous time and the instrument was enjoyed in the large concert halls of the world. As Europe faced a massive conflagration, Segovia returned to the New World to wait for peace and to lay the foundations of an even greater reputation in the decades after the war. At the age of 45, Andres Segovia was still a young artist, less than halfway through his career, and with his finest artistic achievements before him.
Read all 17 parts of Segovia: A Centenary Celebration here.