The passing of Alirio Díaz, one of the greatest guitar maestros of the 20th century, on July 5 at the age of 92, was a sad event for the multitude of guitar lovers who attended his recitals and bought his many recordings. His playing was phenomenal—full of vigor and insight—and quite different from any other player of his era.
Díaz studied for five years with Raúl Borges (a friend of both Agustín Barrios Mangoré and Antonio Lauro), and went on to sit at the feet of Regino Sáinz de la Maza and Andrés Segovia, thus directly receiving a powerful tradition of technique and musical wisdom. Yet he always played in a uniquely individual style, achieving a mastery in his performances of effortless musicality and compelling bravura.
His musical roots lay in the folk music of his native Venezuela, and as a youth he played the cuatro, the guitar, and the mandolin—though without reading music. Beginning at age 19 he worked for three years as a typographer with the Trujillo State Press, moving to Caracas in 1945. When he was 22, Díaz began guitar lessons with Borges, and over the next five years he learned the basis of classical technique. In 1948 Díaz first encountered Segovia’s editions.
In November, 1950, Díaz moved to Spain on a Venezuelan government scholarship and studied for three years with Sáinz de la Maza at the Royal Madrid Conservatoire. In the summer months, Díaz enrolled in Segovia’s courses in Siena, studying with the great maestro from 1951 until 1963. In 1954 he was promoted to be Segovia’s assistant, with a wide range of responsibilities.
I did not hear Alirio Díaz in recital until the 1970s, though I had acquired a number of his recordings during the previous decade. I first met him after a concert in Wakefield, England, in February 1977. I remember it was a bitterly cold, snowy night, so cold even inside that the audience kept their thick winter coats on. As Alirio played, a chill breeze swept constantly across the platform and the listeners in the front rows could feel the stiff draft. Unperturbed, the recitalist played Bach’s Third Cello Suite and the Chaconne with great brilliance. The second half consisted of music from Venezuela and Spain, featuring Lauro, Turina and Granados, as well as Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Tarantella. The concert concluded with six South American pieces, including Cueca by Barrios and Canción Mexicana by Ponce.
In the green room I was thrilled to meet the artist, and he politely remarked, though it was our first encounter, “Pleased to see you again!” I commented on the coldness of the hall and in response he shook hands. His fingers were absolutely chilled, yet he had played through a difficult program with impeccable skill in what many would consider impossible conditions.
Díaz’s inexorable path to the summit of the guitar hierarchy followed an unusual period of learning and dedication. To the world he became the ambassador of Venezuelan music, yet he was also master of any repertoire he touched, excelling whether in Renaissance music, the intricacies of Bach, or the exuberance and passion of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, and Invocacion y Danza (which was dedicated to him).
His technique was truly dazzling —I saw him as the Horowitz of the guitar, the peerless virtuoso for whom playing was always natural and easy. The sound he produced from the guitar was truly his own—vibrant, colorful, full of the warm south, with a compelling momentum, yet always elegant, balanced, and utterly musical.
He was a player deeply admired and immensely loved by the general public and guitarists alike. Alirio Díaz was a great musician who elevated the art of the guitar to unprecedented heights. His achievements in performance, recordings, and editions remain as permanent testimonies to one of the major artists of our time.
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(Here’s a video of Díaz playing Seis por Derecho by his countryman Antonio Lauro.)