, April 2008
This disc covers Segovia’s recordings of music from the late renaissance and the baroque – real or faked. In the ’fifties little of this repertoire was known beyond a fairly narrow circle of specialists. Segovia made an important contribution to spread this often exquisite music – not to every Tom, Dick and Harry but at least to general lovers of classical music. The period performance movement was in its infancy and to Segovia it felt natural to adapt the music for the modern six-stringed guitar instead of taking up the baroque guitar or the lute. The consequence was that he distanced himself from the originals. He also performed the works in a romanticized manner with heavy accents, wide dynamics and freedom of tempo. For today’s listener who have grown accustomed to more authentic playing he can appear dated, heavy and rather unsubtle. Take Luys Milan’s Pavana III as an enlightening example. It is energetic and played with great conviction but rather four-square. I only had to take down Michael Tillman’s disc A Renaissance, which I reviewed a couple of years ago, to find something different. He too plays this music on a modern guitar and in his own transcriptions, so the comparison is apt. This music is softer, more gracious and intimate but also at the lower volume and less outgoing approach he finds lots of nuances and he invites us to listen, not by shouting but by whispering: “a well-needed counterpoint to the terror, the catastrophes and the turmoil in the world around us” as I wrote at the time.
The difference between the two players is at least as big as when comparing a full symphony orchestra and a small period group in Bach. Segovia finds his own subtleties and I can well think of people who prefer his earthbound approach. He plays Mudarra (tr. 5) with more light and shade and Dowland is OK but the anonymous Gaillard, formerly attributed to Dowland, is robust almost to a fault.
The Aria by Frescobaldi is originally for harpsichord and a set of variations on a theme that probably is Frescobaldi’s own. Transcribing music from one instrument to another, further distances it from its own time and the flexible tempos that Segovia adopts are actually advised by the composer. Also Louis Couperin’s Passacaglia is for a keyboard instrument. It is sensitively played but with heavy accents in places.
The six 16th century pieces are from an anthology by the Italian 19th century musicologist Oscar Chilesotti and Segovia was very fond of these miniatures as concert-openers. They are melodious and attractive, the last one – a lively dance over an ostinato bass – was composed by Vincenzo Galilei, father of physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei.
Robert de Visée was a court musician in Paris between 1680 and 1732 – a long time indeed. This was the era of Louis XIV and eventually he also became the guitar tutor of Louis XV. This is also music that sounds best on a baroque instrument but the Sarabande is a fine piece also on a modern instrument and so is the lively Gavotte.
Readers may wonder what 20th century composer Manuel Ponce is doing in this company but both the suites represented here were written by request from Segovia in a somewhat Bach-like style. Since Bach was well-known even in the early 1930s he instead ascribed them to Alessandro Scarlatti and Sylvius Leopold Weiss. According to Miguel Alcázar, the editor of Ponce’s complete music for guitar, attributed them to other composers ‘in order to avoid playing only works by Ponce in his recitals. The ‘Scarlatti’ pieces (tr. 22, 23) are marred by an over-resonant recording that diffuses the sound almost to distortion. This is also the case with Domenico Scarlatti’s charming Sonata (tr. 25). In the Minuet by Rameau one can clearly hear that the piece was conceived for harpsichord – or so I believed when hearing it but it is actually a transcription of a dance interlude from the opera Platée. I don’t think anyone could believe the concluding ‘Weiss’ pastiches to be early 17th century but they are attractive pieces – Weiss was a great composer of lute music! – and the Allemande and Gigue are riveting.
Those who have been collecting this Segovia series can safely invest in this volume too but those who feel uncertain whether they will appreciate his dated performance style should listen before buying. From an historical point of view it might be argued that this music wouldn’t have been performed at all fifty years ago if it hadn’t been for Segovia championing it. Thus they are valuable documents and add something significant to his discography.