Andrés Segovia

Complete Bach Recordings, 1927-1955

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This historical reissue offers a good way to get to know the music-making of Andrés Segovia, one of those legendary figures better known by reputation than in detail. By collecting his recordings of Bach's music, the two-disc set's Italian compilers identified one of the thrusts of Segovia's campaign to make the guitar a "respectable" classical instrument -- an effort that now, with guitarists showing up on season schedules of organizations large and small, seems among the more significant innovations of the last century. Segovia tried not only to popularize the Spanish sound, and to commission new works from a variety of composers, but also, with these recordings, show that the inner sanctum of the hallowed temple of classical music, the oeuvre of Bach, could be approached with guitar in hand. The results help to illuminate why Segovia was so beloved in his own time. His successors exceeded him in sheer virtuosity, but there was always a sense of an individual's encounter with music in his performances, which had a very Iberian unpredictability. The listener does not quite get an orderly sense of Segovia's evolution as a musician over his long career, for the recordings, except for one 1935 outlier, fall into three large groups, from 1927-1928, 1947, and 1952-1955. All are short transcriptions for the guitar, made by Segovia himself mostly from the violin or cello suites. The worst sound quality of the three is actually in the 1947 group, where Segovia's playing was subjected to distortion that the digital-remastering efforts of the engineers could not disguise. The contrasts among the three groups, clearly displayed in several works that Segovia recorded multiple times (the Fugue for lute, BWV 1000, appears three times in the set), are absorbing. The earlier recordings, for lack of a better word, are more Spanish -- not necessarily more dramatic, for some are quite playful, but more full of flourishes that bespeak the guitar's origins. By the 1950s Segovia took a more mystical attitude toward Bach that annotator Alessandro Trovato actually disparages, evaluating Segovia's 1954 recording of the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin, BWV 1004, in comparison with the 1947 recording of the same piece as far more cautious and less natural in the phrasing, as well as less exciting from the point of view of instrumental virtuosity. The listener may or may not agree; Segovia was simply following new developments in his old age by discarding the Romantic conception of Bach, and in some of the later recordings he delivered steely performances Glenn Gould might have enjoyed (hear the 1954 Prelude for lute, BWV 999, on CD 2, track 7). No matter what the opinions of individual listeners may be, few will find the disc as a whole anything less than indicative of a charisma and a performative flair that few of today's guitarists can match.

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