French classical guitarist Ida Presti was a phenomenal player, and she has a fascinating story. Born in 1924, she began as a child prodigy and quickly rose to fame in the classical world in France. In 1952, she joined forces with her husband, Alexandre Legoya, and the two worked together until her untimely death in 1967, when she was just 43. Classical guitarist Alice Artzt was one of Presti’s best-known students and spoke with me at length about Presti’s transforming influence on her life and music. Here is a small excerpt from our interview.
Ida Presti was such a remarkable player that it’s unbelievable she’s not a household name.
Absolutely. She was astounding as a musician and performer. She could do anything at any speed, with a sound that was instantly beautiful. Once, I had just received a copy of a new classical piece. She saw it and said, “Oh, wow, a new piece! That looks nice.” And she sat down and played through the whole solo part, at high speed. I mean, it would have done for an LP recording. Her phrasing was gorgeous, beautiful. Everything there. And the funny thing is, she was so modest. I still remember her whipping through the pages. She stopped after about five or six pages and looked up like she was a kid doing something that was a little bit naughty. She said, “I’m sight reading you know,” and then on she went, right though to the end of the thing. I mean, nobody can do stuff like that. And yet she was such an innocent. She is the closest thing that I ever will know to a saint.
How did you meet Presti?
We heard this wonderful French duo was coming to New York. I went to the concert, and I had a whole pile of questions for them afterward, including, “Where can I study with you?” So I studied with Presti and Lagoya that summer. It changed my whole right-hand technique, and I’m quite sure I would not have had the career I had, had I not done so.
The technique you refer to is picking with the right side of the nail?
Yes. It means you can get away with less strength. It’s more stable, solid, and it just made a tremendous difference.
What’s the best thing Ida Presti taught you?
That every note is important. Even the little notes, the fast notes and the non-important notes. And they should all sound gorgeous. If you’re playing with that point of view - that every note is important, every note should be gorgeous, and it should sound exactly the way you want - then you get some control. Then, even if people don’t like what you’re playing, it will still sound good to them.
When I interviewed Sharon Isbin, she implied that Presti was the stronger guitar player in the duo?
It’s not a rumor. Lagoya was maybe in some ways stronger physically, but the guitar was a piece of her! She could do anything, and she nearly never practiced. The wonderful thing about Lagoya was that he managed to sit up there onstage with this absolutely incomparably amazing guitarist and not look like an idiot. That is already more than most people could do. He did it and he pulled it off, and so if you just listen to records, you can pretty much tell who’s who. But seeing them onstage, it was not immediately evident that she was just so astronomically better than he because she deferred to him a lot. And that is to his amazing credit. When you’d see them practicing, she would make a suggestion, and he would snap to it and do it. He was the student for sure.
What recordings do you recommend?
Anything of Presti’s. Get the solo ones too. You may not have an easy time finding them. It’s all interspersed with Lagoya records.