Andrés Segovia was a classical guitar pioneer who popularized the instrument in the early 20th century, when it wasn’t accepted as a legitimate classical instrument. Ignoring the guitar’s limitations, Segovia magnified its strengths and in the process delighted large audiences for nearly eight decades. He thought of the guitar not as an inferior instrument but as a miniature orchestra.
By employing touch - using fingernails for a brighter tones, fingertips for mellower timbres - and using techniques such as large and small vibrato, palm muting and right-hand placement over the sound hole and next to the bridge, he produced extreme tonal variations. With just his two hands, he coaxed the tones of a violin, cello, French horn, piano, tuba, cornet, harp and more from a six-string guitar.
I have more than 20 Segovia albums and happily snatch up the LPs from his prolific Decca period, all of which are nice pressings featuring great music and striking cover art. That said, I prefer his purely solo ventures. They are perfect for my sensibility, and his music goes straight to my heart.
Released by Decca in 1956, Masters of the Guitar is a great place to begin investigating this virtuoso. I love Masters of the Guitar in part because it exclusively features the music of Fernando Sor (1778 - 1839) and Francisco Tárrega (1852 - 1909). These brilliant Spanish composers had incredible life stories and contributed significantly to the evolution of guitar.
Tárrega, in particular, wrote with a passion I find easy to relate to, and Sor created hundreds of beautiful guitar compositions that I love. Both artists are invaluable sources of great guitar music Side one is devoted to Sor and starts with the lovely and ambitious Introduction and Allegro, followed by Two Minuets: In A Major and E Major. Both pieces are musical journeys of depth and imagination. The Four Studies in A Major, G Major, B minor and A Major that complete the side are beautiful, iconic and easy to internalize.
Side two features the music of Tárrega and includes my favorite guitar music. “Studio Brillante” is a fantastic melodic technical jaunt, while “Marieta (Mazurka)” is a haunting, rhythmic piece that inspires delight and introspection. The album closes with Tárrega’s famous and demanding “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” a beautiful piece that incorporates an evolved right-hand tremolo, which Segovia plays effortlessly while he prioritizes the overall beauty of the piece.
Listening to Segovia inspired me to dig for other great artists, including Agustín Barrios, Leo Brouwer, Federico Mompou, Dilermando Reis, John Williams, Julian Bream and Renata Tarragó, of whom I wrote in a previous column. Of course, there are many other classical guitarists worth your time, and I hope you discover these many artists on your quest for great music.
One can’t go wrong hearing Andrés Segovia bring our greatest composers’ music to life. Best of all, his solo Decca LPs are a steal at an average cost of about 10 bucks apiece. I highly recommend them.