John Williams The Beginning of a Legend IDIS 6600

Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2011 and the recording is still available.

John Williams (guitar)
The Beginning of a Legend – His first recording
rec. December 1958. ADD
IDIS 6600 [65]

During the period 13-16 September 1961, the University of Orense (Spain) sponsored an international competition for the classical guitar. This was held in conjunction with Music at Compostela which Andrés Segovia had conducted in the city of Santiago de Compostela for the past several years. Headed by Segovia, the judging panel comprised eight members.

Commenting almost a decade earlier about John Williams, Segovia observed: ‘God has laid a finger on his brow’. He bestowed on Williams the epithet, ‘prince of the guitar’. Such circumstances would have logically made John Williams a probable winner of the Orense competition. He did participate, but as a judge not as a competitor.

Many assumed that the nature of Williams’ involvement was indicative of his assumed place as successor to Segovia; there was no reason to compete when the hierarchy had already been clearly established by the head of the judging panel himself? Reasonable though this assumption may have appeared, comments made by Williams many years later in an interview with Austin Richard-Levy suggest otherwise.

Some years prior to the Orense Competition, Segovia had requested that Williams compete in the autumn 1956, International Competition for Musical Performers, conducted by the Conservatoire of Music, Geneva, Switzerland. Although Williams expressed anticipation of winning, for a variety of reasons he declined Segovia’s invitation. This contributed to an evolving friction between them, and to Williams’ antipathy for guitar competitions, or indeed any competition among musicians where there are individuals declared as outright winners.

There must have been something in the British water? Julian Bream, a logical competitor in the Geneva competition was on the judging panel. Some preoccupation among competitors in the Orense Competition seven years later was unfounded: Julian Bream did not participate, despite his eligibility.

One man who did respond positively to Segovia’s request for participation in a major competition was Eliot Fisk. Twenty years later at the Segovia International Guitar Competition in Leeds Castle (1981), even though Segovia was head of the judging panel, Fisk was unplaced. Segovia angrily dissociated himself from further involvement as a judge in guitar competitions, claiming: ‘You know at that competition which was in my name, I judged Eliot Fisk to be the winner, but they would not agree with me.’ Fisk expressed the same attitude towards competitions as John Williams, believing that the outcome is better shared by several, rather than dominated by one.

Should there have been any questions about the credentials of this young ‘prince of the guitar,’ internationally they were quickly dispelled with the release of his debut recordings in 1959; Williams was just eighteen years of age. Contrary to what the cover of the review disc suggests, this was not Williams’ ‘first recording’, but selections taken from his first two recordings released simultaneously in early 1959 (Delysé ECB 3149 [UK] and Delysé ECB 3150 [UK]). Delysé was part of Decca and subsequent take-overs and re-releases of this material cloud its history.

Selected from those two early recordings, the review disc programme reflects a style typical of Segovia, but with one exception. Unlike Segovia, Williams elected to record the entire Suites for Cello by J.S. Bach – BWV 1007 and BWV 1009. It took Segovia another two years to produce a recording of an entire Cello Suite (BWV 1009 – MCA MUCS 125).

Understandably, the review disc programme perpetuates the Ponce pastiche myth by identifying the Gavotta (8) as from the pen of Alessandro Scarlatti. Generally it follows the same content profile as Williams’ debut recital in November 1958, and long-established by Segovia.

That Williams possessed total mastery over his instrument is unequivocal. It should be remembered that in 1958, only a handful of people could play to such a high technical standard. Released today, that same recording would probably elicit no comment regarding the level of technical proficiency demonstrated.

It is rare for Williams to receive other than accolades for his technical prowess. However, in the area of musical interpretation, opinions are not so unanimous. Some twenty-eight years later, reviewing his Avery Fisher Hall (New York), 20 April 1986 recital, Donal Henahan commented: ‘He is a musician who seems reluctant to reveal himself in his playing, so seriously contracting the expressive range of his music making … There is such a thing in music as brilliant sameness’. These comments are representative of many who have expressed opinion about this brilliant guitarist – ‘admiring his work but not loving it’.

The listener may judge the degree to which these observations are justified in this debut recording. Having listened to much of what Williams has recorded, this writer is of the opinion that criticisms levelled at past musical interpretations are often no longer relevant to his latest work. The appeal of individual musicians is a matter of personal preference, and guitarists are no exception.

Zane Turner

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J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
Suite for Unaccompanied Cello BWV 1007 [17:50]
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1751)
Sonata in E minor K11 [3:56]
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)
Gavotta [3:15]
Fernando Sor (1778-1839)
Mozart Variations, Op 9 [6:51]
Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909)
Torre Bermeja [4:11]
Manuel Ponce (1862-1948)
Tres Cancíones populares mexicanas [6:35]
John Duarte (1919-2004)
Variations on a Catalan Folk Song [9:37]
Andrés Segovia (1893-1987)
Two Studies [5:30]
Alexander Tansman (1897-1986)
Barcarolle [3:21]
Enrique Granados (1867-1916)
La Maja de Goya [5:18]