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Dúo Presti-Lagoya

In praise of classical guitarists Alexandre Lagoya and Ida Presti

By Tony Cornwell
17 February 2001
(World Socialist Web Site, visitado el 18/8/2020)

Ale­xan­dre Lago­ya (1929–1999) and Ida Pres­ti (1924–1967) for­med the grea­test clas­si­cal gui­tar duet in the world to date. This was not simply due to their tech­ni­cal exce­llen­ce, but their subtlety and for­ce in emo­tio­nal expres­sion. They also trans­cri­bed music for the ins­tru­ment from many sour­ces, most notably the har­psi­chord, vio­lin and piano.

By the time Lagoya—born in Ale­xan­dria, Egypt of Ita­lian and Greek parentage—was 19, he had already given about 500 con­certs throughout the Midd­le East. He deci­ded to move to Paris and con­ti­nue his stu­dies with Jean Saudry, also stud­ying har­mony and coun­ter­point with Bra­zi­lian com­po­ser Hei­tor Villa-Lobos.

He met the French-born Presti—already a cele­brity, having made her first recor­ding at 10—soon after his arri­val in Paris when he was invi­ted to per­form at a gui­tar society con­cert. (Pres­ti had been a stu­dent of Sego­via and he fondly called her Ida Prestissimo.)

At the con­cert Pres­ti decla­red Lago­ya the best gui­ta­rist she had ever heard. They soon married, and from 1950 until her death in 1967 per­for­med exclu­si­vely as a duo. In a musi­cal world that still regar­ded the gui­tar as a folk ins­tru­ment, duos were com­pa­ra­ti­vely rare. Most other gui­ta­rists were fin­ding it hard to esta­blish solo careers.

To meet their need for mate­rial they began trans­cri­bing key­board works by Bach, Scar­lat­ti, Debussy, Falla, Gra­na­dos and Haydn—among them a con­cer­to by the last-named ori­gi­nally writ­ten for two hurdy-gurdies—and com­mis­sio­ning works from other composers.

Sego­via was so taken with their per­for­man­ce at their New York debut that he wro­te to Mario Cas­tel­nuo­vo-Tedes­co asking him to con­si­der wri­ting for two gui­tars. The resul­tant 24 Pre­lu­des and Fugues beca­me a sta­ple pie­ce. Cas­tel­nuo­vo-Tedes­co also com­po­sed for them a Con­cer­to for Two Gui­tars.

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André Joli­vet, Pie­rre Petit, Fede­ri­co Moreno Torro­ba and Joa­quin Rodri­go, amongst others, also wro­te for them. Bet­ween 1952 and 1967 they pla­yed some two thou­sand concerts.

Tra­gi­cally, in 1967, Ida Pres­ti died in New York City of an inter­nal hemorrha­ge resul­ting from can­cer of the lung. Ale­xan­dre sur­vi­ved her by 32 years. He beca­me pro­fes­sor of gui­tar at the Inter­na­tio­nal Aca­demy of Music in Nice from 1960 and at the Paris Natio­nal Con­ser­va­tory in 1969. He reti­red from the­se posi­tions in 1994. He began to per­form solo again in 1972.

In the­se tawdry times whe­re great empha­sis is given by the media to cele­bra­tion of the purely phy­si­cal side of humanity—sport, models, etc.—questions of the mind and heart are often given short shrift. At a time when inti­macy bet­ween adults is most often iden­ti­fied with the sexual act, it is refreshing and invi­go­ra­ting to hear proof of the narrow­ness of this view and the pos­si­bi­li­ties that exist.

If you lis­ten to any of Lago­ya-Pres­ti’s playing—not just hea­ring, but acti­vely enga­ging with the music—you will hear con­ver­sa­tions of such inti­macy that one at first feels emba­rras­sed at being privy to them. It is hard at times to belie­ve that two peo­ple could com­mu­ni­ca­te so intri­ca­tely. Given that both are pla­ying clas­si­cal gui­tars makes it all the more extraordinary.

The ins­tru­ment is perhaps the finest made by the hand of man for the hand of man to play. Beetho­ven, on hea­ring the gui­tar for the first time, was moved to say: “It is an orches­tra in one ins­tru­ment.” It is, for exam­ple, the only ins­tru­ment on which can one can play two notes—or more—of the same pitch at the same time.

Howe­ver, it is truly said of the ins­tru­ment that it takes “a minu­te to learn, but a life­ti­me to mas­ter.” The pro­blems of cons­truc­tion, strings and tunings asi­de, the cri­ti­cal issue is that the ins­tru­ment is pla­yed not with plec­trums, bows or ham­mers, but only by the hand.

Being less than a milli­me­tre off either way in fret­ting or stri­king the strings will result in a varia­tion from pitch. Given that the­re are up to nine fin­gers at work at any one time, the chan­ces of a “bum” note are rai­sed considerably.

It takes great con­trol and coor­di­na­tion to play even most solo pie­ces of the con­cert reper­toi­re. When we get to duos it beco­mes hellishly com­pli­ca­ted. Most of us who play a bit can only gape and mar­vel at the pris­ti­ne tech­ni­que of Lago­ya and Pres­ti. For exam­ple, in their trans­crip­tions of har­psi­chord pie­ces the pair have to play what one per­son would nor­mally play.

The­re they are, with all 20 fin­gers flying around the neck, fret board and sound hole and lan­ding per­fectly every time. I saw them once in an old docu­men­tary. It was asto­nishing to see the ease with which they pla­yed. Ida see­med to be merely waving her hands up and down the front of the gui­tar without any effort. And this ama­zing music seems to be pou­ring out of nowhere.

At times I would have sworn the­re had to be another gui­tar somewhe­re, and perhaps the­re is a point in that: that something more is pro­du­ced than merely 1 + 1 = 2; that from their con­trol, nuan­ce and pre­ci­sion in dyna­mics the resul­tant over­to­nes and har­mo­nics pro­du­ce a third sound ari­sing from the interplay.

This does not hap­pen in every duet. More often than not what one hears is two peo­ple pla­ying the same bit of music at the same time, coin­ci­den­tally as it were; not genui­nely lis­te­ning to or fee­ling what the other is playing.

For two peo­ple to be able to play as one is an ama­zing demons­tra­tion of not only human capa­bi­lity and pos­si­bi­lity, but of human inti­macy. And one must note the con­si­de­ra­ble coura­ge it took, on both their parts, to bare so openly and gene­rously their inner­most sel­ves and love for each other.

To work, love and play as one; to express pre­ci­se sha­dings of emo­tion in unity. It speaks volu­mes about the pos­si­bi­li­ties of human beings and their relationships.

It is in this spi­rit that I recom­mend any and all of their recor­dings. The­re are seve­ral inex­pen­si­ve CDs of their pla­ying avai­la­ble: Belart, None­such, Naxos, and so on. Most cost less than $10 (Aus) and will give a life­ti­me of pleasure.

My per­so­nal picks for the tracks to look for would be: Fer­di­nan­do Caru­lli’s Sere­na­de in G Op. 96, No. 3. Clau­de Debuss­y’s Clai­re de Lune, any of the Scar­lat­ti har­psi­chord trans­crip­tions, Enri­que Gra­na­do­s’s Inter­mez­zo and Dan­za Espa­no­la, Op. 37 No. 2Orien­tal, and Fer­nan­do Sor’s Pre­mier Diver­tis­se­ment pour Deux Gui­ta­res, Op. 34, L’en­cou­ra­ge­ment.

Howe­ver, one should­n’t be too fussy. Lis­ten to any of their recor­dings and they will take you on a musi­cal jour­ney of pas­sio­na­te and ten­der beauty. You will return to the tasks and worries of the world re-ener­gi­sed, more thought­ful and re-sensitised.