interviewed in 1981
Since the advent of Segovia many fine guitarists have appeared. With the exception of Segovia himself, however, few can claim to have had a major impact on the development of the guitar or its repertoire. One such is Alexandre Lagoya, who with his wife Ida Presti formed what has been called the greatest duo in the history of the instrument. They innovated technically and musically and made something like fifteen world tours, inspiring nearly all the best modern composers to write for the medium, while at the same time generating an entire new body of transcriptions from instruments such as the harpsichord. They also inspired and taught several other duos who are now among the best in the World, including Ako Ito & Henri Dorigny and the Athenian Duo (Evangelos & Liza). Their fame and impact were still increasing when, on a tour of the United States in 1967, Ida Presti was taken suddenly ill and died. She was forty-two.
Presti/Lagoya’s early recordings were on French RCA, but these are now deleted1. In any case, the sound quality was mediocre, and many of the tracks were re-recorded for their next label, French Philips, who have since issued their complete recordings as a boxed set. For those who cannot afford this, their two masterpieces are probably Musique Baroque pour Deux Guitares, the latter featuring the astounding Chaconne in G Major by Handel, consisting of 22 variations on a ground bass with each variation played with a different tone colour. Amazingly, however, Philips has never seen fit to issue these records in Britain. They may nonetheless be obtained from large import stores, such as HMV in Oxford Street2.
Understandably, Lagoya was not heard from for a long time after Ida Presti’s death. In the last few years, however, he has resumed his concert and teaching careers (as well as remarrying) and has made several records. A new departure. though, has been the appearance (on RCA records) of the Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Piano with French pianist/composer Claude Bolling, and it was at a New York concert with M. Bolling (reviewed in [Guitar magazine, October 1981]’s Letter from New York, see photo below) that I managed to catch him. Although very pressed for time, as he was leaving the next day, M. Lagoya very kindly agreed to grant me an interview first thing in the morning.
I duly appeared at 9 o’clock and conducted the interview (in French, so any errors of translation or idiom are my own). I had brought a camera but was hesitant to use it, as M. Lagoya was still in his pyjamas. However, he cheerfully agreed to being photographed thus “as long as you don’t put the picture on the cover”.
Alexandre Lagoya was born in Egypt on Midsummer’s Day in 1929, of a Greek father and Italian mother. He taught himself the guitar and gave his first recital at the age of thirteen. So much, together with an outline of the history of the duo, can be gleaned from album covers. But since the biographical details are rather sparse, I asked him to fill them in.
How old were you when you started to play the guitar?
I was eight.
Who was your first idol? Whom did you want to play like, as a child?
When I started to play, I didn’t know anything of the guitar world, or any guitarists. and I lived in a country which didn’t have much contact with Europe or the outside world. After giving my first recital, I heard a Segovia record for the first time, which greatly impressed me. But unlike many guitarists who discovered the guitar, as it were, through Segovia, I already knew the instrument—although I certainly passed a great deal of my youth under Segovia’s influence. I think all guitarists undergo the same thing: you are influenced at the start; and then with time, age and the knowledge of music, little by little your own personality asserts itself and you grow away from outside influences.
Afterwards I likewise heard records of Ida Presti, for whom I developed an immense admiration and interest. And so all alone, you see, I continued to follow my little career; but as an amateur, because my father wanted me to pursue my studies. And all the while I was at school I played the guitar—you could say it was a period when people were very much occupied with everything and with life in general. I played a lot of sport, I was interested in a lot of things.
Until the day I decided to dedicate myself solely to the guitar, and I finished my college studies at 17 or 18 and came to Europe; after having given four or five hundred concerts already in Egypt and that part of the world.
When I reached France—I was 19 or 20—I met Ida Presti, with whom I had previously been corresponding. After I heard her, we became at first very good friends. We saw each other often, and we played the guitar together to amuse ourselves.
Then one day, things took another turn, and she became my wife.
The duo is of course very well known; but it’s difficult to get the Presti/Lagoya records outside of France and Belgium. Why is that?
Because at that time, the guitar wasn’t very well known, and the record companies didn’t attach much importance to it. We made six discs on Philips and two others on RCA in Paris, plus two for Elektra in New York3. You couldn’t get the records outside because Philips didn’t have a lot of power in foreign countries. (Incidentally, that’s why I haven’t been with Philips for some time.)
Whom are you with now?
I’ve just signed a contract with CBS International in New York, and I’ve made some records for them. There’s an album that will be out shortly with the English Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Jean-Pierre Rampal, on which I play concertos by Vivaldi and Carulli. And there’s another coming out, I think in November, with the London Symphony Orchestra under Michel Legrand. It’s a record of Christmas music for flute, guitar and orchestra, with Rampal on flute. Also coming out will be a solo album consisting of Themes and Variations, by Sor, Carulli, Carcassi, Giuliani and Handel.
If I recall correctly, the Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Piano came out on RCA.
Yes, because Claude Bolling had a contract with RCA, and then when I joined CBS Claude Bolling cancelled that contract and made another with CBS in New York. So CBS was very interested in this record, and they’re producing a new edition which will come out in January . This will include a new movement which wasn’t in the first one, and we’ve also recorded the Picnic Suite with Jean-Pierre Rampal.
But where were we?
You’d just married Ida Presti.
Yes. So after we created the Duo, a lot of composers wrote for us. And when we gave our first concert at the Wigmore Hall—no, it was the Town Hall in New York—Segovia was in the audience. The next day, Segovia telephoned to tell me “After your recital I was so impressed that I walked the streets of New York all night thinking about it. So, with your permission, I will give you my public blessing and write an article about you; and further, this morning I’ll post a letter to friend Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco who is in Los Angeles, and when you play there I’ll tell him to come and hear you and to write lots of guitar duets for you.”
He did it, he wrote a beautiful presentation for the Duo, and Tedesco came to hear us in L.A. and composed the 24 Preludes and Fugues for the Well-Tempered Guitar for us.
You only recorded one, though, did you not?
Just one, because we never had the time. Then he wrote a Sonata for us, and a Concerto for Two Guitars (that was due to Segovia because Segovia spoke to him). After that, Joaquín Rodrigo composed the Tonadilla and the Concerto—you know the Concierto madrigal?
It was written for us, and originally entitled Concierto para una virreina; but unfortunately he gave it to us perhaps a month before my wife passed away, so we didn’t have the time to play it. So after that, Rodrigo offered it to other guitarists who recorded it. Torroba, too, did three Nocturnes for Guitar and Orchestra for us, but that was only a few days before…
[At this point the telephone rang: it was Mme. Lagoya, calling from France.]
Presti/Lagoya have been compared to Segovia in that you did for the guitar duo what he did for one guitar: you played concerts all over the world, you encouraged composers to write new works and you taught other duos. But one thing you didn’t do. For solo guitarists there are the Schott Segovia editions, but there are no Presti/Lagoya editions. Why not?
Because in the first place I never had the time to edit all that, and on the other hand I was very discouraged by the publishers.
Yes. Everybody wanted my editions. I received offers from all over the world. But up till now I’ve never had the fortune to meet an honest publisher. I did some editions when I was young, for Ricordi and Max Eschig, and I was so exploited I say editing’s not worth the trouble. I think one day I’ll create my own editions. But right now I don’t have the time, it won’t be for several years. I gave a lot of music to my pupils and to guitarist friends; but one day I’ll do it, I’ll publish all the music for two guitars so all guitarists can benefit.
[At this point breakfast arrived.]
Excuse me. You know, for me food occupies a very important part of life.
I think it was Jack Duarte who told me that there are several hours of unreleased Presti/Lagoya recordings on tape. Is there any chance they will be released on disc?
The possibility exists. After my wife died there were several radio and television stations around the world who sent me tapes, which I possess. There are about fifteen hours of music: several concerti, transcriptions, Schubert sonatas, Beethoven variations—one day I hope to have the time to get together a record of it all.
When I saw the duo in ’67, you played Jack Duarte’s Variations on a French Nursery Song. Is that by any chance on the tapes?
Unfortunately not. It’s a magnificent piece. I have a great regard for Jack Duarte who is a good musician, a good composer and a good friend.
Did you and Ida Presti have any children, by the way?
We had a son, his name’s Sylvain. He’s twenty-eight. He used to play jazz guitar, but now he’s switching to classical. He has extraordinary facility. Right now he’s preparing for a solo career.
You’re teaching now, aren’t you? At the Paris Conservatoire, isn’t it?
At the Conservatoire National Supérieur. It’s the first time a guitar chair has existed. Also at the Academie in Nice, every summer I teach for three weeks in July. And other places as well, Canada for example, where I’ve been teaching for twenty years. I’ve helped a lot of Canadian guitarists: it’s coming along well. The guitarists in Quebec are magnificent. They’ve respected all the traditions and all I’ve told them.
Speaking of Canadians, I think Liona Boyd was a pupil of yours. She’s an excellent guitarist.
The first time I met Liona, she was nineteen. She came to Paris for two years to work with me. I like her a lot, as a guitarist and as a person. She’s a lovely creature, really nice.
Yes indeed. You know, it’s not just food I like, I have a weakness for beautiful things. Everybody knows that about me. But I have other excellent pupils as well; you must excuse me if I don’t give you all their names, it’s a long list.
Let’s move on to technique. You play with the right-hand side of the nail, I believe. What are the advantages of that? Did you play off that side from the start?
I don’t want to go into politics; but when I started, I didn’t play left or right, but however it came out. Afterwards, I started thinking about it, and during my life I’ve changed an enormous number of times. I’ve played off the left, of the middle, I played concerts both ways. I played them with a high footstool, a low footstool, in Segovia’s position, in Regino Sainz de la Maza’s position—I tried everything. Then one day, after trying and trying, I found that playing with the right side gave me the most satisfaction, the best tone, the most power and the best projection. My wife did too, so we began to perfect the position. But often guitarists think I only know that position. They’ve never experimented; I have. And even now, I can play off the left or right, however you like.
Liona Boyd has said that she changed her technique from left to right, and that it took over a year to adjust. Would you advise other guitarists to experiment like that or not? When they’ve already been playing ten or fifteen years?
Listen, I’m over fifty and I still have the same desire to see, to learn and to experience as I had when I was ten or eleven. Everything in life interests me, not only music or the guitar. Architecture, painting, sport: when there’s boxing or football on the television I abandon everything and watch it. I’m a fanatic about everything, horses, philosophy, the occult—I’m very interested in the occult, I like everything mysterious, everything unexplained. We live in an extraordinary world.
So: if I were a guitarist who played off the left side, and I learned one day that another guitarist played off the right, I would experiment out of sheer curiosity. That’s what I did when I was fifteen or sixteen. I knew there were guitarists who played off the left side so I played with the left, I knew there were others who played off the middle so I tried that. But I didn’t know anyone who played off the right. And then one day I thought, Why not try it? And that was how I did my research.
But a professional guitarist can’t stop giving concerts while he experiments.
No, if you’re giving a lot of concerts it would be a problem. But Christ said, If you have faith you can walk on water. Although, of course, a lot of people have tried it and sunk. It all comes down to will-power and wanting to do something badly enough. In any case, if you’re talking about young guitarists, they don’t have so many concerts; so at the start of a career one has time to change, to experiment and reflect, that’s normal. One should try, anyway. But when I take pupils I don’t make them play off the right side. I show them my position and let them choose; I never insist.
How is it you do the trills across two strings? Is it i m i a ?
Yes. Previously trills were played on one string with one finger. But I tried playing them with two left-hand fingers. I always remember in 1950 I was at the Hotel Bedford in Paris, in the Rue des Arcades, to visit Segovia. Segovia had me play in his room, and I finished a piece with a trill on one string, with two fingers. And Segovia said Nononono, you mustn’t do trills like that, it’s much better with one finger. I said that with two fingers there was much less tension. He said Nononono, one string, one finger; so I didn’t insist. One year after that, Segovia gave a recital at the Theatre des Champs Elysées, and I went to hear him. He finished the Bach Fugue with a trill, and I saw that he used two fingers.
On top of that, I don’t know if you saw it but there was a television program one or two years ago called Segovia at the White House.
No, I didn’t see it.
He did the trill across two strings.
Is that right? I found that even with two left-hand fingers you couldn’t do a crescendo. One day it occurred to me that pianists and harpsichordists do their trills across two strings, so I experimented with that and found that it worked very well; you could interpret a trill in a way that was previously impossible. It always used to be at one level, but now you could do a pianissimo or a crescendo or a fortissimo.
Then there’s the pizzicato.
Is that the right name for it? After all, for a guitarist all notes are pizzicato. I thought the correct name was étouffé.
Étouffé is understood in France, but not always in other countries. You speak very good French, so you understand it.
But étouffé, if you will, was previously played with the thumb. You couldn’t do counterpoint, because you had the heel of the hand against the strings. The fingers were too far away. One day I thought, You should get the fingers back and do the étouffé with the little finger, and I put the little finger on the strings. And I can do counterpoint now, I can play a complete piece étouffé
It takes a very flexible hand, though, which of course you have.
What guitar are you playing these days?
I’m playing a Hopf. It’s a German guitar, made in Wiesbaden. But I have seventeen instruments at home: Fleta, Ramírez, Kohno, Bernabe—five Bouchets. When I found Hopf I judged him to be a very good luthier indeed.
Savarez Red Card, but mine are a little special because with the Hopf I need very long strings. so they make them for me specially.
Do you have any hobbies apart from playing the guitar? Are you into tennis or skiing or anything like that?
I play sports and keep fit. I’m interested in architecture, decoration, antique furniture—I love cooking, too. My wife sometimes tells me ‘You cook better than you play the guitar’. I have 2,000 bottles of wine. I’m interested in everything.
Presti/Lagoya’s early recordings were on the RCA label; they seem to have lacked explicit titles (other than perhaps simply Récital). There were both 10" and 12" LPs, and some of the latter were also released (as was not uncommon in the 1960s) as sets of three (7") EPs.
With the move to (French) Philips, circa 1962, the titles became more adventurous and the quality of the recordings improved, as did the quality of the packaging (to beautiful gatefold albums). Several pieces from their RCA repertoire were re-recorded.
After the sudden death of Ida Presti, M. Lagoya did not record again for some time; but he then continued with Philips for a while before switching, as mentioned in the interview.
In the following list, I have not included the many anthologies or variants of the basic recordings; otherwise, the list is as complete as I have been able to make it.
Track-listings for LPs can usually be found by following the links to the very thorough Discogs site.
Presti/Lagoya (RCA vinyl)
|?||230.001||10"||?||?||Double Mandolin Concerto RV 532 (Vivaldi), Prelude & Fugue BWV 862 (Bach), L’encouragement, Op. 34 (Sor)|
|1965||430.056||12"||?||Buy LP||Released in anglophone countries as Masters of the Guitar, with Watteau’s Mezzetino on the cover.|
|?||75.017||7"||?||?||Largo & Rondo, Op. 34 (Carulli), Fisherman’s Tale (Falla), La vida breve: Spanish Dance Nº 1 (Falla)|
|?||75.018||7"||?||?||Sarabande in D, HWV 437 (Handel), Nocturno (Moreno Torroba), Danse Rythmique (Presti)|
|?||75.022||7"||?||?||Andante Largo, Op. 5 (Sor), Evocación Cubana (Pujol)|
|?||75.080||7"||?||?||English Suite Nº 3, BWV 808: Gavotte & Musette (Bach), España, Op. 165: Tango (Albéniz)|
|?||75.089||7"||?||?||Rêverie & Caprice (Lagoya), Sonata Nº 3: Andante (Bach)|
|?||75.096||7"||?||?||3 Preludes (Calleja), Venezuelan Waltz Nº 3 (Lauro), Fantasie S. 83 (Weiss)|
|?||76.014||7"||?||?||Suite of Royal Dances (Simonot)|
Presti/Lagoya (Philips vinyl)
Despite M. Lagoya’s assertion that the duo made six LPs for Philips, I have only ever been able to locate five; and the contents of these ties up with the boxed CD set of Philips recordings. The five are as follows:
|1961||6504 049||12"||Œuvres pour deux guitares||Buy LP|
|1963||6504 20||12"||Musique espagnole pour deux guitares||Buy LP|
|1964||6504 018||12"||Concertos pour deux guitares||Buy LP|
|1965||6504 003||12"||Musique baroque pour deux guitares||Buy LP|
Presti/Lagoya (Elektra vinyl)
|1961||EKL 208||12"||The Virtuoso Guitars||Buy LP|
|1968||H-71161||12"||Music for the Classic Guitar||Buy LP||On Nonesuch, a subsidiary of Elektra.|
Alexandre Lagoya (Philips vinyl)
|1970||6251 013||12"||L’extraordinaire||Buy LP|
|1971||6504 041||12"||La guitare est mon maitre||Buy LP|
|1972||6500 454||12"||Concierto de Aranjuez/Fantasía para un gentilhombre||Buy LP||Also available on CD|
|1973||6504 108||12"||Le gentilhomme de la guitare||Buy LP|
|1974(?)||6504 120||12"||Lagoya||Buy LP|
|1975||6504 131||12"||Joue Sor et Villa-Lobos||Buy LP|
Alexandre Lagoya (RCA vinyl)
|1976||FRL1-0149||12"||Concerto For Classic Guitar and Jazz Piano||Buy LP||With Claude Bolling.|
|1978||ARL2-2631||12"||Rampal and Lagoya in Concert||Buy LP||With Jean-Pierre Rampal.|
Alexandre Lagoya (CBS vinyl)
|1980||M35857||12"||The Spanish Guitar||Buy LP|
|1980||M 35864||12"||Picnic Suite||Buy LP||Re-recording of the RCA album, with an extra movement.|
|1981||FM 37205||12"||Pastorales de Noël||Buy LP||With Jean-Pierre Rampal & Michel Legrand.|
|1982||D 37202||12"||Guitar Concerti||Buy LP|
|1982||FM 37264||12"||Concerto For Classic Guitar and Jazz Piano||Buy LP||Re-recording of the RCA album.|
|1988||M 42130||12"||Music For Flute And Guitar||Buy LP||With Jean-Pierre Rampal & the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra.|
(There are also multiple anthologies of re-releases from the vinyl material.)
|1995||RCA 7 43212 58662||2 CD||Ida Presti - Alexandre Lagoya||Buy CD||Complete RCA recordings.|
|1995||Philips 446 213-2||3 CD||Duo extraordinaire||Buy CD||Complete Philips Recordings.|
|2004||Philips 476 2356||6 CD||L’Art de Alexandre Lagoya||Buy CD||Complete Philips duo recordings, plus Lagoya’s Philips solo stuff.|
|2018||Doremi DHR-8059||CD||Live in Mount Orford, Canada, 1962 & 1963||Buy CD||Contains the Lauffensteiner Sonata in A, otherwise unavailable.|
|2019||Decca ?||10 CD||The Alexandre Lagoya Edition||Buy CD||Complete RCA & Philips duo and solo recordings.|
Alexandre Lagoya (Solo CD)
|1991||Erato 2292-45692-2||CD||Joue Bach||Buy CD|
|1995||Philips 446 002-2||CD||Bizet * Carmen Dances||Buy CD|
See also the last and last-but-two items in the Presti/Lagoya CD section
1The RCA recordings were released as a 2-CD boxed set in 1995, but deleted shortly thereafter. The set is, however, available second-hand from Amazon, Discogs and other retailers. They are also subsumed in the 10-CD Alexandre Lagoya Edition.
2The Philips recordings were in turn issued as a 3-CD boxed set, subsequently also deleted; but it is completely subsumed in the 6-CD and 10-CD sets dedicated to M. Lagoya, likewise available from the above-mentioned retailers.The status of HMV now appears to be problematic.
3At first glance, the Elektra recordings appear to be a subset of the Philips ones. However, they contain one track (the Scarlatti Sonata Sonata, K. 87, L. 33, on Music for the Classic Guitar) that does not appear on the Philips albums; and thus, in view of M. Lagoya’s comments, it seems possible that most of them were actually re-recordings.