The performance of American guitarist Christopher Parkening at this year's Grammy Awards show had a special significance, for he paid homage to his teacher, Andre's Segovia. Segovia, while still a remarkable performer at 93, no longer records. However, the maestro, who single-handedly brought the Spanish guitar out of the shadows into prominence as a legitimate concert instrument, should feel comforted that a disciple like Parkening shares the same high musical standards and continues to preserve and perpetuate them in his recordings.sk,2
"Parkening Plays Bach (and music of Handel, Scarlatti, Couperin and others)" (Angel CDC-7 47191 2) offers 16 reasons why the guitarist is one of the most esteemed artists today. This compact disk is a repackaging of "Parkening Plays Bach," first released in 1971, plus six tracks from "Parkening and the Guitar," which came out in 1976. The Bach pieces were for the most part arranged either by Segovia or Parkening.
It's especially interesting to compare how Parkening's approach to Bach's Gavotte from the E Major Partita for unaccompanied violin differs from a version Segovia made for EMI in 1927 when he was 34. Segovia takes liberties, adding slurs here, altering the tempo there -- but always with conviction. Parkening, by contrast, plays it straight and no less convincingly, using only the slightest embellishments.
His command of the guitar is so thorough, yet subtle, that it's easy to overlook the technical perfection involved. Careful dynamic shading and evenness of articulation become givens when Parkening addresses Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" (from Cantata No. 208) and "Sleepers, Awake" (from Cantata No. 140). And he's not above giving an impish bounce to "Giga" by French composer Robert de Vise'e, or boldly stating the irregular rhythm of the bass line in Couperin's "Les Barricades mysterieuses."
The only drawback to the CD is the tape hiss, which is noticeable even at comfortable listening levels (this music doesn't invite moving the volume knob much past 3 anyway). Nevertheless, Angel's reissue, clocking in at a respectable 56 minutes, is a welcome addition.
Parkening is heard in a different and sonically superior setting with soprano Kathleen Battle on "Pleasures of Their Company" (Angel DS-37351). Studio selections ranging from Dowland to Villa-Lobos duplicate the program of their 1984 sellout concert at New York's Alice Tully Hall.
The pairing of Parkening and Battle exceeds high expectations. Battle's voice has such strength, agility and timbral variety as to make accompaniment seem superfluous (the a cappella spiritual included, "This Little light of Mine," is evidence enough). Unless, of course, Parkening is the accompanist. The opening three love songs by John Dowland establish an unfailing rapport. Battle sings with a breathless, wide-eyed urgency in "Come again! Sweet love doth now invite," supported firmly and unobtrusively by the guitarist. In the aria from "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" by Villa-Lobos, she spins out a florid melismatic introduction before embarking on the mournful tune, enhanced by her flawless intonation and diction. For "Nana," the second of "Three Spanish Folk Songs" by Manuel de Falla, Battle and Parkening practice the less-is-more theory: Her lightly ornamented voice glides easily above the simplest of guitar figures.
Parkening has several brief solo moments, specifically in his transcriptions of Renaissance dances for lute linking the Dowland songs. His primary role, though, is secondary. He proves that virtuosity need not be flashy to make its presence felt.
Guitarist John Williams, an Englishman by way of Melbourne, Australia, follows this lead in his latest effort, "Echoes of London" (CBS 42119 Digital). Williams, like Parkening, studied with Segovia. Unlike both of them, Williams has deviated from the purist's path, applying classical technique to the electric guitar in the mid-1970s, and eventually plugging in with the British band Sky. In his own way, he's been an active promoter of the guitar via concerts and transcriptions.
Side 1 bears his handiwork in arrangements of popular works by composers who have strong London connections. He accompanies himself in five of the eight pieces, though without consulting the album jacket, one might suspect four hands, rather than two, are playing the Handel "Courante." Williams treats "Streets of London" by folk singer Ralph McTell as if it were Bach; a supple contrapuntal part gently weaves around the melody. Purcell's "Air on a Ground Bass" is no less effective for its simplicity. Williams, a faultless technician, really opens up on Handel's "Harmonious Blacksmith," as two guitars trade relentless 16th-note runs.
His presentation of the pop side of London, where classical guitar meets orchestra, ultimately dooms "Echoes of London." It should have worked. The material is good (London Pride" by Noel Coward, "London by Night," introduced by Frank Sinatra, etc.), but the arrangements, overwrought and cloying (sometimes simultaneously), are losers. Williams need not take the rap on this count; former Sky colleague Steve Gray is the culprit. There's precious little for the guitar to do, which is all the more unnerving. Only George and Ira Gershwin's "A Foggy Day" survives this bludgeon approach. It's a setup. The strings are just around the corner, waiting to pounce on and smother the next song.
Williams is scheduled to perform at the Kennedy Center on Friday, sans orchestra. Six strings in his capable hands say more than any misbegotten orchestra of a thousand.