Andres Segovia In Portrait Review

This is the third in a series of reviews of DVDs showcasing the work of renowned classical music documentarist Christopher Nupen. The others were Jacqueline du Pré In Portrait, Franz Schubert - The Trout / The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow, We Want The Light and Jean Sibelius - The Early Years / Maturity and Silence.While its Opus Arts/Christopher Nupen stablemate Jacqueline du Pré In Portrait depicts a musician near the start of her career, the DVD Andrés Segovia In Portrait (originally released on 28 August 2005) captures a musical twilight: the second of the two featured films was made when its subject was into his ninth decade and had long been recognised as one of the supreme masters of the classical guitar and arguably the single pivotal figure in its renaissance as a serious instrument in the twentieth century.Like the du Pré films (and indeed most of Nupen's output), the films are also portraits of a personal friend. A former classical guitarist himself, although he abandoned his ambitions in that direction (sharing a house with John Williams can't have helped), Nupen was nonetheless good enough to have been taught by Segovia himself in the early 1960s, and in 1966 he directed the recording of a Segovia performance for the BBC. The veteran guitarist was apparently startled by the sheer amount of equipment needed to preserve what he thought was the quintessence of simplicity (cameras were massive, lighting overly obtrusive, and video recorders occupied whole basements), and felt that this compromised his performance. Nupen thinks the recording in question no longer survives, but doesn't seem to regard this as a shattering loss to civilisation.The following year, after having pioneered the use of lightweight 16mm cameras when he made his original Jacqueline du Pré film, Nupen thought that the same techniques might be even better suited to capturing Segovia. There was also an urgency about his mission that wasn't the case (or at least it didn't seem that way at the time) with the du Pré film, since Segovia had just turned 75, and there was a distinct possibility that this might be the only chance to capture him. (Happily, as this DVD proves, Nupen's fears were groundless, and Segovia lived another eleven years even after the second film was completed, dying in 1987 at the age of 94).

Segovia at Los Olivos (1967, 57 mins)The first film on the DVD invites us to spend a summer with Segovia at his home in Los Olivos on the Costa del Sol (it was actually his first summer break in three-and-a-half decades of intensive performing), interspersed with occasional trips to the surrounding Andalusian countryside and nearby Granada - with much emphasis placed on images of donkeys and children. A genial, avuncular host, seemingly as attached to his pipe as he is to his guitar, Segovia reminisces about his life (in heavily accented but mellifluous English) while playing some of his core repertory pieces. Nupen generally shoots these in extreme close-up, with particular attention paid to clear presentation of the finger positions of both hands, an intimate approach that creates the effect of a private masterclass.Segovia also discusses the history of Spanish guitar music, specifically the differences between flamenco and classical music and his lifelong ambition to 'rescue' the latter from the former, believing that although true flamenco is exceptionally beautiful, too much of it has become degraded, and he profoundly dislikes the modern variety. He talks about whether there's a distinctively 'Andalusian' style of music, and feels that the great nineteenth-century Spanish composers Granados and Albéniz (who were still alive when Segovia was born) should have written for the guitar instead of the piano. He also has a lot to say about the anti-guitar prejudice that he encountered many times in the early part of his career - and, in a disarming bout of humility, candidly confesses to frequent stage-fright, even long after his reputation had been more than secured.
He demonstrates aspects of his technique in close-up (both in terms of performance and the need for strong fingernails cut to exactly the right length), and talks about the importance of Granada in general ("the leitmotif of my life") and the Alhambra in particular to his aesthetic outlook. He also gives us a Spanish poetry recital, for which optional subtitles are available, though they have to be manually triggered by the viewer partway through in order to avoid subtitling the English-language material as well. And a tour of master luthier Ignacio Fleta's workshop demonstrates all the various elements that go into the physical creation of a guitar.The only disappointment of an otherwise fascinating film is that the copious interview material means that there's relatively little time for the music - just three pieces are performed in full, by my count. But this is more than compensated by the DVD's second offering.
The Song of the Guitar (1976, 48 mins)While the earlier film sought to place Segovia in a domestic setting, and convey as much of the man as of the music, the image presented by The Song of the Guitar is more distant and monumental, very much the Great Man school of musical portraiture. Most of the running time is devoted to the 83-year-old Segovia playing the guitar by himself in the vast spaces of the Alhambra, in Granada, southern Spain (a place he's known since the first years of the twentieth century, where claims his eyes were first opened to the beauty of nature and art), and he's often shown in extreme long shot, with brief snippets of autobiographical and philosophical reminiscence confined to the soundtrack.As before, Nupen concentrates on presenting Segovia's technique to its best advantage in medium shot and close-up, though he also takes care to include plenty of images of the guitarist framed against the Alhambra's architecture - there are some particularly attractive long shots showing him reflected in its limpid pool or amidst an array of pillars, and these images of tranquillity are intercut with the hustle and bustle of daytime Granada (as Nupen points out in the introduction, the Alhambra is usually just as busy - he filmed in the small hours to ensure no interruptions). David Findlay's photography is outstanding, with particular attention paid to the quality of the southern Spanish light.
But the music is the main attraction, and there's significantly more of it on offer here than in the earlier film, with almost everything being performed in full. Although individual pieces aren't identified either onscreen or in the commentary, the printed booklet has a full list for reference - they include works by Granados, Albéniz, Scarlatti, Rameau, Ponce, J.S.Bach and Torroba, as well as an arrangement of a Chopin prelude and the traditional Catalan melody El Noy de la Mare - this last being a particular treat, with Segovia's fingers rapidly strumming repeated notes with an agility that completely belies his age.The DVDIn common with the other Christopher Nupen DVDs on this label, and in line with standard practice for classical music DVDs in general, Andres Segovia In Portrait has been encoded for the NTSC video system - there's a warning on the box to this effect.PictureUnexpectedly, it's the older film that comes off best. Framed in the original 4:3 (the universal television ratio at the time), the picture quality is superb - a distinct cut above both the films on the Jacqueline du Pré disc. Despite being sourced from nearly forty-year-old 16mm film, there are virtually no onscreen blemishes to speak of, and the colours have also been surprisingly well preserved, with both interior and exterior shots dominated by a lovely burnished brown. As one might expect, there's a faint patina of grain throughout, but this seems wholly appropriate to the hazy, dusty feel.
The other film is more of a mixed bag. Surprisingly (given its vintage and purpose), it's framed at 16:9 - and even more surprisingly, it's been given a non-anamorphic transfer. The other two Nupen films shot in 16:9 - The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow and We Want The Light - were both anamorphic on their respective DVDs, so I suspect this may have been a side-effect of the music-only option (see Extras) to avoid constant changes of TV aspect ratio. But it's obvious looking at the picture how much anamorphic enhancement would have helped: when blown up to fill the screen, the NTSC-resolution picture is noticeably softer than is the case with the earlier film, doing the frequent shots of the Alhambra's intricate architecture no favours. On a happier note, the source materials are in even better condition, with hardly any visible blemishes.SoundBoth films have very similar sound: though billed as PCM stereo, I suspect this refers purely to the sound carrier, as it sounded mono to my ears. But that's what I'd have expected for TV documentaries of this vintage, and in all other respects the recording is generally very good indeed, preserving the kind of fine detail that's crucial for material like this. Listening on headphones exposes some minor technical flaws in the first film, including some faint tape hiss (though this is often effectively eliminated by chirping crickets in the background) and momentary audio glitches, but nothing that is in any way surprising given the age of the recordings. Assuming, probably correctly, that the DVD transfer was sourced from the original masters, this is as good as it's ever likely to get.
MenusAs with the other DVDs in this series, the menus are simple and intuitive, offering self-explanatory links to Films, Music, Extras and Subtitles - the latter available in English, German, Spanish, French and Italian. Each film is generously chapter-stopped (20 for the first, 22 for the second), with the menus sensibly favouring text over images to aid navigation. Each individual piece of music is also identified, as are the subjects of the interview segments.ExtrasWith one major exception (We Want The Light), the Opus Arte Christopher Nupen DVDs contain very similar extras: a personal introduction to each film, two promotional films for his company Allegro Films' output (which are exactly the same as those on the Jacqueline du Pré In Portrait DVD, and described in that review), a stills gallery and a booklet.The Segovia disc has a further bonus in that it offers a music-only option, where ten complete pieces taken from both films are played in full without any distractions from interviews or commentary. These can either be played in sequence (each piece has an individual onscreen title) or selected from a separate menu. The chapter skip button returns you to this menu rather than the next track, presumably an unavoidable side-effect of sourcing the clips from the main documentary (though this would help keep the overall bitrate down, so this is hardly a criticism). The programme comprises Gavotte (J.S.Bach, 4:17), La Torre bermeja (I. Albeniz, 1:30), Sonata (D. Scarlatti, 2:46), Sonatina (F.M.Torroba, 4:13), Ballet (M.Ponce, 5:22), an excerpt from Minuet (J.P.Rameau, 3:24), an excerpt from Leyenda (Albeniz, 7:00), Fandanguillo (Torroba, 2:18), Dansa in G (E. Granados, 4:38) and Sarabande and Gavotte (Bach, 5:41), and the total running time of this section is just over 41 minutes.
Christopher Nupen has recorded short video introductions to each of the two films (3:12 for the first film, 7:13 for the second). Both offer a wealth of technical and biographical information, setting the films in the context of Segovia's life at the time they were made. The second intro also includes an account of what it was like trying to make a quiet, contemplative film in the Alhambra, one of Spain's most popular tourist attractions (they had to shoot in the early hours of the morning).A gallery offers 31 images, mostly colour photographs taken during the film's production, but also reproductions of paintings and sketches of Segovia as a younger man. The back-and-forth navigation options are thankfully presented outside the main picture area, though it is annoying that the stills themselves are slightly translucent, and the background image can be clearly seen through many of them. This may have been an anti-piracy measure, but it seems like overkill - especially as many of the stills also appear in the booklet at a rather higher resolution, and without visual interference.The 24-page booklet includes a comprehensive chapter list for each of the two films, and for the music-only re-edit, though it doesn't go quite as far as the equivalent booklet in the Jacqueline du Pré set, which also itemised the titles featured in the longer Allegro promo (if you have that disc, the chapter list works for this one too). The rest of the booklet contains a three-page essay by Nupen about Segovia, his relationship with him and the DVD (much of this material is duplicated in the onscreen introduction), which is presented in English, French and German, and interspersed with full-page colour reproductions of some high-quality stills.
ConclusionNormally, I'd be urging classical guitarists or anyone more passively interested in the subject to snap this DVD up immediately, but if they've got any sense they'd have done so when it was released a year ago. It delivers exactly what it promises on the box: nearly two hours of original footage of one of the most important guitarists in the history of the medium (many would drop the "one of") with the second film keeping commentary to a minimum to let the music speak for itself. The package overall is in line with the high standards set by Opus Arte's other Nupen releases, with the music-only option a particularly welcome bonus.

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