Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas brought his Tribute to Segovia to San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre on Saturday, commemorating the 125th birthday of Andrés Segovia, the artist responsible for the 20th-century revival of the guitar as a concert instrument.
Segovia had conservative tastes in music. He favored Romantic repertoire but loathed both folk music and modernism. He had complicated relationships with composers who were his contemporaries, going so far as to admonish Heitor Villa-Lobos when the two met in Paris in 1924. Segovia told the story differently, but nevertheless, an unlikely friendship was born, and Villa-Lobos subsequently dedicated his Cinq Préludes to Segovia.
Villegas opened the evening with a performance of this masterwork that was both introspective and passionate. Prelude No. 1 was alternately melancholy and exuberant, Prelude No. 2 humorous, Prelude No. 3 expressive in the manner of a Bach sarabande, Prelude No. 4 an homage to the indigenous people of Brazil’s jungle wilderness, and Prelude No. 5 a joyous, urbane portrait of the musical night life of Rio de Janeiro.
Segovia also had a strained relationship with Agustín Barrios, the Paraguayan guitarist and composer whose work remained relatively unknown until the 1970s: he is now commonly regarded as the greatest guitarist/composer of the 20th century. Villegas performed Barrios’s Un Sueño en la Floresta, a program work depicting the mythical origin of the guitar as a gift from the gods, which Barrios said allowed him to reveal the “marvelous symphony of all the virgin voices of our America.” Villegas performed the rich chordal harmonies, tremolo, harmonics, glissandi, and passionate melody in various registers with the sensitivity of a natural storyteller.
The second half of the concert featured Spanish nationalist composers at the heart of Segovia’s repertoire. Isaac Albéniz’s Asturias, an evocation of a legendary eighth-century battle and one of the most popular pieces in the guitar repertoire, was performed by Villegas with a strikingly dramatic frame and an introspective middle section. The dynamics on Albéniz’s score, frequently ignored by guitarists, were meticulously observed and created a mesmerizing effect. The improvisatory middle section, evocative of Spain’s Moorish conquerors, was played with expressive rubato and demanded rapt attention.
Enrique Granados’s Danzas Españolas were among his first important works. “Danza Española No. 5” offers an archetypal Spanish melody with subtle shifts between minor and major which Villegas used to create dramatic tension. “Danzas Española No. 10” has its origins in Andalusian folk music and was given a plaintive air.
Joaquin Rodrigo’s Invocation and Dance is subtitled “Homage a Manuel de Falla” and is based on a theme from Homenaje, Falla’s only guitar piece, which was itself written as an homage to Debussy, and refers to Debussy’s “La soirée dans Grenade.” Villegas played the opening harmonics with great delicacy. When the music moved into an impassioned and intricate pattern of melody and broken chords, he built an almost unbearable tension, which led inexorably to the fiery “Dance.” Perhaps a reminder of the last of Falla’s Siete canciones populares Españolas, this dance is a polo, which develops into passages of demanding tremolo and brilliant runs. The whole work closes with sparse harmonics, a fleeting reference to Falla’s El amor brujo, and a final murmuring arpeggio. Villegas’s subtlety, passion, technical command, and dramatic flair made this the high point of the evening.
Francico Tárrega’s Gran Jota is a fantastic showpiece based on a traditional Spanish dance, which, in an engaging spoken introduction, Villegas explained that he danced as a boy. He played the work with unbridled enthusiasm. The program ended with a standing ovation and an unusually introspective and lovely Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tárrega as an encore.