The 20th Century was a time of great movement in the world of classical guitar. Where the instrument was once seen as an inferior, niche instrument associated strongly with folk music and ‘gypsy’ performances, thanks to the efforts of a few notable pioneers the guitar has gained a far greater level of acceptance among classical music aficionados.
Perhaps because she lived at a time where this acceptance hadn’t fully taken hold, perhaps because of our own short memories, perhaps even because she was a ‘she’, the name of Ida Presti does not appear in most musical anthologies, histories or ‘Best Of’ lists.
Yet, here was a guitarist proclaimed to be the greatest of all time, a worthy successor to Segovia whose playing was said to have left critics and audiences dumbstruck, as a result of its virtuosity, color, tone and beauty.
A child born for the guitar
Before Presti had even been born, her father, having been deeply impressed by a concert given by Segovia, rushed home to proclaim to his wife that his daughter would be a guitarist. There was no choice in the matter, no further considerations to be made – that was simply to be that.
Maybe it was this unbearable pressure at such an early age, maybe it was the life of poverty that her family lived, maybe it was the fact that she became the main bread-winner in her household at age 13, but Presti was often heard to say that she had no childhood.
Yet, Ida Presti was perhaps the archetypal child star. By age 10, she had already began to give performances to the great, gifted and famous living in France at the time, stunning them with her incredible ability to extract so much feeling and life from the instrument that had been chosen for her.
In 1935 she gave her first major performance at the Salle Chopin-Pleyel in Paris. By the age of 12, she had already given two performances for the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire and Les Concerts Pasdeloup – the only artist of her age to ever have been extended such an opportunity.
At around age 13 we have this straight-to-tape recording of Paganini’s Romanza, a version that I have found myself coming back to more often than I have to the rendition I first fell in love with, by Segovia.
The great master himself said of her at this time that ‘I have nothing to teach her’.
A marriage of musical brilliance
During her 20s, Presti’s musicianship had garnered exceptional praise from critics and musicians alike. Her fame had risen to such a degree that she was entrusted with delivering the debut performance of Joaquín Rodrigo’s ‘Concerto de Aranjuez’ in her native France.
However, when Presti met Alexandre Lagoya she found a musical partner and collaborator with the skill and passion necessary to take her life on an altogether different course. Love blossomed from initial mutual respect, as the two guitarists embarked upon a journey together that would change the face of classical guitar music forever.
We have Presti and Lagoya to thank for vastly broadening the scope of the classical guitar repertoire with a wide range of transcriptions of pieces for orchestra and piano. Their work as a duo had a spellbinding effect on audiences, with critical responses ranging from ‘Remarkable’ to ‘A shock’. In essence, they were entering new territory, delving deep into the possibilities of two-part guitar music that is hugely influential to this day.
Ida Presti died at age 42, having long-since given up solo performance to concentrate on her magical concerts as part of a duo and successful spells as a teacher of the guitar.
In her day she was lauded, praised and widely regarded as standing at the epitomy of classical guitar music. Today, there is hardly any information available on her. Wikipedia has the briefest of articles, one book has been written about her, but most people will admit to never having heard of her.
If there is any justice in this world, let’s hope that the future is kinder to her memory as one of the greatest, most pioneering musicians of the genre.
To leave you with today, here is a video of Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya playing George Frederic Handel’s Chaconne in G. If you have a moment, do listen to this one… it is simply stunning!
If you fancy buying the recording of Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya featured in the video, just click on the picture below: