During the period 13-16 September 1961, the University of Orense
(Spain) sponsored an international competition for the classical
guitar. This was held in conjunction with Music at Compostela
which Andrés Segovia had conducted in the city of Santiago de
Compostela for the past several years. Headed by Segovia, the
judging panel comprised eight members.
Commenting almost a decade earlier about John Williams, Segovia
observed: ‘God has laid a finger on his brow. He bestowed on
Williams the epithet, ‘prince of the guitar’. Such circumstances
would have logically made John Williams a probable winner of
the Orense competition. He did participate, but as a judge not
as a competitor.
Many assumed that the nature of Williams’ involvement was indicative
of his assumed place as successor to Segovia; there was no reason
to compete when the hierarchy had already been clearly established
by the head of the judging panel himself? Reasonable though
this assumption may have appeared, comments made by Williams
many years later in an interview with Austin Richard-Levy suggest
Some years prior to the Orense Competition, Segovia had requested
that Williams compete in the autumn 1956, International Competition
for Musical Performers, conducted by the Conservatoire of Music,
Geneva, Switzerland. Although Williams expressed anticipation
of winning, for a variety of reasons he declined Segovia’s invitation.
This contributed to an evolving friction between them, and to
Williams’ antipathy for guitar competitions, or indeed any competition
among musicians where there are individuals declared as outright
There must have been something in the British water? Julian
Bream, a logical competitor in the Geneva competition was on
the judging panel. Some preoccupation among competitors in the
Orense Competition seven years later was unfounded: Julian Bream
did not participate, despite his eligibility.
One man who did respond positively to Segovia’s request for
participation in a major competition was Eliot Fisk. Twenty
years later at the Segovia International Guitar Competition
in Leeds Castle (1981), even though Segovia was head of the
judging panel, Fisk was unplaced. Segovia angrily dissociated
himself from further involvement as a judge in guitar competitions,
claiming: ‘You know at that competition which was in
my name, I judged Eliot Fisk to be the winner, but they would
not agree with me.’ Fisk expressed the same attitude towards
competitions as John Williams, believing that the outcome is
better shared by several, rather than dominated by one.
Should there have been any questions about the credentials of
this young ‘prince of the guitar,’ internationally they were
quickly dispelled with the release of his debut recordings in
1959; Williams was just eighteen years of age. Contrary to what
the cover of the review disc suggests, this was not Williams’
‘first recording’, but selections taken from his first two recordings
released simultaneously in early 1959 (Delysé ECB 3149 [UK]
and Delysé ECB 3150 [UK]). Delysé was part of Decca and subsequent
take-overs and re-releases of this material cloud its history.
Selected from those two early recordings, the review disc programme
reflects a style typical of Segovia, but with one exception.
Unlike Segovia, Williams elected to record the entire Suites
for Cello by J.S. Bach - BWV 1007 and BWV 1009. It took Segovia
another two years to produce a recording of an entire Cello
Suite (BWV 1009 - MCA MUCS 125).
Understandably, the review disc programme perpetuates the Ponce
pastiche myth by identifying the Gavotta (8) as from the pen
of Alessandro Scarlatti. Generally it follows the same content
profile as Williams’ debut recital in November, 1958, and long-established
That Williams possessed total mastery over his instrument is
unequivocal. It should be remembered that in 1958, only a handful
of people could play to such a high technical standard. Released
today, that same recording would probably elicit no comment
regarding the level of technical proficiency demonstrated.
It is rare for Williams to receive other than accolades for
his technical prowess. However in the area of musical interpretation,
opinions are not so unanimous. Some twenty-eight years later,
reviewing his Avery Fisher Hall (New York), 20 April 1986 recital,
Donal Henahan commented: He is a musician who seems reluctant
to reveal himself in his playing, so seriously contracting the
expressive range of his music making … There is such a thing
in music as brilliant sameness. These comments are
representative of many who have expressed opinion about this
brilliant guitarist - ‘admiring his work but not loving it’.
The listener may judge the degree to which these observations
are justified in this debut recording. Having listened to much
of what Williams has recorded, this writer is of the opinion
that criticisms levelled at past musical interpretations are
often no longer relevant to his latest work. The appeal of individual
musicians is a matter of personal preference, and guitarists
are no exception.