Scotland and Spain sit as overseas lands with distinct cultures, histories and music.Yet both have served as home for David Russell.
A pronounced brogue surfaces as soon as the Grammy winning classical guitarist speaks. It is animated, specific, and informed, much like his playing. It also serves as a direct reference to his Glasgow birth. But Russell is phoning today from the Galician region of Spain, the country that has long served as home for all of his professional life. So what is the chosen repertoire for his newest album? Try Baroque music.
One of the most captivating aspects of Russell’s repertoire is that all of these territories have their say. He has recorded Baroque works numerous times before taking on the Bach, Handel, Couperin and Weiss compositions that make up his newest recording, The Grandeur of the Baroque. But the music of Spain has also heavily fortified Russell’s playing, from the 78 rpm records of the legendary Andre Segovia his father spun during his childhood to his own recordings, like 2004’s Aire Latino, which earned the guitarist a Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist without Orchestra. Spin through Russell’s catalog further and you will discover Message of the Sea, which was devoted to arrangements of traditional Celtic compositions – a nod to his Scottish heritage.
Through Russell’s longstanding Spanish residency, one can pinpoint where he may sit geographically these days – at least during the three or four months out of the year when he is not touring. But where does he fall stylistically? As a classical music instrumentalist, definitely – one who has chosen Lexington as one of only six United States performance stops on a brief winter tour. That doesn’t mean, however, that Scotland and Spain won’t vie for equal time when Russell isn’t favoring Baroque.
“I still have my Scottish accent,” Russell said. “So everybody goes, ‘You’re Scottish, you’re Scottish.’ But I’ve lived so much of my life in Spain.
“When I was very young and my family was living in Scotland, I always saw that my father seemed to be happiest when he picked up the guitar. So he taught me play basically when I was a baby. But he was an artist and wanted live off of painting pictures. So we moved to Spain. But he always played guitar. He had lots of 78 records of Segovia, too. That was the music I was around all the time.
“So I grew up with that sense towards music as opposed to a sense of obligation or professionalism or anything like that. That came many years later when I went to London to study.”
But before those studies commenced at the Royal Academy with Jose Tomas, Russell had his first audience with the great Segovia himself.
“Segovia was incredibly generous and kind to young players,” Russell said. “When you are in your formative years, you’re never really sure where you stand, whether you will be any good or not. So to have somebody like Segovia give his time was really excellent. It certainly helped in my confidence.”
Still, even as studies in London were balanced with a home life in Spain, Russell’s Scottish roots remained strong. While Message of the Sea didn’t surface until 1997, the traditional repertoire it embraced took hold when the guitarist was in his teens.
“I started hanging out with the Scottish students,” he said. “One of the guys was a double bass player. We would play as a duo and in groups when I was 18 or 19. He really hooked me on Scottish traditional music and Irish music.”
Albums like The Grandeur of the Baroque, though, present Russell in perhaps his most definitive and challenging classical setting, as most compositions of the period were not written for solo instruments but for ensembles favoring harpsichord or violin. That meant transcribing the music for solo guitar.
“Transcriptions are only worth doing unless playing it on our instrument doesn’t hurt the piece. If it sounds better on the keyboard, then leave it on the keyboard. It’s not that it is ever going to sound better on guitar, but it’s going to give another view of the piece. It’s a challenge, but it’s also great fun.”
But just as home for Russell at the end of the touring road remains in Spain, so sits his music. Russell’s recordings are ripe with compositions by such famed Spanish composers as Isaac Albeniz, Enrique Granados and Manuel De Falla. Their works, in turn, reflect the folk music sung in everything from bars to concert halls.
“The source these composers heard was basically the folk music you heard in Spain,” Russell said. “Thankfully, folk music in Spain is still very alive. It’s typically what people sing in the streets. For instance, I know what Malaguena should sound like. I’ve heard the original many times. So when I’m playing a piece by Albeniz based on that song, you go to the same musical source. You can still hear it now in a bar in Seville.”
David Russell performs at 3 p.m February 19 at the University of Kentucky Medical Center Pavilion A. Tickets are $10-$25. Call (859) 257-4929.