Scotland and Spain are overseas lands with distinct cultures, histories and music. Yet both have been 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 is a direct reference to his birth in Glasgow, Scotland. But Russell is phoning today from Galicia, a region in northwestern Spain, which has been home for all of his professional life. So what is the chosen repertoire for his newest album? 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, taking on the compositions of Bach, Handel, Couperin and Weiss that make up his newest recording, The Grandeur of the Baroque. But the music of Spain also has heavily fortified Russell's playing, from the 78 rpm records of the legendary Andrés Segovia that his father spun during his childhood to the 2004 recording Aire Latino, which earned Russell a Grammy for best instrumental soloist without orchestra (one of the 31 categories discontinued for this year's awards). Spin through Russell's recording catalog further, and you will discover Message of the Sea, devoted to arrangements of traditional Celtic compositions, a nod to his Scottish heritage.
Through Russell's long Spanish residency, one can pinpoint where he might sit geographically these days — at least during the three or four months 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 U.S. 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 to play basically when I was a baby. But he was an artist and wanted to live off of painting pictures. So we moved to Spain. But he always played guitar. He had lots of 78 (rpm) 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 José Tomás, 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. Message of the Sea didn't surface until 1997, but 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."
The album The Grandeur of the Baroque, though, presents 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.
"I think it's only worth doing a transcription if 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 does his music. Russell's recordings are rife with compositions by famed Spanish composers Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados and Manuel de Falla. Their works, in turn, reflect the folk music sung at concerts and bar 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 Malagueña should sound like. I've heard the original many times. So when I'm playing a piece by Albéniz based on that song, you go to the same musical source. You can still hear it now in a bar in Seville."