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8.553023 - ALBENIZ: Iberia (orch. P. Breiner)
English 

Isaac Albniz (1860-1909)

Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)

Iberia (orchestrated by Peter Breiner)

 

Isaac Albéniz enjoyed a double career, winning an international reputation as a virtuoso pianist and doing much to establish Spanish music in a form acceptable at home and abroad. He was born in 1860 at Camprodon in the province of Gerona, the son of a customs official of Basque origin and a mother from Catalonia. He began his study of the piano at the age of three in Barcelona and apparently appeared at a charity concert the following year, playing duets with his sister Clementina, seven years his senior and ailegedly his first teacher. The family moved to Madrid in 1868 and Albéniz was able to study there at the Escuela Nacional de Musica y Declarnaci6n, the forerunner of the Madrid Conservatory. Colourful legends, inspired by Albéniz himself, include stories of how he ran away from home to earn a living as a pianist, playing in a number of Spanish cities, and how later he stowed away on a ship to America, where he led an adventurous life as a peripatetic pianist. A]] these tales have been largely discounted by recent research (Walter A. Clark. Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic, Oxford, 1999, and the same writer's succinct article in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Band I, Kassel, 1999). Tours in Spain seem to have been carried out under his father's guidance and his visit to Cuba and Puerto Rico took place when his father was appointed to a position in Havana. In 1876 he certainly enrolled in the Leipzig Conservatory, but soon left, perhaps hampered there by a lack of German. An award from King Alfonso xn allowed him to enter the Brussels Conservatoire in the autumn of the same year. His studies continued there until 1879 and fellow-students included the violinist and conductor Enrique Arbos, one of the first orchestrators of parts of the suite Iberia. Albéniz travelled to Budapest where he might have expected to meet Liszt, but no such meeting could have taken place and stories of lessons from Liszt appear to have been false. There followed further journeys to Cuba and Puerto Rico and a period in Spain when he turned his attention to the composition and performance of zarzuelas, a popular Spanish dramatic form in which dialogue is interspersed with music and song.

 

In 1883 Albéniz moved to Barcelona once more, now taking lessons from Felipe Pedrell, an influential figure in the creation of a broadly Spanish school of composition. Any instruction he received seems to have been informal but set the pattern for much of his future writing. After a return to Madrid and further years of teaching, composition and performance, success in the concert hall in Paris and London persuaded him to settle in the latter city. There Henry Lowenfeld, a businessman, offered him a steady income and financial provision for himself and his family, for his concert activities, and for further work for the theatre. A later meeting with Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, a member of the banking family whose interests were more literary than financial, led to the latter taking over these obligations with an agreement that brought continued subsidy and a chance to collaborate in other stage works. The understanding with Money-Coutts, which might have seemed to some inappropriate, allowed Albéniz to concentrate on composition rather than performance and did not confine him to London or, indeed, to one writer. In 1893 he moved to Paris, where he studied orchestration with Paul Dukas and counterpoint with Vincent d'Indy and enjoyed social contact with leading musicians of their circle.

 

During the 1890s Albéniz turned his attention to the theatre again, writing zarzuelas for performance in Spain and completing his opera Henry Clifford, with a libretto by Money-Coutts, a work that was successfully staged in Barcelona in 1895 in Italian translation. This was followed in 1896 by the two-act opera Pepita Jiménez, again based on a libretto by his patron. His intended trilogy on libretti derived by Money-Coutts from Malory's Morte d'Arthur was not completed, except for the first work, Merlin, which was not staged in the composer's lifetime. He divided the later years of his life, a period of deteriorating health, between Paris, Barcelona and Nice, years which saw the composition of Iberia.

 

The first book of the piano suite Iberia, 12 Nauvelles impressions en quatre cahiers (Twelve New Impressions in Four Books) was published in 1905 and dedicated to the widow of his friend, the composer Ernest Chausson, whose death in 1899 in a bicycle accident he had found particularly distressing. The first piece, Evacacion, is gently evocative, identifiably Spanish yet recognisably in the spirit of French music of the period. Marked Allegretto espressivo, its first theme is set over a syncopated accompaniment and leads to a secondary theme of clearer Spanish connotation. El Puerto takes its name from El Puerto de Santa Maria, a fishing-port near Câdiz. It is represented by a characteristic Spanish dance, with allusions to the technique of the guitar. The first book ends with Fête- Dieu à Séville, generally given in later editions as El Calpus en Sevilla, inspired by the Corpus Christi celebrations in Seville. The procession is heard approaching, with its band and the cries of its penitents, before it passes, leaving the street deserted, to the sound of distant church bells.

 

Albéniz completed the second book of Iberia in 1896 and dedicated it to the pianist Blanche Selva. Randena suggests in its title the music of Ronda, a general allusion, it may be supposed, to that region of south-western Spain. Its characteristic alternating rhythms relax into a gentler secondary theme, both elements to return in recapitulation. AlmerÎa, evoking a town on the south-eastern coast of Spain, has a similar typical asymmetry of rhythm, with expressively worked cross-rhythms in its secondary theme. This is followed by Triana, suggesting the gypsy district of Seville and its flamenca traditions.

 

The third book was completed towards the end of 1896 and dedicated to Marguerite Hasselmans, although two of the pieces were originally intended for the Catalan pianist Joaquim Malats, whose performances particularly pleased the composer. El Albaicin, the gypsy quarter of Oranada, is depicted in a movement marked Allegro assai, ma melancolico which brings its own dynamic climax. El Polo, described as a dance and song from Andalusia, is, in its title at least, an example of flamenco, here preserving a typical air of melancholy, suggested in the initial instruction sanglotant (sobbing). Lavapiés is a district of Madrid that takes its name from the ritual washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday. The piece has something of the habanera about it in its depiction of street life in a poorer quarter of the city.

 

lberia ends with three pieces written in 1907 and 1908. The set was dedicated to Madame Pierre Lalo, daughter-in-law of the composer Edouard Lalo. Malaga inevitably recalls the malaguefia and relaxes into a secondary theme, all to be developed and recapitulated, following the abridged version of sonata form used in So many of these movements. It is followed by Jerez, the last of the pieces to be written, in similar form, with a melancholy first theme, interrupted by suggestions of guitar chords. The last piece, Eritafia takes its name from the Venta Eritafia, an inn in Seville, where flamenco was often heard. It was not originally intended to end the suite, but to come second, to be followed by a projected L'Albuféra, depicting Valencia in a jota valenciana. This last was never written and Eritafia took its place, providing a relatively light-hearted ending to a suite which represents a summary and the culmination of the achievement of Albéniz in Spanish music.

 

It should be added that lberia cries out for orchestration. Nine of the pieces were orchestrated by Arb6s and enjoyed success in the concert hall in this form. The gifted Slovak-born Peter Breiner now offers a colourful orchestrated version of the whole work.

Keith Anderson


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