About this Recording
8.554311-12 - ALBÉNIZ, I.: Piano Music, Vol. 1 (González) - Iberia / Suites Espanolas Nos. 1 and 2

Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)
Iberia; Suites Españolas Nos. 1 and 2

Isaac Albéniz is one of the best-known and internationally highly esteemed Spanish musicians. His vast and varied output includes songs, operas, symphonic rhapsodies, piano concertos and choral music, but the greater part of his work – and his best – is made up of his music for the piano. To this repertoire he made an outstanding contribution, the main features of which could be summarised in the impressive balance between impeccable piano technique, in its demands and solutions, combined with a form of expression that is absolutely Spanish in its rhythms and melodies.

Albéniz in his career followed a long and difficult path, first as a child prodigy pianist, almost a fairground show, and then, in his early youth, as a virtuoso performer. At the height of his career a, a pianist, he underwent that slow and steady transformation from a brilliant performer into the wise composer whose charm and depth we admire today. The period he spent in Madrid from 1885 for the following four years proved to be crucial. It was then that he laid the groundwork that allowed him to leave the triviality of pleasant bourgeois soirées and enter the freer regions of the nouvelles impressions pour le piano of Iberia, one of the crowning achievements of piano composition.

The Suite Española is one of the best known of the compositions of Albéniz, not only in its original version for piano, but also in its modern orchestral arrangements, as well as in transcriptions for guitar, some of which – particularly Granada and Leyenda –­ have become even more popular than the original. In 1886, recently settled in Madrid, Albéniz and the publisher Benito Zozaya agreed on the publication of a Suite Espagnole that would include eight pieces with titles linking them to several Spanish towns or regions. The individual publication of these pieces began in the same year, but the title-pages of each one included the complete plan and titles and subtitles of all the pieces, 1. Granada (Serenata), 2. Cataluña (Corranda), 3. Sevilla (Sevillanas), 4. Cádiz (Saeta), 5. Asturias (Leyenda), 6. Aragón (Fantasía), 7. Castilla (Seguidillas), 8. Cuba (Capricho). Clearly this is a collection that covers the different rhythms and melodies of Spain, from North to South and East to West, as well as Cuba, then still under Spanish rule, the sensuous rhythms and melodies of which had captivated the young Albéniz when he visited the island to give some concerts. In the event only four of the planned pieces, numbers 1, 2, 3 and 8, were published. For reasons unknown the project was dropped and there was a lapse of almost twenty years until it was completed by another publisher – by then Zozoya's publishing-house had disappeared – with other pieces that Albéniz had composed on different occasions and under other titles. Consequently the music of Cádiz is the same as that of the Serenata Española of 1889, Asturias is really the Preludio of the Cantos de España of 1891-1894, a collection to which the Seguidillas also belongs, a piece that appears in the present suite under the title Castilla. Aragón is one of the Dos danza, españolas published in 1889.

This arrangement was simply a matter of editorial convenience, as a way of completing the original plan, and took little account of the character of the music itself. While the title Seguidillas, in its general character, may be suitable for Castilla and the Serenata española, with its swaying tango-habanera rhythm, might aptly come under the title Cádiz, this last is a blatant contradiction of the original intention of writing a saeta, which made it necessary to change the subtitle to canción. The same, however, does not apply to the music chosen for Asturias, since its southern feeling, basically Andalusian is totally alien to the northern atmosphere of this region of Spain. Its subtitle Leyenda, therefore, seems a much apter choice. Furthermore, two of the four original pieces of the suite written in the earlier period, Granada and Sevilla, both from 1883, were conceived, together with a Pavana-capricho, as the original core of the Suite Española. To add a further complication, Albéniz himself, rather careless with his own works, wrote at least two other pieces the subject matter, style and period of which are closely related to those of the suite. These are Zaragoza and Sevilla, the latter sharing the same title but different from its earlier name-sake, published in 1890 as a Seconde Suite Espagnole. The remarkable thing is that the ten pieces that make up the two parts of the Suite Española, although not completely uniform in construction, do show a certain kaleidoscopic unity, simple and effective in structure, going well beyond the superficiality of salon music and anticipating a development towards a stylized musical nationalism, with evocations of popular idiom, rhythms and nostalgic melodies, full of a luminous charm of their own.

The suite Iberia, written between December 1905 and January 1908, represents the fulfilment of the aim that had inspired the career of Albéniz, which consisted, in his own words, in creating 'Spanish music with a universal accent'. Albéniz was already seriously ill when he composed, in less than two years, these twelve pieces which, on the one hand, represent the aesthetic and technical culmination of post-romantic piano music and, on the other, provide a starting-point and necessary point of reference for piano music of the twentieth century, perhaps, according to Messiaen, the most important one. Contrary to what is often said, there is no break or failure of his talent as a composer, producing a radical change between the piano pieces of the Souvenirs or the Cantos de España and the best elements of Iberia. Their technique can be traced back to the composer's earlier years as a precocious virtuoso performer and even the procedures followed are basically the same, a tendency towards the brief cantabile composition, a central copla, which acts as a melodic axis, with symmetry in the recapitulation, powerful fundamental rhythm, harmonic boldness and a lack of interest in rhetorical developments. All these features are to be found both in his compositions from the 1880s and in the masterpieces that he produced at the end of his life.

For Albéniz, surmounting the limits set by musical costumbrismo and the aesthetic of the picturesque, formed part of an internal evolution which has more relation with his personal dynamics rather than with any alleged advice given by Liszt or with the negligible influence exerted by Pedrell, whose main concerns were academic procedures rather than the fertile and inspired imagination of Albéniz. This basic recipe of 'making music out of national materials' would have proved quite ineffectual in the hands of anyone who did not possess the creative spirit of Albéniz, not endowed with an artistic conception, capable of bringing about a real metamorphosis of those materials. This Albéniz was able to achieve, on the one hand by synthesizing the experience drawn from his deep knowledge of the German repertoire, of Chopin, Liszt and Schumann, and the spirit and techniques of French post-romanticism, of d'Indy, Chausson and Fauré, on the other by imbibing the forms, inflections, cadences, phrases and rhythms of popular music, a music which, in his compositions, does not appear as literal quotations but as something which has been absorbed and re-created from the innermost recesses of the artistic soul. It is, in fact, not the flower but the scent that Albéniz offers, naturally flamenco and Andalusian music in all its rich variety, solares, tangos, malagueñas, guajiras, polos, bulerías, but also other elements that can be perceived. Instances of these are the Castilian seguidillas and, above all, the jota, not only in its most popular variety, the vigorous song from Aragón, but as a substratum shared by many coplas from all Spanish regions, from the fandangos of Málaga to the alegrías of Cádiz.

Albéniz displays an impressive and extremely demanding technique, which magnifies and transcends the musical genius, the soul and sensibility that Spanish music had been developing for centuries, by the stylization of popular themes until their virtual abstraction, with just the rhythm remaining as a structural element. According to Manuel de Falla, the beauty of the suite Iberia and its unparalleled value for Spain, lies in the fact that for Spaniards it represents an atmosphere and an epoch that has gone for ever. It shows both sides of the coin, the vehemence and the melancholy, palpitating through this work. It offers a last glance towards a vanishing world, the faint scent of a time evoked in its fading lights with the urgent stroke, of the future.

In Iberia the autumnal romanticism of Albéniz is vividly explicit and moves towards impressionism. Eventually it was to have a decisive impact on Debussy, who used to spend hours and hours alone, playing with obsessive relish the Iberia that Albéniz had conceived, precisely as 'impressions', several years before he himself composed, as if possessed by an irresistible fascination, his own Iberia.

The performance of the Suites españolas follows the original versions of the first edition in each of its pieces. The suite Iberia follows the manuscripts of the composer and the edition revised by Guillermo González.

Jacinto Torres
English Version by Keith Anderson

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