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8.570553 - ALBÉNIZ, I.: Piano Music, Vol. 2 (González) - Recuerdos de viaje / Espagne / Azulejos / La Vega / Navarra
Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)
On the evening of 25 April 1889 over three hundred people hurried down the rue du Mail to the Salle Érard to hear a Spanish pianist, who (according to music-lovers) performed both Scarlatti and his own compositions marvellously. Isaac Albéniz had gone to Paris to seek fame, mindful of the rapturous reception for his previous performances and with a folder of enthusiastic reviews as well as an offer or two from publishers. At Saint-Lazare Station, the pianist and his wife caught the train for London from where his European tour would continue before his return to the French capital later that same summer when he planned to visit the lavish Universal Exposition commemorating the centenary of the French Revolution. In the tradition of best nineteenth-century virtuoso performers and at the height of his pianistic career, Albéniz began at this time to establish his reputation internationally through performances of his own music. An habitual traveller, convinced that his future would be spent away from Spain, Albéniz and his family first settled in London (where he composed some of his stage works), before moving to Paris.
At the time the French capital was the most important centre of artistic experimentation in the world, a city of light where so many things happened including exhibitions, concerts, cabarets, and literary gatherings as well as the activities of bohemia and the underworld. The city was a magnet, attracting artists from all over the globe and the mutual sharing of ideas, vitality and dynamism. After being exposed to the finest art of Romanticism, Parisian audiences had meanwhile fallen under the spell of some of its simpler and most hackneyed aspects, being enthralled by a type of Spanish art superficially exciting and passionate, an exotic Spain viewed as if from a tourist's perspective with little regard for the indigenous composers. A performer needed a will of iron and a certain wisdom to eschew easy success and to avoid slavishly following the dictates of fashion and the hidden perils of commercialisation and custom. Such an approach necessitated a seriousness, profundity, a certain ethical awareness and, of course, a high degree of musical talent.
In 1894 (a decisive year for French music), Isaac Albéniz moved to Paris. This was the year when the Schola Cantorum was founded, while Debussy's L'après-midi d'un faune was premiered in December. Around this time an intense controversy sprang up dividing the French musical world. Albéniz, in charge of the advanced piano class and attending the Schola Cantorum as both student and teacher, became friends with Vincent d'Indy and Charles Bordes, followers of César Franck. Eager for innovation in music, Albéniz regularly attended the Société Nationale concerts and became one of the few non-French composers to present compositions there. D'Indy and Paul Dukas admired his structured and disciplined art and offered much good advice, especially in regard to the orchestration of Catalonia. The composer was also interested in Russian music (much performed in Paris towards the end of the century), and the works of Debussy. Although they were not intimate friends, each professed respect and admiration for the other.
In the early twentieth century, Albéniz felt somewhat restricted by the Schola's traditional dogmatism and distanced himself from the establishment with prolonged sojourns in Nice, Barcelona and Madrid. At the same time, cultivating a friendship with Gabriel Fauré, recently appointed director of the Conservatoire, he was invited on various occasions to join the examination panel of this prestigious centre of learning. Albéniz's easy nature and his extroverted, generous personality eased his rapid acceptance into French music culture. He was, moreover, a scholarly, eclectic composer, and thus the aristocratic salons of Paris (such as those of Mme de Saint-Marceaux, Mme Chausson, the Princesse de Polignac, and Lerolle, in which new literary and musical works were presented) gave a cordial reception to Albéniz and his music.
With the exception of Recuerdos de viaje, all the works included here were composed during Albéniz's stay in Paris, during the mature years from the time he settled in Paris until his death in 1909 shortly before his 49th birthday. Over his final years he gradually relinquished his career as a pianist to devote more time to composition. This brought about something of an aesthetic crisis, his earlier works now seeming too accessible and facile, though his instincts were still clearly Andalusian. With very few exceptions, almost all his melodies are his own for rather than borrowing themes from Spanish folk-lore, he was able to create atmospheres and sentiments representative of its people. 'He does not employ popular themes,' Debussy explained, 'but was inspired by them, having paid close attention and incorporated such elements into his music almost without anyone being able to tell the difference'. The result of this was that many of his songs went on to form part of what was assumed to be the Spanish popular repertory, feeding back into it. Albéniz, however, also absorbed whatever musical influences Paris had to offer, integrating these into his specifically nationalist language. Always searching for new sonorities, Albéniz's compositions evoke the subtle impressionistic harmonies and firm polyphonic forms characteristic of the Schola. The sonorities of Albéniz's piano writing are unique, being intense and controlled as well as percussive and velvety, and covering a wide palette of colours by the addition of elements described by Vladimir Jankélevitch as 'chords in the form of bunches of grapes', which involve the superimposition of various levels of sound incorporating unforgettable melodic or rhythmic motifs. Albéniz's writing is characterised by rhythmic and expressive exuberance, tonal ambiguity, unexpected harmonies, continual alternations between major and minor, and a predilection for flattened tones.
Albéniz's pianism is bold, putting aside academic taboos and subjecting performers to difficult challenges. It was precisely at the time that he gave up his career as a virtuoso that Albéniz endowed his compositions with extreme technical difficulties. Despite the doubts of critics, these difficulties are rarely fortuitous, being combined with an obsessive search for sonority and colour, and a rare diversity of attack. During this period Albéniz entrusted the premieres of his works to pianists with whom he felt an affinity and together they formed an inexhaustibly productive aesthetic and creative group. Blanche Selva, his agent in France, protested amicably that his works 'cry out for a piano with two keyboards'. Composer and pianists spent long periods conversing and working together; becoming complementary partners. Albéniz's dedications of his pieces were not just honorific but intended as sincere acts of homage to his performers.
According to the careful cataloguing of Jacinto Torres, the composer finished his second piano version of La Vega in February 1897, the first and only movement of what was originally an orchestral suite entitled La Alhambra. This work combines Albéniz's two nationalistic styles and hints at some of the innovations that would appear in Iberia. The title transports us to a mythical landscape, once a fertile plain on the outskirts of Granada. The piece is dedicated to José Vianna da Motta, the Portuguese pianist who premiered the work at the Société Nationale on 21 January 1899. Its initial reception was lukewarm (nothing unusual in Paris at the time), Le monde musical writing on 20 January 1989 that 'Albéniz, undoubtedly a gifted Spanish composer, made the mistake of losing his way for over a quarter of an hour in harmonic complications and dissonant chords that made M. Vianna da Motta's fingers seem like a cat running across the keyboard'. La Vega, sometimes compared with Islamey by Balakirev (the Russian composer influenced by Liszt), brings to life with its intricate polyphonic sections, a distant yet contemporary Spain.
Two of Albéniz's piano works, Azulejos and Navarra, remained unfinished. In the year of his death he began composing the prelude to a collection entitled Azulejos. While seriously ill, having moved to the resort of Cambo-les-Bains in the Pyrenees, he was visited by Enrique Granados, a good friend who some months later would complete the original manuscript that Albéniz's wife had sent him. Granados presented the work to Parisian audiences during a recital in the Sala Pleyel on 1 April 1911. It was dedicated to Carlos de Castéra, a pupil from Albéniz's close circle of friends, who (according to Henri Collet) suggested the title to the composer.
The pianist, Marguerite Long, became the dedicatee of Navarra, his second posthumous work, completed by Déodat de Séverac, another pupil and friend of Albéniz. Though originally intended for Iberia, Albéniz decided not to include the piece in the suite because, (as he confided to Joaquín Malats), its 'blatantly common' style was inappropriate. Blanche Selva performed it at the Société Nationale on 27 January 1912.
Espagne (Souvenirs) was probably composed in 1897, in the same year as La Vega. The two movements forming this suite are the vestiges of a more ambitious project (like many others that Albéniz left unfinished). Some consider that the Prélude, dedicated to Carmen Sert, sister of the architect, is one of Albéniz's most emotive works, expressing an acute sense of nostalgic sadness. Presented at the Société Nationale (1905), it proved to be a great success and at the time of Albéniz's death became one of the most significant pieces in a list of piano works published by Le monde musical.
Some of the movements of Recuerdos de viaje became very popular in their time, especially on pianola rolls. This is a miscellaneous collection in the form of postcards, pieces composed in various places and at different times, first performed by Albéniz himself at the age of 25 in 1887 at the Salón Romero in Madrid. They are works of an obviously Spanish nature, reflecting both the romantic tradition and Albéniz's facility with melody and tonal instinct but without the contrapuntal aspects of later years. He uses a variety of popular rhythms, combined with a profound awareness of the history of piano music, as, for example, in the transparent references to Mendelssohn and Chopin in some movements. The collection consists of two barcarolles (En el mar and Leyenda-Barcarola), an Alborada with a straightforward melody, a granadina (En la Alhambra), the bolero Puerta de tierra (the monument forming the entrance to the city of Cádiz from the sea), a malagueña (Rumores de caleta) and a waltz (En la playa).
The uniquely Spanish quality of Albéniz's music is always seductive. The composer of Recuerdos de viaje sings about nearby places, people and experiences (though sometimes from a traveller's perspective) while the Parisian Albéniz reflects Spain from a distance, nostalgic, inward and profound. Paris allowed him the possibility of asserting his artistic personality, which was already well developed. In return, Albéniz enriched French artistic life, enabling the French to perceive themselves through another culture and a different sensibility. He not only established Spanish music on an international stage but created masterpieces that form a durable part of the piano repertoire.
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