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Ricardo Viñes’s father was a lawyer and his mother a musician. In 1882 he began studies in harmony and piano with Joaquin Terraza, an organist in his home town of Lérida. He then studied at the conservatory in Barcelona with Juan Pujol, gaining a premier prix. At the suggestion of Albéniz, Viñes continued his studies at the Paris Conservatoire with Charles de Bériot (1833–1914); and a year after gaining a premier prix in 1895, made his Paris debut at the Salle Pleyel with a programme which included a performance of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata. Afterwards he toured Europe and Russia. It was at the Paris Conservatoire that Viñes met Ravel (whose mother also spoke Spanish), and this was the beginning of a long friendship.

Viñes was always interested in the work of contemporary composers such as Ravel, Debussy, Albéniz and Falla. He was the dedicatee of Poissons d’Or by Debussy, the Menuet antique and Oiseaux tristes by Ravel and Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España. In 1898 he gave two concerts in Brussels. The first was of repertoire by Beethoven, Bach–Tausig, Grieg, Liadov and Leschetizky, and it generated excellent reviews which encouraged his audience to return for the second, in which his programme was of contemporary composers, Franck, Saint-Saëns, Dubois, d’Indy and Fauré.

In January 1902 Viñes introduced Debussy’s suite Pour le piano at the Salle Érard after playing it for the composer, who said that Viñes played better than he did himself. In 1905 he gave four historical recitals in Paris at the Salle Érard, encompassing piano music from the sixteenth century to modern works of the day by Ravel and Debussy. The recitals also included staples of the repertoire by Beethoven, Liszt and Schumann. Viñes gave an enormous number of first performances of works (in major cities) by Albéniz, Balakirev, Borodin, Chabrier, Debussy, Falla, Fauré, Franck, Granados, Milhaud, Mompou, Ravel, Satie, Séverac, Turina and his pupil Poulenc; in addition he gave first Paris performances of Prokofiev’s Sarcasmes, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Concerto and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

In 1907 Viñes went to Berlin for the seventieth birthday celebrations in honour of Balakirev (of whose Piano Sonata in B flat minor he had given the first Paris performance in 1905); and he returned there in 1911 at the request of the Société Musicale Indépendante, in order to promote French music at the Hochschüle in Berlin.

From 1930 Viñes lived in Argentina, and although he returned to Paris in 1936, giving a successful concert, he became less in demand. By 1943, when he gave his last concert at the Palau de la Música, he was in poor financial circumstances and died alone in a Barcelona hospital.

Although he had no formal schooling Viñes had an enquiring mind, avid for music, literature and art. He learnt very quickly and had a large repertoire of complex new compositions. Although he was not a virtuoso pianist, he had an incredible technique that enabled him to play anything effortlessly with a wealth of tone colour and shading. Interestingly, some of the pianists he admired were concerned with similar aspects of piano playing, notably Harold Bauer and Emil von Sauer.

It was in 1930 that he first stepped into the recording studios of French Columbia. He recorded a scintillating Scarlatti sonata, a scherzo by Borodin and Brahms’s arrangement of a Gluck gavotte. The rest of the recordings were of music by those composers whose music he championed in the concert hall, including Falla, Albéniz, Turina, Blancafort and Debussy. Fortunately, Viñes recorded the work dedicated to him by Debussy, Poissons d’Or. This and La Soirée dans Grenade are excellent examples of his art where the Columbia microphone has captured all his subtle shadings and lightness of touch. The shimmering performance of Poissons d’Or is probably his best disc; Viñes always kept his own personality in the background, allowing the music to come alive.

His final discs were made for Victor in Paris in July 1936, probably as a result of his successful concert there after returning from South America. Only four sides were issued, two of Albéniz and the rest consisting of works by unknown composers of the sort whom Viñes spent his life promoting: Troiani, Lopez-Buchardo and Allende.

A true pioneer, Viñes left recordings of Spanish and French music which are some of the most important of this repertoire. In recent times recordings of Viñes have rarely appeared. A compilation of recordings by Viñes and Planté appeared on an Opal CD in 1994, but unfortunately the sixteen tracks of Viñes did not include the two sides he recorded of works by Falla. An LP on the French Références label from 1983 contains all Viñes’s published recordings.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).

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