About this Recording
8.573160 - ALBÉNIZ, I.: Piano Music, Vol. 7 (Milla) - 12 Piezas Características / Piano Sonata No. 3
English  Spanish 

Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909)
Piano Music • 7


Ilustración Musical, 15 August 1888 (p.105): ALBÉNIZ RECITAL. I wrote in an earlier issue of La Ilustración that the recital Albéniz was intending to give would arouse keen interest among the public in general and experts in particular.

The public were already aware of him as a prodigiously talented performer: they had long followed this young artist who showed remarkable promise at such an early age and, happily, has lived up to expectations … Experts foresaw—accurately—that Albéniz would be more than a pianist.

Such were the opening words of the review written by Felipe Pedrell, father of Spanish musical nationalism, of a concert given by Isaac Albéniz—by then a pianist of the highest order—on 9 August 1888 in the French pavilion at that year’s Barcelona Expo. It was at this concert that he gave the première of some of the music from his 12 Piezas características, Op. 92, and that his ‘beloved teacher’, as Albéniz called Pedrell, presented him not only as a virtuoso pianist but also as a great composer.

In 1888, Isaac Albéniz was 28 years old and living in Madrid, where he had renewed his contact with his former patron Count Guillermo de Morphy y Ferriz de Guzmán, private secretary to King Alfonso XII. The count, himself a composer and scholar, played a crucial role in his life during this period: he introduced him to various influential contacts and generally offered him help and support, as did Albéniz’s friends the composer Tomás Bretón and publishers Benito Zozaya and Antonio Romero (the latter issued both the Third Sonata and the 12 Piezas características). Albéniz was soon sufficiently well-established to be able to launch an international career that took him all over Europe; ultimately, disillusioned with his native country following a series of professional disappointments, he left Spain for good.

The 12 Piezas características begin with Gavotte (based on a theme by the composer’s pupil Irene Landauer) and Minuetto a Sylvia. Both pieces are characterised by their clarity, simplicity and cheerful disposition, and both have a ternary structure whose central section is more lyrical and expressive in nature.

Barcarola (Ciel sans nuages – Cloudless sky) is a serene, gentle piece in the velvety key of E flat major. It features a simple song for the left hand, with the right-hand chordal ostinato providing a rocking accompaniment. Soft waves of new harmonic colours are introduced in the central section, culminating in the reappearance of the opening theme, now in G flat major.

Conchita (Polka) is an carefree, dynamic piece, named after another of Albéniz’s pupils, Conchita de Loring. Its central Trio section, marked dolce, brings in a brief, dreamlike episode, before leading us back to the liveliness of the opening via a recurring element that acts as a ritornello throughout the piece.

Both Plegaria (Prayer) and Pavana set a more reflective and inward-looking scene. The chorale with which Plegaria opens, and which also rounds off its first and last sections, shows considerable harmonic restraint and is clearly designed to encourage a sense of withdrawal and spiritual elevation. The main theme rises out of this atmosphere, with an accompaniment whose texture is reminiscent of that of a nocturne, and a melodic line that seems to bring this prayer into an entirely human, poetic context.

Albéniz’s treatment of the Pavana is faithful to the original character of the dance—solemn, sumptuous, processional. At the same time, however, we can also hear the melancholy so characteristic of the composer (and which he would later develop in Iberia) and the sense of longing that imbues the central section, where the initial F minor is replaced by a tentatively more luminous F major.

Pilar (Vals), Polonesa and Mazurka are all clearly reminiscent of Chopin in terms of style, sonority and texture. Each displays the salon aesthetic so beloved of late nineteenth-century bourgeois society. The refined, dynamic and volatile melodic line with which Pilar opens gives way to a more static central section. After a series of harmonic shifts and an increase in rhythmic activity, however, this leads to a majestic conclusion with touches of notable drama.

Zambra, Staccato (Capricho) and Torre Bermeja (Serenata) are all rather different from the other pieces in the set as regards the atmosphere they evoke. Zambra (a Moorish dance), an intensely expressive piece with clear Andalusian origins, is built around a rhythmic ostinato that only lets up in the central section—a very lively interlude that ends with a small-scale copla whose music seems to be interwoven with the ancient melodic scales of Arabic music.

Staccato is characterised by vigorous rhythms, agility and extreme lightness of touch. Written predominantly in the upper register, in texture and ornamentation this piece recalls Scarlatti, a composer Albéniz often programmed in his own recitals. In the central section the colours are darker and the rhythmic element, in a bassoon-like register, takes the form of a counterpoint to the right hand’s cantabile melody. After a return to the initial character, and then a dazzling resolution, the work ends with an enigmatic chord marked pianissimo in both hands.

The writing in Torre Bermeja gives a glimpse of what was to come in Iberia. A vibrant, luminous piece, again with a distinctively Andalusian character (the title refers to one of the towers in the Alhambra palace complex), it explodes into being with guitar-like figurations, then sets off in search of a new instrumental idiom, in terms of both technique and timbre. In its central section we find a copla, in the minor, which conjures up the idea of a flamenco singer, or cantaor, accompanied on guitar.

The stylistic differences between Torre Bermeja and the other, more traditional, pieces suggests that it was written at a later date and that these twelve works were bundled into a single cycle for reasons of commercial pragmatism rather than stylistic unity—viewed as a whole, the collection does suffer somewhat from this lack of cohesion.

All twelve works were premièred by the composer himself: the first eleven in Barcelona in 1888, and Torre Bermeja in Paris a year later. They were first published in 1888 and reissued various times, without significant revisions or corrections apart from the translation into French of some of the titles.

Throughout the course of the 1880s, Albéniz began both to incorporate more elements of picturesque Spanish folk music into his own idiom and to adopt Classical formal structures for his works. This taste for the Classical is the key feature of his Piano Sonata No. 3, composed in 1886 and first performed on 21 March 1887 in Madrid’s Salón Romero by its dedicatee Manuel Guervós, a close friend of the composer.

The first movement (Allegretto) represents the ideal of Classical form and incorporates an eminently Romantic treatment of the piano (redolent of Chopin), without a trace of nationalism, creating a rich contrapuntal texture. In the middle movement (Andante) those same procedures are transported into a poetic ambience of the utmost delicacy, in the manner of a romanza. The sonata ends with a frenetic and technically extremely complex Allegro assai.

A survey of Albéniz’s production as a whole reveals there to be no obvious break between these earlier works and the creations of his maturity—his procedures remain the same, it is just the extent of their use that varies. What shines through these pieces are his experience as a virtuoso soloist; his handling of Spanish folk music, which he assimilates and transforms by refracting it through his own individual prism; his knowledge of earlier greats (composers whose work he often programmed in recital) such as Bach and Scarlatti, along with Chopin and Liszt, the celebrated pianists of the nineteenth century; and his romantic spirit, embodied in music of poetic, emotional, nostalgic, vital yearnings.

The Albéniz of the 12 Piezas características and Sonata No. 3 is one of elegance and subtlety—not the artist of bold gestures but the composer of exquisite miniatures capable of combining delicate lines and colours with refinement and sophistication, heralding the masterpieces yet to come, just as Pedrell noted at the close of his 1888 review:

Foreseeing what is unquestionably to come, looking ahead to declare with total and absolute certainty what the future holds for an artist of Albéniz’s genius … does not demand the gift of clairvoyance or any power of divination: nonetheless, I wish to be among the first to put it on record—Albéniz is destined to become a leading figure in the European music world. The facts will speak for themselves. – Felipe Pedrell

Patricia Felipe Marcos
Musicologist and teacher at the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Castilla-La Mancha, and Hernán Milla

English translation by Susannah Howe

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