About this Recording
8.573293 - ALBÉNIZ, I.: Piano Music, Vol. 5 (Mudarra Gámiz) - 7 Studies in the Natural Major Keys / Les saisons / Rapsodia Cubana
English  Spanish 

Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909)
Piano Music • 5


Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual was born into a bourgeois liberal family in Camprodón (in the province of Gerona, Catalonia) on 29 May 1860. His mother, Dolors Pascual, was Catalan, from Figueres. His Basque father, Ángel, was a civil servant and an active freemason, whose contacts were at times a help in promoting his young son’s career.

A child prodigy, Albéniz gave his first concert at the age of four, and wrote his first composition at nine. From a very young age he toured the cities of Spain and Central America with his father. Thanks to a grant awarded by Alfonso XII, he was able to study at the Brussels Conservatory, graduating with highest honours in 1879. He then went back to performing, undertaking tours both in Spain and in Cuba.

Having travelled so widely as a child, Albéniz was very receptive to all kinds of musical ideas, from the different forms of Spanish folk music to the Central European classical tradition. He was a socialist and an atheist, and felt that Spain was culturally behind the times. In 1889 he moved to London, where he lived for the next four years. He began by giving concerts there, but gradually threw himself more and more into composing. His style at the time did not go down particularly well in Madrid, where some of his works were even dubbed ‘foreign-sounding’, but in his eyes, Spanish music could only undergo the renewal it needed outside Spain. In 1893 he left London to settle in Paris. There he remained for the rest of his life, enjoying friendships and musical exchanges with D’Indy, Dukas and Debussy. He also opened up the way for other Spanish composers to come to France and find success there—figures such as Joaquín Turina and Manuel de Falla.

At the turn of the twentieth century the most eminent Spanish composer working outside Spain was Albéniz. Striking a perfect balance between incomparable compositional technique and an unmistakably Spanish idiom, his music was the result of a long journey, from his early years as a virtuoso pianist, to the time he had spent studying and acquiring the technical and theoretical knowledge that enabled him years later to concentrate on his creative activity.

It was in the late 1880s that the transformation from virtuoso performer to composer took place. His career can be divided into three distinct phases: the first (the focus of this album) is closely associated with his success as a performer and centres around attractive, colourful salon music; in the second phase his primary source of inspiration was Spanish folk music; and in the third and final phase, influenced by late Romanticism and Impressionism, he achieved his mature and most personal style, melding all the various strands of his earlier years.

Albéniz’s catalogue is vast and wide-ranging, comprising operas, zarzuelas, vocal pieces and concertos and other orchestral works, although many of these have been overshadowed by the music for which he is best known: his piano works, in particular the suite Iberia (1905–08), his crowning achievement in the field. In simplified terms, one might say that Albéniz put into practice—and disseminated around the world—the theories advocated by his compatriot Felipe Pedrell in his writings.

The première of the Siete estudios en los tonos naturales mayores (Seven studies in the natural major keys) took place in the Spring of 1886. Each study is in a different key, arranged in ascending fifths (C, G, D, A, E, B and F), and the cover page includes the words ‘primera serie’ (first series), suggesting that Albéniz may have intended to write more, perhaps based on the black keys of the piano, or on the natural minor keys. The work’s underlying structure calls to mind the tonal series of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier or Chopin’s Preludes. The studies make considerable technical demands on the performer and are in no way mere mechanical exercises devoid of expression or musicality—on the contrary they anticipate the later Albéniz, a composer capable of intertwining the purest Spanish tradition with that of Central Europe. The set was dedicated to his fellow student José Tragó and to Jesús Monasterio.

The key signatures he uses in Les Saisons (The Seasons, 1892), are closely related to one another: A major for Spring, D major for Summer, A minor for Autumn and D minor for Winter. The work was first published in London in 1892 under the title Album of Miniatures, with four subheadings of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. The Parisian publisher Girod changed the original name to Les Saisons for the French edition. Each of the four numbers provides a brief but evocative portrait of the season in question, and the set can be seen as a forerunner of the impressionistic writing that would soon appear in French music.

According to Jacinto Torres, the Rapsodia cubana (Cuban Rhapsody) was composed in 1881 and given its première by Albéniz himself at the Avellaneda Theatre in Havana, as part of a concert he gave with fellow pianist Manuel Jiménez. The score was first issued in 1886 by Antonio Romero, one of Albéniz’s principal publishers throughout his career. Written in G major, this is a very lively, lighthearted piece, and blends to perfection Caribbean rhythms with an agile, virtuoso technique.

The Suite antigua No.1 is made up of two movements: Gavota and Minuetto. It was written in 1885 and first performed a year later, again by the composer, at the Círculo de la Unión Mercantil e Industrial in Madrid. The suite is dedicated to his pupil Trinidad Scholtz de Hermensdorff. The Gavota is divided into two sections, the first is martial in character, the second lyrical and expressive, and the two follow on from one another in Lied form. The Minuetto is in A flat major and, together with the Gavota, was sold to Carlo Ducci, the publisher to whom Albéniz ceded his UK rights in 1889.

The printed edition of the Scherzo (1884) shows it as belonging to the Sonata in A flat, although no trace of the remaining movements has survived. The Scherzo was dedicated to Guillermo de Morphy, secretary to Alfonso XII and one of Albéniz’s greatest advocates and patrons. Its first part is characterized by breathtaking power and energy, its second by lyricism and cantabile melodies.

The Dos mazurcas de salón (Two Salon Mazurkas)—Amalia and Ricordati (Remember)—can be categorized as part of the late nineteenth-century trend for salon music, a genre that encompassed all the romanzas, serenatas, mazurkas, waltzes and endless other short pieces that made up the repertoire of the virtuoso performer who also gave lessons to well-born young ladies. Published by Benito Zozaya in 1888, Amalia was dedicated to Albéniz’s pupil Amalia Loring de Silvela and Ricordati to his wife Rosa Jordana.

L’Automne-Valse (The Autumn Waltz) is another salon piece, printed by Manuel Salvat and published in Spain by Puyol in 1890 (as Albéniz’s Opus 170) and, that same year, in London by Stanley Weber, Lucas & Company. It has a tripartite structure, with each of its three sections in a different key; to this, the composer added a chromatic introduction and a coda that revisits material from the different sections. Albéniz later orchestrated the work for concerts organized by his friend Tomás Bretón.

Julio Molina García
Musicologist and piano student of Juan José Mudarra

English translation by Susannah Howe

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