About this Recording
8.573295 - ALBÉNIZ, I.: Piano Music, Vol. 6 (Sacristán) - España / Deseo / Arbola-pian, zortzico / Yvonne en visite
English  Spanish 

Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909)
Piano Music • 6


Isaac Albéniz was born in 1860 in Camprodón, in the Catalan province of Gerona, and died in the French spa town of Cambo-les-Bains in 1909. A child prodigy, he matured into a composer respected by the most significant musicians of the day—figures such as Fauré, Debussy, Dukas and Ravel, who were also close friends of his. He studied at the conservatories of Madrid, Leipzig and Brussels (the latter thanks to a grant from the Spanish government), but the key influence on his career as a composer came from Felipe Pedrell, who encouraged him to write music with a nationalist character. Despite not having studied in any field other than that of music, Albéniz was an erudite man, who spoke several languages fluently and took a lively interest in politics and philosophy.

Albéniz happily publicized certain aspects of his life, and told many an anecdote of his youthful escapades: the times he ran away from home, his perilous journeys to the Americas as a stowaway, and so on. So eventful a life was it, that several films have been made about him. In his book Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic, however, Walter Aaron Clark debunks a number of these stories as tall tales.

Albéniz’s compositions can be divided into three clearly differentiated periods, which roughly correspond with the last three decades of his life, and in all of which his instrument, the piano, was a major presence. The first phase comprises both his salon music and zarzuelas and his first recognised nationalist works; the second is dominated by his stage music, although it also includes piano works such as La vega (a forerunner of his masterpiece Iberia); and the third is primarily about his piano music, with Iberia at its heart. His conceptually innovative piano music has earned its own place in the international repertoire, a position underlined by the thousands of recordings that have been made of his works and their publication by more than forty different publishers. Although many of his pieces are still unfamiliar to the general public, the popularity of Iberia and, above all, some of his shorter nationalist works, has grown enormously, thanks in part to the fact that they have been given a wider hearing in their adaptations for guitar, even though Albéniz never actually wrote anything for that instrument.

The early salon music of Albéniz, until very recently consigned to neglect, is now being rediscovered; these works reveal how the young composer was already starting to use the central elements that would characterize his mature piano works. Some of them are more inclined to employ repetition than development and are imbued with the ambience of late nineteenth-century Madrid, but they are full of charm and deserve to be better known. Many of these pieces formed the basic repertoire of the concerts he gave as a performer in the 1880s and 1890s, and were widely acclaimed at the time. These early works owe much to Chopin, but the influence of other composers, such as Schumann and Weber and, later, Debussy, can also be heard.

Albéniz took inspiration from traditional rhythmic and melodic materials, but made them his own rather than quoting them in their original form. He often alludes to flamenco cante (song), toque (solo guitar music) and baile (dance) and alternates rhythmic sections with other more melodic passages that suggest the verses or coplas of flamenco.

All the works on this album come from Albéniz’s first compositional phase, with the exception of Yvonne en visite!, a later, post-Iberia work.

Vals Champagne (Champagne waltz; published in 1887) is a salon work whose dazzling writing reveals the clear influence of Chopin. Delicate passages alternate with others of great power in which the piano’s resources are fully exploited.

The Tango español is written in habanera rhythm, and is really more a tango-habanera. Its first section is lively, with hints of flamenco guitar and stamping, while the central section is more sensitive and melodic.

Deseo: Estudio de concierto (Desire: Concert study), written in around 1885 and dedicated to Albéniz’s wife, is a study that rivals Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes in its virtuosity. It uses a wide range of the piano, and its central section provides a contrast in intensity with the rest of the piece.

España: Seis hojas de álbum (Spain: Six Album Leaves) is a set of short pieces published in London in 1890. Albéniz wrote a number of suites such as this one which, although not as difficult as Iberia, conjures up Spain in its rhythms, harmonies and sense of drama. The fanfare-like Preludio introduces the dances that follow and features the basic elements of flamenco: song, dance and guitar accompaniment. Its triplet passages herald what is to come in the Malagueña. The Tango is Albéniz’s best-known work, and has been transcribed many times for other instruments. Its rhythm is closer to that of the habanera than the Argentinean tango, and it bears no relation to the flamenco genre of the same name. It boasts a wealth of harmonies and a tranquil, sensual character. The Malagueña contains more allusions to flamenco, with touches of cante in the melismatic melodies of its central section. The Serenata is a fragmented piece in which staccato passages alternate with an intermittent waltz. There are echoes of Scarlatti at the start, and sevillanas dance rhythms in the central section. The Capricho catalán is one of the few Albéniz compositions associated with his native Catalonia. It is a very attractive piece with a constant syncopated rhythm in the accompaniment which rocks the curving melodic line built on thirds. The closing Zortzico is one of two such pieces Albéniz wrote, based on the Basque folk-dance of that name, with its characteristic 5/8 time signature. Its subtle writing pays homage to a place in which he performed on many occasions and was always warmly welcomed.

Recuerdos (Memories) is a challenging mazurka, influenced by Chopin, which constantly switches between the Romantic and the Spanish style.

Tercer minueto (Third Minuet) is a dance with a rhythmic opening and a central section of subtle beauty in which the influence of Schumann can be heard.

The Pavana fácil para manos pequeñas (Easy pavane for small hands) was published in 1887 as a didactic piece. Not immediately recognisable as Albéniz’s work, it is nonetheless an attractive work whose charm lies in its melodic simplicity and contrapuntal style.

Zortzico is the second 5/8 Basque dance, dating from approximately 1891, and is notable for its chromatic writing, as well as its characteristic rhythm.

The little-known Mazurca de salón was published in 1887. It is written in Romantic style, although there are nationalist elements in its central section.

The Minueto is the only surviving movement from Albéniz’s Sonata No. 7, which was composed in around 1888. Although he was already writing nationalist music at this time, there are no such elements in this piece. He became known as the greatest Spanish composer of sonatas since Soler.

Yvonne en visite! (A visit from Yvonne!) dates from around 1908, and is cast in two movements: La révérence (The curtsey) and Joyeuse rencontre et quelques pénibles événements (Joyful meeting and some painful events). Despite being a childlike piece full of humour, innocence and imagination, it is far from easy to perform. The first movement is short and reflective, with echoes of the Impressionist style so prevalent at the time. The second is programmatic, its writing more modern, making great use of contrast, and with echoes of Iberia. In it Albéniz displays his sense of humour as he depicts his young pupil Yvonne Guidé, instructed by her mother to play the piano during a visit, struggling to get through the music, while her increasingly annoyed parent threatens her with exercises from Hanon. He annotated the score in the style of Erik Satie, his last comment reading “I don’t know if this will be understood”.

Marcha militar is Albéniz’s earliest work, composed when he was eight years old, and is dedicated to the Viscount del Bruch. It is a simple but charming military-style piece.

Santiago L. Sacristán
English translation by Susannah Howes

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