About this Recording
8.573779 - ALBÉNIZ, I.: Piano Music, Vol. 8 (R. Laiz) - Mallorca / Piano Sonata No. 4 / Rapsodia española (version for piano)
English  Spanish 

Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909)
Piano Music • 8

 

Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual was born in the small town of Camprodón in north-eastern Spain. A brief half-century of life (he died shortly before his 49th birthday) was enough for him to establish a reputation as one of the greatest Spanish composers of all time and a figure who is key to our understanding of western classical music at the turn of the 20th century. However, his early life on the road, his tendency to invent aspects of his life story for reasons of self-promotion and, until a few decades ago, a lack of academic rigour in musicological studies have combined to create a distorted image of the composer of Iberia, and to prevent us, until now, from getting a full picture of his creative output. The work of Walter A. Clark and, above all, Jacinto Torres, has shed light on the true nature and significance of his music (which merits further attention and recognition), progress to which this collection also hopes to contribute.

Brief periods spent in education in Madrid and Brussels, and the influence of the so-called ‘father of Spanish musical nationalism’, Felipe Pedrell, were enough for this musician of innate genius to set off on a journey—in both life and music—of no return, one that would transform Spanish music and piano music for ever. That journey can be divided into three distinct phases, taking Albéniz from the comfortable world of salon music, where there was money to be made from a constant demand for new works, via a period of nationalist leanings and memories of his homeland to the years in which he pushed music to its then known limits and established the foundations on which all the great Spanish composers of the 20th century would later build.

Albéniz took his first steps as a composer in the 1880s, when much of his time was still devoted to touring as a virtuoso pianist. Many of his early works have no great stylistic ambition, revealing the various influences of the Romantic salon, his beloved Chopin and Liszt, and the music of the 18th century. What would gradually become more significant was the influence of folk music, particularly after his studies with Pedrell, whose lessons (which the latter recalled in his diary as being more like ‘conversations’) encouraged him to follow a path towards a genuine nationalist awareness. All the works on this album were written in the 1880s; most were conceived as salon pieces, dedicated to pupils, friends and patrons, and were composed in free forms—capriccios, barcarolles, minuets, pavanes, waltzes and romanzas. Albéniz’s melodic lines are clear and inventive, supported by accompaniments that have no need of superfluous virtuosity or empty grandiloquence. All these new compositions added to the already extraordinary repertoire on which he drew at the countless concerts he gave in Spain and further afield, enabling him to alternate his own music with masterpieces by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. While we cannot yet speak in terms of a ‘nationalist’ phase, it is certainly the case that those of the works here that adopt a more personal and characteristically Spanish profile are those that have enjoyed the greatest popularity ever since.

Albéniz’s four-movement Sonata No. 4 (c. 1886) reveals his early taste for Chopin-influenced Classical style. The Allegro’s impulsive, highly rhythmic opening is characterised by the repetition of rapid chords accompanying the melody. The fugal Scherzo is the most unusual of the four movements, with a staccato motif in the left hand which ends up inundating the entire movement; the delightful and openly Romantic Minuetto has melodies filled with arabesques which, despite its name, turn this into the sonata’s slow movement. The Rondó provides a breathtaking finale—an energetic, Lisztian movement, with passages of great virtuosity, prominent fortissimo chords and rapid ornamentation, with contrast provided by intricate moments in the minor.

The Minuetto in G minor (c.1886) is an unusual work, despite its modest scope and limited pretensions. Whether because he wrote various works or movements with the same name, or thanks to some confusion over dates, this short piece became camouflaged among other similar pieces to the point of ‘vanishing’ from the Albéniz catalogue. It was only published a few decades ago, when it appeared alongside nine other works in a collection entitled Dix pièces en recueil. A simple but utterly charming work, with its form and inspiration make it a dual homage to Chopin.

Mallorca (c. 1887) is a musical vignette of the island on which the great Polish composer spent the winter of 1839. There is great uncertainty about its date of composition, which different scholars have placed at anywhere between 1883 and 1890. Whenever it was written, this work can be seen as the bridge to Albéniz’s second compositional phase, given its use of novel rhythmic material, though it is still built on recognisably Romantic melodic foundations. Subtitled ‘barcarola’, it begins with an impassioned melody in the minor that then leads into a light, yearning central section in the major, whose questioning nature is reinforced by an offbeat accompaniment, before a return to the opening section. The composer’s nephew Víctor Ruiz Albéniz has said that Mallorca meant so much to his uncle that when his friend Enrique Granados came to see him on his deathbed, he asked him to play it so that he could hear it one last time.

The Suite ancienne No. 2 (1886) comprises two dances of contrasting character: a slow and stately, almost majestic Sarabande that exudes melancholy and tranquillity in equal measure, and a Chaconne, brighter but in the same tranquil tone, elegant in atmosphere and featuring a delightful central section in the major.

The next three pieces are united by their simple ternary form and by their inspired melodies underpinned by typically Romantic harmonic accompaniment. Barcarola (c.1884) is aesthetically reminiscent of Chopin and has the same echoes of the lilting gondoliers’ song form as Mallorca; Angustia (‘Anguish’, c. 1886) is subtitled ‘Romanza sin palabras’ (‘Song without words’), in a clear tribute to Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte; and Pavana-capricho (1882), a very popular piece in its day, with its original opening trill, is a free-form caprice.

The Rapsodia española (1886) was originally written for two pianos, but the composer soon adapted it for solo piano (this less well-known version is the one performed here), in addition to asking his friend Tomás Bretón to orchestrate the work. Influenced by Liszt’s work of the same name, and despite its Romantic conception, it is steeped in the rhythms of Spanish music, with other typically Hispanic characteristics as well, bringing us closer to Albéniz’s second compositional phase. A free, elegantly sweeping introduction, distinguished by a certain deeprooted nostalgia, acts as a refrain from which unfurl a series of dances: the petenera, a genre that was thought to bring bad luck to its performers; the jota, with its characteristic triplet rhythm and gradual crescendo; the malagueña, here labelled a ‘Juan Breva malagueña’ (Breva, 1844–1918, was one of the greatest flamenco performers of all time), a genre of which Albéniz was particularly fond; and the estudiantina, a joyful and explosive high point—the title is a reference to the serenading groups of students who, dressed to the nines, would wander the streets, accompanying themselves on various lute-type stringed instruments. A brief coda, marked Presto, again with Lisztian echoes and complex, high-flying motifs, brings this dazzling work to an end.

In this album, therefore, pianist Miguel Ángel R. Laiz brings together many of Albéniz’s early works, all dating from the 1880s, a decade during which the composer blended his initial Romantic influences with his first forays into the world of Spain’s folk traditions—a significant stage in his life’s journey in search of the quintessence of Spanish music.

Francisco Javier Malpica and Miguel Ángel R. Laiz
Translation: Susannah Howe


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