About this Recording
8.574072 - ALBÉNIZ, I.: Vocal Works (Llamas, Gonzalez)
English  Spanish 

Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909)
Complete Works for Voice and Piano

 

Tritó’s 1998 edition of Isaac Albéniz’s complete works for solo voice and piano, overseen by pianist Antón Cardó and musicologist Jacinto Torres, turned out to be both inspiring and full of surprises. It also, to some extent at least, put paid to the myth that Iberia, the crowning work of his production, came into being through spontaneous generation.

Albéniz successfully combines tradition and modernity in his songs, by making new and original use of existing compositional techniques: polyphony, flat keys denoting introspection, unexpected cadences, enharmonics and chromaticism bordering on atonality, and so on, all of which he treats in a very personal and innovative style.

The turning point in Albéniz’s production occurred in 1895–96, the point at which he wrote La vega for piano and his three operas, Henry Clifford, Pepita Jiménez and Merlin. The early French and English songs with which we have chosen to begin this recording also date from these years. Albéniz’s move from Spain to London, and then Paris, his experience of living in a more cosmopolitan environment, the patronage of Francis Burdett Money-Coutts—which enabled him to devote himself exclusively to composition—personal maturity and the acquisition of a formidable set of technical skills: all these factors worked together to bring about the leap in quality of his songwriting.

From these works onwards, Albéniz ceased to follow the traditional song pattern, instead treating the voice as if it were an instrument within an ensemble: in some passages it is the soloist, in others it recites, in others it accompanies, with a trace of it still being heard in the lengthy piano codas. Profound and melancholy, like much of the rest of his work, Albéniz’s songs do not simply seek to please, which is something they have in common with those of his great friend Fauré. If we were to paraphrase what Antonio Enrique has written about Spanish mystic and poet St John of the Cross, we might say of Albéniz that he ‘is not a peaceful composer, nor can it be said, strictly speaking, that his music brings peace. If, on the other hand, his music reflects pure harmony, it does so by balancing the tensions that run throughout its length and breadth.’¹

Chanson de Barberine, which sets a text by Alfred de Musset, is the song that marks the transition from Albéniz’s earlier phase to the great flowering of his maturity. Characteristically French in flavour, with an air of mystery and nostalgia, it flows along, and modulates in the central section, in simple, natural style.

The two songs to texts by Pierre Loti, Crépuscule and Tristesse, belong to a later period; both capture Loti’s prose writing remarkably effectively, and are full of intensity and drama. The opening of the first song is prayer-like, with a rapturous piano accompaniment—this is followed by an imitative passage for voice and piano, before the piece draws to its unexpected (textual and musical) ending. In Tristesse, one of the most significant songs in the collection, Albéniz uses long phrases whose chromaticism leads tonality almost to the point of dissolution, while his contrapuntal writing represents a restrained but powerfully intense and sorrowful vital impulse.

Il en est de l’amour reveals an increasingly rich, independent and polyphonic pianistic style, but with no loss of awareness of the role played by the lyrics and the voice. After a somewhat disquieting and warmly modulating recapitulation, a simple, evocative coda brings calm and a farewell of gentle elegance.

In the set entitled To Nellie, composed in 1896 to poems by Albéniz’s prolific patron Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, we find musicality, instrumental richness, lyrical facility, originality and invention. The nostalgic Home borders on perfection—the overall harmony that emerges from its apparently unfocused flow, its ease of expression, subtle harmonic changes and delayed resolutions make it a song of particular sincerity, especially the central section, which is a miracle of musical instinct, tenderness and expressiveness. Counsel is an example of expressive efficacy and simplicity. It is restrained, with reminiscences of plainchant, and polyphonic, with voice and piano constantly imitating one another. The delightful May Day Song, full of life and happiness, flows pleasingly along thanks to the contrapuntal play between the two instruments. The vocal line in the tranquil, melancholic To Nellie follows the text faithfully, accompanied by an imitative piano line whose syncopated rhythm adds vitality. In A Song of Consolation the voice conveys a text of sorrow and hope presented, in very unusual fashion, in a single 24-bar phrase and 3-bar coda. The moto perpetuo semiquavers in the piano’s right hand contrast with the bass notes that interrupt the rhythm, and a strange but highly imaginative harmonic and melodic development. The result is a spectacular example of songwriting. The last piece in the set, A Song (Love comes to all!), requires real virtuosity from the pianist, with writing that is full of contrast, direct and modulating. At times the piano cedes its leading role to the voice, but only to reclaim it straightaway.

Art thou gone for ever, Elaine?, it too written in a single phrase, is a highly expressive piece—moving, introspective and beautiful. It tells its unhappy tale without interruption and the emotion expressed through the music is so pure that nothing must disturb it. A Song (Laugh at loving) was left unfinished, but we have chosen to include it because of its unexpected moments, bold harmonies and rich colour palette. Will You Be Mine? is simple, direct and syncopated, with subtle harmonic changes and delightful counterpoint between the voice and piano. Voice and piano alternate in Separated! until the extended, chromatic central section. The tension is broken with a marking of subito piano for both lines, a device that Albéniz would use frequently in the years to come. In The Caterpillar a Gregorian melodic line portrays the slowly moving creature. Albéniz is in his element in a song very reminiscent of Iberia. The song ends with an English-style coda. Direct and surprising, The Gifts of the Gods is another song rich in contrast. It has a recitative-style vocal line, while the piano austerely sings the melody it has set out in the opening bars.

Albéniz’s last four songs (Quatre Mélodies) were dedicated to Gabriel Fauré, with lyrics again by Money- Coutts. Written in the final two years of his life (1908–09), they are contemporaries of Iberia, and are among the composer’s finest songs, thanks to his bold use of harmony, rhythm and counterpoint. His supple handling of the major and minor modes stems from his understanding of Spanish folk music and its close ties to the liturgical music of the Catholic Church. The four songs together form a whole: they share the same pulse, as if this were a symphony. They begin and end with the same phrase, have a restricted dynamic range (ppp to mf), and use flat keys to convey greater introspection and a sense of expressive austerity.

The voice plays a role as rich as it is austere, both essential and noble, acting as a pedal in the recitatives, but also generating intensity and leading the drama. A singer needs much more than just a beautiful voice to meet such a challenge.

The five Spanish songs setting what were then recently published poems by the Romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer are Albéniz’s first works in this genre.

The Seis baladas (‘Six Italian Songs’), with texts by the Italian-born Marquesa de Bolaños, an influential member of Madrid’s aristocracy, reveal greater maturity and the influence of bel canto. Although the accompaniment is traditional, the contrapuntal piano writing hints at the path Albéniz was soon to follow.

Magdalena Llamas and Guillermo González
English translation: Susannah Howe

¹ Antonio Enrique: Concierto poético para San Juan de la Cruz


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