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American Record Guide, August 2008

Ernesto Halffter (1905-89) wrote music in the shadow of Manuel de Falla and didn't much care. He always considered himself a student of Falla despite his own reputation in Spain in the 20th Century. Yet if we look closely at this two-disc collection of Halffter's piano music, we can also see that he was a devoted student of Scarlatti as well as Chopin. The Scarlatti aspect shows in the sonatas. They're meditative and precise in execution (though nonetheless unabashedly romantic). The Chopin influence shows up in a gentleness, a kind of softness of technique (here ably done by pianist Guillermo Gonzalez). Even when the music is so clearly Cuban, as in Dos Piezas Cubanas or Portuguese-inspired, as in Serenata a Dulcinea, you can hear Chopin's aplomb riding through it all. (My goodness, how refreshing it is to hear 20th Century piano music that isn't pounded, thrashed, or slammed!)

The Homages here are to Scarlatti, Chopin, Turina, Mompou, and to the composer's brother Rudolfo who died in 1987. Most are short and will melt your heart. Suite de las Doncellas is the original piano version of a ballet suite that Halffter wrote in 1928 called Sonatina. It's clearly Spanish, and Scarlatti's ghost is everywhere. Still, it's a gentle, coherent work that, while appearing not too difficult to play, is delivered with extraordinary sympathy and skill. The collection concludes with Tres Piezas Infantiles written in 1923 (the composer was then 17) for four hands. Each of these miniatures is around a minute long; they are in the Satie or Poulenc mold. This is another Naxos triumph and should be in anyone's library of 20th Century piano music.

David L. Kirk
Fanfare, June 2008

Guillermo González, born in Tenerife, is a distinguished pianist who has been recording Spanish repertoire for Naxos; I greatly enjoyed his recent two-CD set of Ernesto Halffter's piano music. Now, almost a decade after recording Iberia, he has produced a second volume of the music of Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909).

This is an interestingly programmed recital, consisting of an early work (the seven-movement suite Recuerdos de viaje of 1886/7) and several works written after Albéniz had settled in Paris.

Of the latter, La Vega is the most intriguing. Intended as the first movement of an orchestral work, it was never scored, remaining instead in the form of a 15-minute fantasia for piano. Beginning with a plaintive, halting melody over a simple ostinato, it progresses through some technically tricky passages to build to a barnstorming climax (particularly in this performance), and then reverts to a calm, untroubled close. With its Debussyan textures and sweeping rhapsodic form, La vega suggests the great movements of Iberia still to come, and is in some ways even more avant-garde for its time (1897).

The Recuardos definitely belong in the 19th century. Too virtuosic to be regarded as salon music, these picturesque pieces were among the composer's earliest attempts to capture the essence of his native country. The suite includes a bolero, a malagueña, an alborada, and two barcarolles among its movements. At this time of his life, Albéniz was renowned as a concert pianist, so inevitably the work reflects the masters he would have been performing: Chopin and, in the glittering filigree decoration, Liszt. Occasionally, as in the malagueña "Rumores de la caleta" or the Alborada, a particularly Spanish thematic or rhythmic figure will suggest the direction Albéniz took later on, but most of this suite is straightforward in a prettified way; pleasantly superficial in comparison to the later masterpieces, and lacking their melodic inspiration and earthiness.

By the time of the two Souvenirs of Espagne (1896/97), the composer had become less concerned with showcasing his own pianistic prowess and more interested in tone-painting. These works display a delicacy rarely present in the earlier suite. Finally, we have two incomplete pieces from the year of the composer's death: Azulejos, which was to have been the prelude to a new suite, and Navarra. The former was completed and premiered by Granados. The latter, rounded off, as it were, by the composer's French pupil Deodat de Séverac, is often played as an additional movement to the Iberia collection, and has been recorded many times. It is tremendously challenging to play accurately (and was, in fact, the piece that convinced me my childhood dream of becoming another Horowitz was precisely that).

González plays with passion, bringing out the music's warmth. He is up against formidable competition in the late works: La vega, Espagne, and Navarra have all been recorded by Marc­Andre Hamelin, as fillers to his complete Iberia on Hyperion. Hamelin makes something sophisticated and poetic out of La vega; I prefer him in that work. Yet, while his superhuman ability to terrace dynamics stands him in good stead with Albéniz, not to mention his fluent technique and attention to detail, Hamelin's intrinsic coolness leaves you wanting more fire. His version of Navarra sports a recent, more elaborate conclusion by William Bolcom. Many critics prefer it. I still go for de Séverac's brusque ending, although it's rather thrown away by González. Alicia de Larrocha slams it out like a petulant stamp of the foot. She remains supreme in this piece, but González has his considerable strengths nonetheless. His bright piano is closely recorded in the house style.

On the basis of the above issue, this should prove to be another rewarding series from Naxos.

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, January 2008

Adam Kent plays with warmth and is well recorded, but for my money Guillermo González has the edge in this repertoire. There is a dash more Iberian sunshine to his tone and greater panache to his attack. …Naxos’s piano sound is intimate and clear; one of their better recordings I think. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, January 2008

First of all let’s sort out our Halffters. They are all Spanish but of German extraction, based mostly in Madrid. As well as Ernesto - under review here - there is also his brother Rodolfo (1900-1987), a disc of whose orchestral music is available in the Naxos Spanish Music series. Then we come to Cristóbal Halffter (b. 1930), nephew of the above men and composer of challenging avant-garde music.

Ernesto is probably the best known. ASV brought out a disc of his orchestral music in 2000 (ASV DCA1078) conducted by Adrian Leaper. That disc was part of my preparation for this review. This allowed me to hear Ernesto’s the probably most performed work of his – the Sinfonietta (1925). It’s a student work like some of these piano pieces, written when he was hardly out of his teens. He was a bit of child prodigy and has been writing music seriously since he was about thirteen.

Another striking thing about the lovely Sinfonietta is that it mixes nationalistic Spanish-sounding melodies and rhythms with a strain of neo-classicism. This should be no surprise when one considers, as we are informed in the extensive booklet notes by Andres Ruiz Tarazona, that Halffter was, to quote the composer himself, “just a pupil of Manuel de Falla”. He also studied with Stravinsky during the 1920s at about the time of the master’s ‘Pulcinella’ ballet and other neo-classical works. He was a pupil of Ravel which would explain his lush orchestration and, with regard to this disc, his efficacious use of the piano. The works under consideration here are a happy mix of ‘de Falla’ influence and Stravinsky inspiration. So let’s take a few choice examples, first the nationalist ones.

A title like ‘L’espagnolade’ is obviously a give-away as is the equally Hispanic ‘Dos piezas cubanas’. They almost out-Falla Falla. Contrast this with a work with a title like ‘Sonata per pianoforte’ which you would expect to be neo-classical. Actually it’s not quite as easy as that because what makes Halffter’s musical language unusual is the way in which he mixes the styles. The best example is the longest work on the set the ‘Suite de las Doncellas’. This is a ballet originally scored for orchestra and curiously entitled ‘Sonatina’(again a possible neo-classical influence) but here heard for the first time in its piano version. It comprises seven movements which mix Spanish titles like ‘Danza de la gitana’ and ‘Fandango’ with classical dances ‘Rigaudon’ and ‘Giga’; Spanish dances alongside classical forms.

The very first work on disc ’Crepusculos’ is, in a way, the most intriguing. It divides into three movements. The first one I have returned to more often than anything else on these discs. It inhabits a dark and mysterious nocturnal world of uncertain tonality and fascinating piano textures. It seems to me to lie within the world of Ravel – a world which he obviously knew so well - especially in works such as ‘Gaspard de la nuit’.

Halffter is fond of paying homage to various composers. He never attempts a pastiche of their work but almost adds a layer as if he is attempting to penetrate their characters as well. It’s especially interesting to hear the ‘Homenaje de Rodolfo Halffter’, written soon after his brother’s death. It’s full of anger, passion and Hispanic beauty. The homage to Chopin begins with a reminiscence of the great master. After that, but with much lyricism, it goes off on its own course of gentle obeisance. There is also homage to fellow Spaniard, Federico Mompou. There is also a separate work ‘Preludio y danza’ which is a better homage, I think, as it uses a title and form which Mompou used throughout his long composing life. Domenico Scarlatti is also recollected in the form of a flashy sonata. He is remembered  not only as a composer of the classical period but also one who lived for almost the whole of his working life with the Spanish Royal family. Finally we hear a little trio of simple pieces (Piezas infantiles) in which González is joined by his wife - four hands at the piano.

The music has not been presented chronologically. I am not sure why. There would still have been considerable variety from track to track even if they had.

It is impossible to fault Guillermo González or the recording venue, but of course I have no score and had no prior knowledge of the music. As far I can tell he is clear in his musical intentions and note perfect. He has crisp tone and on the opposite side, a fine legato touch where necessary.

This set has given me great pleasure over the weeks I have been listening to it and will no doubt continue to do so. I adore Spanish music but here there is a unique variety from track to track. Everything about it is beautifully presented.

Jed Distler, October 2007

Although Ernesto Halffter's modest yet well-crafted piano output is best sampled in small doses, it's useful to have it bundled together in one release. There's little I can add to David Hurwitz's succinct comments about the music itself in his review of Adam Kent's complete Halffter cycle on Bridge (type Q4639 in Search Reviews). Guillermo González's Naxos cycle actually is "completer" than complete, and spills over onto a second disc. Disc 1 contains all of Halffter's original piano works, while Disc 2 features piano arrangements of the entire ballet Sonatina, Pasodoble, Panaderos, and Boleras de la Cachucha, plus the tiny Tres piezas infantiles for piano duet. For the record, González omits El Cuco, a work Halffter wrote when he was six that Kent transcribed from the elderly composer's own performance on tape.

In the main, González's performances are a shade slower and are more generalized in detail than Kent's leaner, more incisive, rhythmically taut traversals. This particularly holds true for dance pieces such as Marche Joyeuse and L'espagnolade. Kent also imbues the three late Homages (works that González premiered) with a lighter, more fluid touch. However, González's hotheaded, impulsive dynamic surges vivify the two Sonatas quite differently than does Kent's buttoned-down, carefully thought-out fingerwork. Naxos' bright, slightly twangy sonics (more amplitude in the bass would have helped) suit the music well enough.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2007

Born in Madrid in 1905, Ernesto Halffter's early interest in music was welcomed and financially supported by his family, as they had also given to his elder brother, Rodolfo. Ernesto studied piano at the Colegio Aleman in Madrid, but it soon became evident he was a gifted composer, his piano teacher, Fernando Ember, giving the first performance of the teenager's music. He was just seventeen when he composed Crepusculos, premiered by Ember at Madrid's Ritz Hotel in 1922, those opening tracks on the first of the two discs chronicling his piano output through his life to the Homenaje a Joaquin Turina composed in July 1988, the year before he died at the age of 84. He had added some of the most significant music to the 20th century Spanish repertoire, though much of his inspiration came from the time he spent in Paris where he met and worked with the group known as Les Six. Poulenc, Auric and Milhaud had a particular effect on his style of composition, the sheer craftsmanship of his writing evident though he was often working without memorable melodic invention. At his most outgoing - Dos piezas cubanas a perfect example - there is a ready wit and an instantly likeable score, and when he does find a good tune, as in the Boleras de la Cachucha, he certainly knows how to work it. He seems most happy when working in cameos, the responsibility of writing more extended pieces, such as the Sonata, weighing heavily on his sense of responsibility to produce something of magnitude and importance. The second disc opens with a world premiere recording of the Suite de las Doncellas, the piano score that became the ballet, Sonatina, first seen in Madrid in 1928 when Halffter was 23. The suite consists of seven dances owing much to Manuel de Falla's El amor brujo and the musical world of Scarlatti, and ending with an extended and vivacious dance, the work making significant demands on the performer's technique. The discs come full circle with Tre piezas infantiles the three pieces for four hands lasting little more than two minutes and a work of his young years. The distinguished pianist, Guillermo Gonzales, has been responsible for a number of world premiere performances of Ernesto's works, and knows his way around this music both technically and spiritually. I suppose these will become benchmark recordings, the sound quality, apart from some vibration in the upper octaves, being most attractive. The programme notes are highly detailed and are admirable.

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