Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Phillip Scott
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.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, February 2008

As a performer, Albéniz was a musical prodigy. His first public appearance as a pianist was made at the age of four - dressed, apparently, in Scottish costume! - playing duets with his seven year old sister Clementina, before an excited audience. As a youngster he made his way around Spain giving impromptu recitals (and watching the bull-fights he loved). He had many adventures in both Spain and Southern America – or so we are told – as an improbably youthful touring pianist. He entertained American audiences by playing - sometimes with crossed hands - with his back turned to the keyboard!

For all the wealth of his own early history as a performer and his exposure to a huge variety of musical experiences, Albéniz was actually relatively slow to find his real voice as a composer. Much of his early work for piano might, if one is honest, be confused with the salon pieces of many other ultimately lesser composers. Quite rightly, this second disc Naxos series of his (complete?) piano music, mixes the relative slightness of his early work with the full splendour of his considerable later achievement. Of course in a life which, as a serious composer, was little more than twenty five years long, terms such as ‘early’ and ‘late’ are pretty relative. But that his music matured enormously during that period – and that it might well have gone on to even greater heights but for his early death – is surely undeniable.

On the present disc the Recuerdos de viaje are ‘early’ works; the seven pieces which make up this musical album of images from the composer’s travels (real or imagined) are, if truth be told, fairly slight for the most part. The booklet notes by Montserrat Bergadá refer to the Recuerdos as “a miscellaneous collection in the form of postcards”, and that gets it about right. They incorporate some Spanish elements, but their essential musical idiom belongs in the tradition of Central European romantic pianism. The results are pretty but slight, music which doesn’t offer very much nourishment after a few hearings. This is superior salon music; several of the pieces became ‘hits’ on pianola rolls. The most memorable pieces are perhaps the mildly infectious bolero ‘Puerto de tierra’, and ‘Rumores de la caleta’ – an engaging malagueña.

The other, later, pieces on the disc offer far more musical substance. Especially fine is La Vega, a long and truly poetic nocturne, tonally adventurous, full of sophisticated polyphonic writing. The American writer and photographer Carl van Vechten wrote (in his 1926 book Excavations) that in this piece “the composer evoked the spirit of the plain of Granada, lying tranquil under the high stars, sleeping to the murmur of brooks and to the soft sweep of the breeze over the gardens and groves of blooming orange trees” and that doesn’t seem an inappropriately fanciful response to a lovely, subtle, suggestive piece, beautifully played here by Guillermo González.

Also very  fine and interesting are the two pieces left unfinished at Albéniz’s death, and written (after Albéniz’ masterpiece Iberia) during his final illness: Azaluejos and Navarra. Azaluejos (the title refers to a kind of glazed tile) was completed by Granados – perhaps with a bit too much self indulgence and a certain lack of the subtlety that Albéniz himself might have brought to the task; Navarra was left only a few bars short of completion and was completed with less self-indulgence! by Déodat de Séverac. Both offer tantalising hints of the music we might have been treated to post-Iberia had Albéniz lived to write it.

Granados said of Albéniz’s music that it had “a very nervous tranquillity”; that it was characterised by “an elegance that smiles with sadness”. There is something of such qualities to be heard in the best music here – and those qualities are not by any means wholly absent even from the Recuerdos de viaje.

Guillermo González leaves one in no doubt whatsoever that he is a pianist well-equipped – both technically and imaginatively – to interpret Albéniz’s work. There is little to quibble at in these performances, and much that commands the listener’s contented assent and provokes his satisfied pleasure.

Andrew Fraser
Limelight, December 2007

Volume 2 of Guillermo González’s survey of Albéniz’s piano music begins with Recuerdos de viaje (Memories of a Journey)—a work that was compelted in 1887 before the composer’s move to Paris and the city’s influence on his style. Its seven short movements use traditional melodies and rhythms to describe a journey across Spain. Despite the subject matter this work frequently sounds like the earlier Romantic and Classical composers that Albéniz so admired. For example, No 1 (En el mar) has an almost Schubertian feel, while No VII (En la playa) could easily be mistaken for a Brahms Ballade and the influence of Chopin looms large in the other movements. The remaining four works on the disc were all composed after his move to Paris and its influence shows. They are more confidently written, with original melodies, greater intricacy and adventurous harmonies. With these works he comes much closer to his ambition of creating a purely Spanish musical form. Pianist González is nimble-fingered and for the most part happy to let the music speak for itself.

John France
MusicWeb International, October 2007

Ever since hearing one of my school friends play Albéniz’s Cordoba I have been quite an enthusiast of the music of this great Spanish Composer. However, in some ways it is quite difficult to get a handle on his works – he appears to have composed a vast number of pieces for piano – just take a few moments to check out the list in Grove to see the scale of the problem. Of course, there are a few signposts - the most popular work is quite definitely Iberia: there are some twenty-nine recordings of this masterwork along with countless examples of individual numbers from this work.cycle. Asturias, from the Suite Española is the ‘Top of the Albéniz Pops’ – but this is a bit of a cheat, for the number of recordings includes the guitar version as well as the one for piano. Most lovers of piano music will also know the unbelievably popular España Suite - especially Tango, Granada and Seville.

This present CD has a number of lesser known fine works that well deserve to be known to enthusiasts of piano music. Most of the workspieces were composed during the composer’s residence in Paris. Yet the longest piece is in fact the romantic, Recuerdos de viaje which was composed written while the composer was still living in Madrid.

The programme notes define well the musical difference between the works written in Spain and those in Paris. The former are typically meditations on nearby places, peoples and experiences seen through the eyes of a ‘local’ or perhaps a traveller. However the French experience allowed the composer to reflect on Spain from a distance – perhaps even occasionally with the eye of a ‘foreigner.’ Yet all his works are imbued with the spirit of Spain and form an important part of the repertoire of pianists.

The Recuerdos de viaje, Op. 71 (B 18) were composed in Madrid in 1887. The composer and his family had just moved there. Over the next few months Albéniz was to have a series of ups and downs in his professional and private life. He was successfully established as a composer and pianist in January 1886 after his momentous recital in the rooms salon of his publisher, Antonio Romero. However, just a few weeks later his daughter Blanca died. Yet the present work does not explore these events: there is no suggestion of tragedy or exaltation in these seven works.pieces. It would be wrong to suggest that they are it is simply salon music, but the purpose was to entertain rather than inform. The title of the work means, roughly, ‘Travel Reminiscences’. Some clues as to the titles of each piece may be of help to the non-Spanish speaker. En el mar was issued in London entitled On the Water. Puerta de tierra is an architectural landmark in Cadiz, Rumores de la caleta can be rendered as ‘Murmurs in the Cove’ and lastly En la playa is On the Beach.

The Espagne (Souvenirs) are not to be confused with the two Suites Españolas which González recorded in the first volume one of this edition. The present suite was composed around 1896 when Albéniz was in Paris. There are only two pieces – a Prélude and Asturias - which refers to a district in Northern Spain.

The Prélude begins quietly but soon becomes more animated: as the piece develops the Spanish mood becomes more and more evident. Yet there is a dichotomy here: the middle section of this piece leans towards dissonance and explores a language less typically Iberian. Yet somehow the two moods co-exist and after a brief protest conclude quietly. Asturias is a sad little piece. The Spanish flavour is less in evidence and it has been said that perhaps Debussy is an influence here. The music is typically restrained with the middle section being a little more complex. In all it is a truly magical piece.

Azulejos was one of the last works written by the composer – in fact it was completed by Enrique Granados after the Albéniz’s death. This is an excellent piece of music that explores a pianism quite removed from the early Spanish ‘postcard’ number. This is a valedictory workpiece that combines subtlety with exquisite craftsmanship and emotional depth. Azulejos means in Spanish ‘Tiles’ or perhaps ‘Mosaics.’ This work was to have been part of an eponymous cycle of pieces. It is one of the great works by Albéniz and deserves much more exposure. There are only two recordings of this work in the catalogue at present.

La Vega ‘Fantasie espagnole’ (1897) is a big work and is regarded by many as being the epitome of Isaac Albéniz’s mature piano style. The piece was originally conceived as a part of a cycle called ‘Alhambra’ – but this was never completed. Apparently the composer wrote, somewhat enigmatically, that ‘in this piece one can see the entire plan (vega) of Granada as contemplated from the Alhambra.." There is a perfection in this music that defies description – the more one listens to it the more one is amazed by its beauty. It lasts for nearly sixteen minutes – anything less and the listener would certainly feel short-changed!.

There are two versions of Navarra in existence- neither wholly by Albéniz.. After his death, aged 49, it was completed by the composer’s student Déodat de Severac. In later years William Bolcom did another version – the difference being that he provides a newly composed conclusion whereas de Severac just ended the piece in mid-stream. We hear the latter version here. It: it is a good piece to conclude this interesting and often moving exploration of Albéniz’s piano music.

I note that this is Volume 2 of the piano music of Isaac Albéniz.. The first included the big works – Iberia and España 1 & 2. Yet if Naxos intends to realize a ‘complete’ edition of the piano works, then there are many volumes still to come.

It is essential that we have an easily available edition of this music. I look forward to subsequent releases and am confident that Guillermo González is the man to do them. For too long it has been assumed that Alicia De Larrocha - brilliant as she is - had the monopoly on Spanish piano music.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2007

Albeniz first appeared on stage as a pianist at the age of four, his playing so brilliant that the audience were convinced that some trickery was taking place. Entered into the Conservatoire at the age of nine, he ran away a year later and at the age of twelve was touting himself around Europe and the Americas as a virtuoso pianist. Announcing his retirement from the stage at the age of 30, he began formal composition studies with Dukas and d’Indy, but was to suffer a very early death in 1909 at the age of forty-nine, his desire to be accepted as a composer largely unaccomplished. Although born in Spain he had always been artistically drawn to France where he was to spend the last fifteen years of his life. The Recuerdos de viaje was a relatively early score completed in 1887 while still working as a touring pianist, and offers a set of pictures of his homeland compiled over a period of two years and stylistically influenced by Chopin in their decorative filigree. In seven sections they aim to please and are devoid of any dramatic content having opened with two gentle Barcarolles, before moving to more vivacious Spanish rhythms. Espagna was completed after his arrival in Paris, and is a nostalgic backward glance to his homeland. That the influence of French music had taken hold comes in one of his last works, the gently meandering Azulejos, the prelude only existing at the time of his death. He was also working on Navarra, its very incomplete score given to his pupil, Deodat de Severac, whose understanding of his mentor’s style seems less than perfect in his completion. The rhapsodic La Vega - the CD’s most extensive track - is the piano version of the opening movement of an orchestral suite, La Alhambra, its mix of virtuosity and beautiful harmonies finding little favour with its 1899 French audience. Much of Albeniz’s output does not afford the soloist with a show of pianistic skill, yet calls for nimble fingers that can bring about the most elaborate passages. Guillermo Gonzalez began this Albeniz series years ago, and we are still only at volume two. A great pity, for he has an innate understanding of he composer, the music shaped and shaded with such affection. He never pushes the music beyond its natural pulse, retaining our interest in moments where the music hangs on air, while his detailed articulation is admirable. He has the distinct advantage of excellent sound quality.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group