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Hyperion Records

CDA67476/7 - Albéniz: Iberia & other late piano music

Recording details: August 2004
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: April 2005
DISCID: 750E8709 600EFA09
Total duration: 125 minutes 5 seconds

CD OF THE WEEK - BBC Radio 3 CD Review

'Here is the most immaculate, effortless and refined of all Iberias. Where others fight to stay afloat, Marc-André Hamelin rides the crest of every formidable wave with nonchalant ease and poetry … Hamelin's Albéniz [on the other hand], proudly but nonchalantly, raises a new and astonishing standard' (Gramophone)

'Hamelin again achieves the almost physically impossible with seeming ease. Albéniz's multiple layers are finely balanced, and apparently awkward textures come to life in a lucid acoustic with pace, grace and a constant sense of dance' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Marc-André Hamelin has a wonderful feel for this music. He has a rhythmic play and sense of chord-balancing that enriches the textures. His most beautiful and lyrical playing occurs in the languid, intimate passages, where one is carried away from the everyday' (American Record Guide)

'Simply put, this is now the recording of choice. Hamelin has a reputation as a super-virtuoso—'jaw-dropping' is one of the favourite adjectives used to describe his technique. It's certainly a well-deserved reputation … Hamelin uses his unparalleled technique not to revel in the music's difficulties but to transcend them; and at his best he offers artistic subtlety where lesser pianists offer little more than gymnastic sweat and strain' (International Record Review)

'Albéniz infused his writing with the flamboyant rhythms and anguished melodies of flamenco, and Hamelin captures the authentic accent while dispatching the notes with astonishing technical bravura and outstanding musicianship. He may not replace de Larrocha, but all who love this music will want to add his interpretations to their collections' (The Sunday Times)

'Rarely has this music's intricate patternings been so subtly exposed, and the recording captures Hamelin's distinctive sonority to a tee' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Marc-André Hamelin's [recordings] all attest to a virtuoso technique and an inquiring musical mind second to none on today's concert, recital, and recording platforms. He brings no less in artistic commitment to Albéniz and to this kaleidoscopically colourful music. Strongly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'There's plenty of technical brilliance to marvel at in Marc-André Hamelin's performances. In quieter, slower music—the very first piece Evocacion is one instance—he offers a lovely, appositely dark-hued singing tone along with an array of delicate shades' (The Evening Standard)

'Mr Hamelin commands an enormous range of touch and expression. He is as comfortable in the languid meanderings of Evocación as in the pointed dance rhythms of Rondeña and he modulates between such extremes with utter fluency. As part of this far-reaching sensibility, Mr Hamelin is always alert to atmosphere, which is everything in this music' (The New York Times)

Iberia & other late piano music
La révérence!  [1'52]
Preludio  [8'43]
Asturias  [3'30]

The twelve extended pieces which make up Albéniz’ Iberia are not only the composer’s greatest work, but also the greatest piano work to come out of Spain. Fired by his discovery of the music of Ravel and Debussy, Albéniz transformed his earlier salon style, which essentially produced charming but slight ‘picture postcards’ of Spain, into a language which was much more complex—harmonically, texturally and pianistically—and which created a series of tone poems which capture the spiritual essence of Spain. The superabundance of the writing also makes the cycle one of the supreme virtuoso challenges, so who better to realize the beauty beyond the notes than Marc-André Hamelin who reveals here that the previous virtual monopoly of this work by Spanish pianists may have done more harm than good.

The couplings here are also particularly appropriate in that we have a complete survey of all Albéniz’ late piano music from 1897 until his death. La vega and España are clearly precursors of Iberia; they came after a five year gap in piano output and are the first works to show the composer’s new style. Yvonne en visite!, in perhaps its first recording, is a charming and humorous work illustrating a child’s reluctant piano playing. The collection closes with a new completion by William Bolcom of the unfinished Navarra, which probably reveals much more of Albéniz’ original intention than the perfunctory ending by de Séverac hitherto used.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
’Iberia! Iberia!’ cried Enrique Granados in a letter he wrote shortly after the death of his friend Isaac Albéniz in May 1909. His grief was shared by all those familiar with the late composer, whose passing from Bright’s disease at the age of forty-nine seemed cruelly premature. But it also reflected an assessment Debussy offered and that posterity confirmed: in Iberia, Albéniz had given the best that was within him, a work Olivier Messiaen would later describe as ‘the masterpiece of Spanish music’. It was the culmination of a remarkable career.

Born in 1860, near the French border in the Catalonian town of Camprodón, Albéniz was a phenomenal child prodigy who began touring Spain and Cuba as an itinerant piano virtuoso already in his early teens. He was not yet twenty when he finished his studies, avec distinction, at the Conservatoire Royal in Brussels. During the 1880s and ’90s, Albéniz emerged as a composer of originality and significance, creating a Spanish national style in such evergreen favourites as the Suite española, Recuerdos de viaje, and Cantos de España. In these musical travelogues for solo piano, Albéniz combined Romantic harmony with Spanish rhythm and melody to capture the allure of exotic peninsular locales, especially Granada, Sevilla and Córdoba.

However, despite the nationalist orientation of his music, Albéniz felt increasingly disenchanted with the conservative politics, religion, and cultural backwardness of Spain. So, in 1890 he moved to London, and four years later to Paris, which remained his principal residence for the rest of his life. Under the influence of French music, Albéniz’s style underwent a dramatic transformation, represented chiefly by the works on this recording. Friendship with Ernest Chausson and Gabriel Fauré, association with the Schola Cantorum, and studies with Vincent d’Indy and Paul Dukas expanded his musical horizons. The pieces he composed during the Paris years exhibited increasing formal complexity and careful working out of ideas, resulting in longer, more substantial compositions than his youthful essays of the 1880s. In addition, he came under the spell of Impressionism and adopted some of Debussy’s musical vocabulary. Estrangement from his homeland combined with both persistent physical ailments and a tendency towards depression added yet another element to the works on this recording: the nostalgic introspection and frequent dreaminess that characterize what Albéniz called his ‘second manner’.

The first compositions in this new ‘manner’ were La vega and España: Souvenirs, both dating from 1897. La vega was originally intended to be part of a suite entitled The Alhambra, based on a set of poems by Albéniz’s English friend and patron Francis Burdett Money-Coutts. La vega presents two distinctive themes: the opening section is loosely based on the Andalusian petenera and exudes a brooding melancholy. The middle section, however, is more buoyant and evokes the jota, a dance native to Aragon in the north of Spain. Albéniz wrote of La vega to a friend that ‘What I have composed is the entire plain of Granada, contemplated from the Alhambra’. The same reflective mood prevails in España: Souvenirs. Here, too, Impressionism combines with abstracted references to Spanish folklore to create a hauntingly meditative effect.

Albéniz began work on his monumental Iberia collection in 1905, putting the finishing touches to it in 1908. Iberia is not a ‘suite’ in the traditional sense because the twelve numbers, arranged into four books of three pieces each, can be played in any sequence. Indeed, their order of composition was not the same as that of publication, and it is clear that the composer expected they would be programmed piecemeal and in variable order. Though Iberia was premiered in its entirety by French pianist Blanche Selva, Albéniz’s correspondence makes it clear that he had the Catalan virtuoso Joaquim Malats in mind when writing it. Apparently only Malats could do justice to music in which Albéniz declared he had taken ‘españolismo and technical difficulty to the ultimate extreme’ – as indeed he had, for the music abounds in counter-rhythms, interweaving of the fingers, hand crossings, difficult jumps, and nearly impossible chords. With its superabundance of accidentals and multilingual markings, the score itself is dauntingly hard to read. In fact, Albéniz almost destroyed his manuscript at one point, as he feared it was impossible to play.

Iberia represents Albéniz’s distinctive merging of three principal style elements: Impressionist harmonies, especially the use of whole-tone scales; Lisztian virtuosity taken to the limits of human ability; and the Spanish nationalism he himself had developed and defined. This nationalism evoked a variety of regional styles of song and dance, especially Andalusian flamenco, along with intimations of the guitar’s rasgueo and punteo (strumming and plucking) and of the singer’s coplas (songs or song verses). However, as Albéniz insisted, ‘I never utilize the “raw material” in its crude state’. Rather, as Debussy noted, he had absorbed native melodies and rhythms so completely that ‘they have passed into his music, leaving no trace of a boundary line’.

‘Evocación’ (‘Évocation’) is a prime example of these traits. But what most impresses us is the profoundly interiorized mood that pervades this piece, as Albéniz views his homeland from a distance in time and space, through a haze of memory and nostalgia. This is one of the eight Iberia selections in sonata form, with its attendant exposition, development, and restatement of themes. While the principal theme here harkens to southern songs and dances of the fandango/ malagueña type, the second theme evokes the northern jota. Thus, this ‘evocation’ (entitled ‘Prélude’ in the manuscript) seems to embrace the entire country in a sweeping musical gesture. ‘El puerto’ exudes a completely contrasting atmosphere of noisy good spirits, the hustle and bustle of a seaport, El Puerto de Santa María near Cádiz. It is in the style of the zapateado, a dance based on an insistent rhythm in 6/8, and Albéniz highlights his score with occasional rhythmic flourishes suggesting rasgueo. ‘El Corpus en Sevilla’ (or ‘Fête-Dieu à Séville’) is a programmatic piece in ternary form (aba) that paints a captivating picture of Corpus Christi in Seville, during which a statue of the Virgin is carried through the streets accompanied by marching bands, singers, and penitential flagellants. The piece begins with some rataplan, then introduces a march-like theme inspired by the popular song ‘La Tarara’. What follows in the ‘b’ section is an evocation of the soulful saeta (literally ‘arrow’), a piercing cry of religious ecstasy. Despite all the festive tumult, the piece concludes in a tranquil mood, as if the procession had passed into the cool evening of the composer’s romantic imagination.

Book Two commences with ‘Rondeña’, a type of song and dance named after Ronda in western Andalusia. But this piece bears only passing resemblance to it and is a hybrid of various styles. The hemiola rhythm of the principal theme marks it as Spanish, while the copla secondary theme is suggestive of the jota. ‘Almería’ is a city on the Mediterranean coast of Andalusia, where Albéniz’s father once worked briefly in the 1860s. Hemiola rhythms dominate this piece as well, but the mood is altogether different, and there is a strong suggestion of the siguiriyas, a jondo (literally ‘deep’) gypsy song and dance. The secondary theme is again a copla à la jota, but stretched out in slow motion, over a gently rocking accompaniment. As in ‘El Corpus en Sevilla’, Albéniz resorts to three staves here, giving the score the appearance of organ music. ‘Triana’ is the gypsy quarter in Seville and one of the cradles of flamenco. This number resounds with all the clamor of a juerga (flamenco party), with the strumming of guitars, snapping of castanets, palmas (clapping), and percussive zapateo (footwork). After a pasodoble-like introduction, the principal theme evokes the sevillanas, a lively and lighthearted song and dance popular in Seville.

Book Three begins with ‘El Albaicín’, the gypsy quarter of Granada, a city Albéniz loved and often evoked in his works. This number is structured as a series of three alternations between a dance-like principal theme and a freer, copla-style secondary melody. The dance section recalls the rhythm of the flamenco bulerías, while the distribution of the notes simulates a guitar technique alternating thumb and index finger. The jondo-style copla has a chant-like quality that creates an entrancing reverie. Albéniz’s ‘El polo’ does not bear much of a resemblance to the flamenco song after which it is named, except in its inconsolably melancholy character. The most famous concert polos are those of Manuel García, but Albéniz does not seem to have used them as a model either. What most interests us about this selection is the persistence of the rhythmic pattern from the first beat to the last, giving the piece an almost obsessive quality consistent with its mood. In fact, Albéniz instructs the performer to play as if ‘sweetly sobbing’ and again ‘always in the spirit of a sob’. The rhythmic figure itself suggests this. Book Three concludes with ‘Lavapiés’, a district in Madrid named for the local church where a foot-washing ritual was performed on Holy Thursday. This locale was known in Albéniz’s time for its low-class denizens called chulos. There was a lot of noisy street life in this district, which Albéniz simulates through a riot of wrong-note dissonance. Both principal and secondary themes are based on the Cuban habanera, which was all the rage in Madrid in the late nineteenth century.

Book Four opens with ‘Málaga’, one of the shortest pieces in the collection. The rhythmic freedom, triple metre, and modality of the principal theme suggest the malagueña, while the secondary theme evokes a jota malagueña, one of many regional varieties of jota. The reappearance of the jota throughout the collection, in one guise or another, gives it the character of a leitmotif, unifying the various numbers. ‘Jerez’ is a city in western Andalusia famous for producing the liquor named after it: sherry. This is the only piece in the collection with a key signature of no flats or sharps. Its emphasis on A minor and melancholy mood have reminded some of the soleá, one of the most jondo of flamenco songs and dances. The rhythms may not be quite right for a soleá, but the unusual alternation of metres gives the piece a rhythmic complexity thoroughly flamenco in character. In any case, Albéniz masterfully elicits from the keyboard colourful suggestions of singing and guitar-playing. The final piece in Iberia takes us again to Seville, this time to the Venta Eritaña, a popular inn on the outskirts of the city that was famous for its flamenco entertainment. The rhythms of the sevillanas permeate the entire piece, and there is no contrasting copla section. The exuberant spirit and piquant dissonance of ‘Eritaña’ convey in unforgettable fashion the excitement of a juerga, and Debussy singled out this number as the finest in the entire collection.

Albéniz left two works unfinished at his death: Azulejos (‘Tiles’), which was completed by Enrique Granados, and Navarra, which was first completed by Albéniz’s pupil Déodat de Séverac. Unusually, however, Marc-André Hamelin plays the more thorough completion of Navarra by William Bolcom (b1938); whereas de Séverac wraps up Albéniz’s music to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, Bolcom makes a more substantial and stylistically convincing work with a recapitulation of Albéniz’s opening material and a coda (Bolcom’s completion commences at 4'51''). Albéniz had originally intended to include Navarra in the last book of Iberia, but then he decided that it was ‘shamelessly cheap’ and did not belong there; he composed ‘Jerez’ as a substitute. From our perspective, Navarra seems more than worthy of inclusion in Iberia, as it exhibits the same masterful exposition and development of folkloric themes in the context of sonata form.

Albéniz’s association with the Schola Cantorum inspired his most charming work for piano, Yvonne en visite!. It appeared in a collection of pieces for children ‘small and large’ by musicians at the Schola and was published by Édition Mutuelle in Paris, around the same time as Iberia. This delightfully humorous work contains Albéniz’s annotations (in the manner of Erik Satie) describing a visit of the young pianist Yvonne Guidé, who is forced to perform by her mother. Yvonne gets a bad case of nerves and stumbles through her repertoire, while her increasingly unhappy mother threatens her with ten days of Hanon exercises!

Walter Aaron Clark © 2005

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