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Artur Pizarro explores the piano works of Spanish greats Albéniz and Granados.
Campos Coelho, one of the leading pianists and teachers of his day, counted amongst his pupils—in addition to my grandmother and myself —the composer António Victorino d’Almeida and the pianist Maria João Pires. He was never given the support or the opportunity by any Portuguese organisation or promoter to perform Goyescas in public, a work he mastered. I was privileged to hear one of his private performances of Goyescas at his home surrounded by his students and friends. The importance of mentioning him is simply that he came specifically from the world that Granados and Albéniz frequented. He studied firstly in Portugal with José Vianna da Motta and then in Paris with Isidor Philipp. He formed a trio with two other Portuguese students in Paris and was one of many frequent guests at Princesse de Polignac’s soirées where the trio often performed. Subsequently Campos Coelho studied with Ricardo Viñes in France and in Spain where his knowledge of the piano repertoire from this country became encyclopaedic. Ricardo Viñes had premiered many works of composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Albéniz and Granados and his first-hand information would have been invaluable to Campos Coelho. He, in turn, passed this information not only to his students, but also to publishers such as Durand, who acknowledge him in the preface to their new Urtext edition of the preludes of Debussy. Such was the rich atmosphere in which my first contact with the piano occurred.
The second phase of my piano studies began when I was five years old and accepted as a student of José Carlos Sequeira Costa. His first gift to me was an LP he had recorded in Prague of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (which I have also had the pleasure to record) and four movements of Iberia (‘El puerto’, ‘Triana’, ‘Málaga’ and ‘Eritaña’). That LP, which was very quickly worn out on both sides, was my first contact with those two works and have been part of my musical world ever since. I must admit I had to physically grow up before I was able to play either, but the time waiting was spent listening, reading and researching all I could find on those works. Sequeira Costa, who was also a pupil of José Vianna da Motta, later studied with Mark Hambourg and Edwin Fischer, and in Paris with Marguerite Long and Jaques Février. The latter two of these great pianists and pedagogues were intimately linked with the musical and intellectual circles in which Albéniz and Granados moved. Albéniz dedicated his work Navarra to Marguerite Long. I think it is also of interest to note that Albéniz dedicated the work 'La Vega' from his incomplete Suite Alhambra to José Vianna da Motta, making my links to these works and composers more and more convoluted!
One more person I must mention in this recollection is Aldo Ciccolini whom I had the pleasure and good fortune to work with in Paris from 1983 to 1984. I first worked on ‘Evocación’ and another great work of Granados, the Allegro de concierto, with him. Ciccolini has left us many recordings of Spanish repertoire and one of the great recordings of Iberia and Goyescas; a truly inspiring artist whose style, technique and Latin temperament are so ideally suited to this work. Add to this his ability to inspire young piano hopefuls to persevere, and you have an explosively exciting combination.
These are the artists to whom I owe direct gratitude. Others, whose influence was maybe a little less direct but no less meaningful, are the ones who influenced me through their recordings or stage performances. Firstly, of course, must come the one person without whom Spanish classical piano repertoire would not be known nearly as well in the world, the greatly missed Alicia de Larrocha. Her life experience with these works which she so generously shared through her three recordings of Iberia and at least two of Goyescas are the standard by which all are judged. Her recent edition of the complete piano works of Granados in collaboration with Douglas Riva has shed much new light on the multitude of problems—technical and musical—faced by pianists who, like moths, are attracted to the flame of Goyescas. Similarly, I must also mention Antonio Iglesias and Guillermo Gonzales whose editions of Iberia finally enabled me to have the courage to take that work onto the stage and later into the recording studio. Other recordings that have been sources of inspiration are those by Rosa Sabater, Leopoldo Querol, Esteban Sanchez, Ricardo Requejo and Rafael Orozco. Recordings of individual movements which have also influenced me include Moura Lympany’s and an amazingly moving recording of ‘Quejas,o La maja y el ruiseñor’ by Myra Hess.
Through all the years listening and distilling the information given through those recordings, I heard Alicia de Larrocha’s voice in my head repeating: 'You must not imitate me!' She told me this personally when I had the opportunity to hear her live in recital in Kansas City in 1990 and went to see her backstage. I wanted to let her know how much I admired her recording of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto which I was preparing for the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition later that year. I don’t think I could imitate her, even if I had wanted to, as her interpretation is so thoroughly hers, emotionally, intellectually, and above all, physically. I have never been afraid of listening to other people’s interpretations as it is a way to learn from and honour all their time and experience devoted to the music. The fact that it is my body making the gestures (my hands with their different size and length or width of fingers; my age; my cultural background; my life experience), the final result will be something entirely different but made richer by all that has trickled through my ears to my brain.
I would like to give a brief explanation of my choice of piano for this recording. I have, over the years, become more and more interested in the piano, not only as the instrument I play and for which amazing repertoire exists, but rather the machine itself, what it can do, and why. This has led me to develop very interesting relationships with a number of piano builders and without the richness and variety of their instruments I would feel very limited and restricted. I own examples of various makes: Bechstein, Broadwood, Estonia, Gaveau, Longman & Broderip, Petrof, and Steinway. I really would need a rather large desert island … One of the makes I have probably had the longest association with has been Yamaha. I am also charmed and in love with the sound and touch of Blüthner pianos who, in my opinion, may be the makers who have been most true to their original sound without alteration. To play them is really to go back in time to the sound from the ‘Golden Age’ of piano building between the World Wars. This was the departure point of my choice. I wanted a piano with an action not too dissimilar to the pianos Albéniz and Granados would have had contact with (mainly Gaveaus, Pleyels and maybe Érards) and a slightly slimmer, bell-like sound. Good old wood-on-wire sound! In a way I was looking for a certain period sound without the physical frailty and frustrations of a period piano. The Blüthner gave me all of this and more. The fact that the particular piano used was hours old when chosen means the slate really was clean and the piano was really mine to shape and mould without any previous 'imprints'. In simple terms: a piano with the sound of the beginning of the century with the build quality and strength of a new piano and a very, very fast action. This is what Blüthner does so well.
Having shared with you my journey so far with these works I would like to share with you some facts about Goyescas and Iberia. Goyescas was composed by Enrique Granados in 1911 and is subtitled 'Los majos enamorados'. Granados would later transform this suite for piano into an opera with the same name and it will become apparent why this was even possible. The piano writing is vocally-inspired and the movement titles make a story line quite obvious. This crowning achievement by Granados was originally written in two books. The first, comprising the first four titles, was started in 1909 and finished in 1910. Granados gave the première performance of Book 1 at the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona on 11 March 1911. Book 2, with the remaining two titles, was completed in 1911 and again Granados gave the première performance, this time in Paris at the Salle Pleyel on 2 April 1914. The language of these six movements is highly romantic, technically very challenging and really pushes the envelope of what pianos of the time could achieve. Although one can find the influence of Lisztian piano writing, the end result is quite technically original and with a strongly rhapsodic, almost improvisatory flavour. This is the Spain of Goya but somewhat sanitized of Goya’s darker side. This is a Madrid of the past, maybe only existent in Goya’s paintings, giving the background for a romantically stylised love story which would literally gain flesh in the opera version. Extremely well suited to the dynamic and tonal capabilities of the piano, Granados gives voice to his story with a complete range of emotions from the most subtle to the most dramatic and forceful. The plot of the opera is very applicable to the piano suite although the material is arranged in a different order with new material composed, including the famous ‘Intermezzo’ premiered in the New York Metropolitan Opera staging. The characters Rosario and Fernando are the two Majos Enamorados. Fernando becomes jealous of the bullfighter Paquiro who pays too much attention to Rosario. The ‘Fandango’ is where the two men first quarrel. The ‘Maja y el ruiseñor’ movement is where Rosario shares her concerns with a wise, beautifully-sounding nightingale. The ghost in the ‘Serenade’ is Fernando returning to haunt Rosario after his death in the ‘Ballad’ movement.
Albéniz’s Spain is a different experience altogether. The suite Iberia was composed between 1905 and 1909. Olivier Messiaen said of this work: 'Iberia is the wonder for the piano; it is perhaps on the highest place among the more brilliant pieces for the king of the instruments.' Composed in four books of three pieces each, it is musical Impressionism on a par with Debussy or Ravel. The technical writing is totally original and at least as mind-numbingly difficult as Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. The great French pianist Blanche Selva gave the premières of each book on 9 May 1906 (Salle Pleyel), 11 September 1907 (St. Jean de Luz), 2 January 1908 (Palais of Princesse de Polignac) and 9 February 1909 (Société Nationale de Musique) respectively. The individual movements were composed in a different order than the one originally published, and even the titles underwent some changes. Albéniz did not specifically intend all twelve titles to be played as a whole, but over time both partial and complete performances have flourished on the concert stage. Each individual piece is a fine portrait of a different area or characteristic of Spain evoked through melodies and dance rhythms. The piano writing is uncommonly dense with hands frequently playing over one another and even through each other! Complicated key signatures, frequent specific instructions in French and Italian, and sometimes confused hand distribution make the score of Iberia difficult to read, not to mention to play. Many hours must be spent by the performer, even with the help of editions already dedicated to this task, correcting frequent misprints and redistributing text to suit their hands. Only after this can one even begin to tackle the gargantuan task of training the notes into the fingers. Albéniz could not actually play some of the movements and at one point considered destroying the work as he thought it too insurmountable for a pianist’s physical abilities. Achieving the confidence to be able to deal with the musical aspects of the work is when the treasures of this magical world begin to yield themselves to the performer and audience alike.
‘Evocación’ is reminiscent of Spain. Through the rhythms of a southern fandango and a northern jota, Albéniz creates a general picture of what he feels for Spain.
‘El puerto’ is a zapateado representing the town of Cádiz.
‘Fête-Dieu à Seville’ (or 'El Corpus en Sevilla') describes the Corpus-Christi Day procession in Seville.
‘Rondeña’ portrays the town it is named after, Ronda in Andalusia.
‘Almería’ is pictured through the dance rhythms of this Andalusian province with its strong Moorish past.
‘Triana’ has all the melodic and rhythmic richness of the gypsy quarter of Seville.
‘El Albaicín’ is a district of present day Granada where its Moorish ancestry gave it not only the Alhambra, but also very strong percussive rhythms used throughout this movement.
‘El polo’ is a palo flamenco where the cantaor’s anguished singing is superbly illustrated.
‘Lavapiés’ is a district of Madrid represented by a habañera of supreme technical wizardry with an ending quote of lo castizo.
‘Málaga’ is again one of the more technically demanding pieces with its Andalusian flamenco sounds and perfumes.
‘Jerez’ is the sleepy but beautiful wine-producing town near Huelva and Portugal. It is written in a very dense, technical and harmonic texture, with Albéniz presenting the listener with some of his most evocative coplas.
‘Eritaña’ was Debussy’s favourite movement of the suite and its infectious, uplifting character provides an exhilarating end to approximately an hour and a half of a whirlwind tour of Spain as seen through the eyes of Albéniz.
The two works on this recording represent the pinnacle of piano composition in Spain and are two of the most important works of the twentieth century written for piano. The only reason I can think of as to why they are not more present in recital halls throughout the world is the sheer difficulty of their performance. This should not be a reason to scare anyone off embarking on the long journey of learning these two exquisite works and we, performers and listeners alike, are privileged today to have so much research and preparatory work available to help us along this thorny path. May the rewards this music has brought me personally be shared by all who listen to this recording. Hopefully it will be as pleasurable and fun for you as it was for me to record it for you.
Artur Pizarro © 2010