Margarida Mota-Bull
MusicWeb International

Enrique Granados is possibly best remembered for his songs and evocative solo piano music. However he also composed various orchestral works and six operas. His music relies heavily on Spanish and Catalan folklore. Granados was instrumental in bringing this to the attention of his countrymen, as well as to the European musical scene at the turn of the century. He was one of the representatives of musical nationalism, a movement that swept across Europe mainly during the nineteenth century but which extended into the early twentieth century as well.

Possibly Granados’s best work and undoubtedly his most famous, the piano suite Goyescas, was composed between 1909 and 1911. It was inspired by paintings by Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828), specifically a set of sketches of Spanish life that Granados saw at the Prado Museum in Madrid as well as some of the artist’s famous series of etchings Caprichos, published in 1799. Goyescas comprises two books: the first is in four pieces and the second two. Besides being a composer, Granados was also a virtuoso pianist and the Goyescas are indeed a show-piece, fiendishly difficult in certain passages. Granados premiered Book I himself in 1911 at the Palau de la Música Catalana, in Barcelona, and Book II in 1914 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. The complete piano suite had such an impact and was so successful that the composer was persuaded to convert it into an opera. Due to World War I, the piece could not be performed in Europe, however Goyescas, the opera, received its premiere in 1916 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, in Granados’s presenc. This was indirectly to be the reason of the composer’s premature death. The success at the Met led to an invitation by President Woodrow Wilson for Granados to give a piano recital at the White House. Granados accepted; and so he and his wife missed the ship on which they were booked to return to Europe. The boat that they eventually took was torpedoed by a German submarine. The composer abandoned the life-raft where he was in an attempt to save his wife. Tragically, they both drowned.

Goyescas is not only a piece that demands technical virtuosity but also possesses great warmth, beauty and dramatic expression. One of its most interesting features that makes the piece rather attractive is the transfer of the rhythms of the flamenco guitar to the keyboard. The performance of Goyescas demands a pianist with a fabulous technique, an excellent insight into the composer’s intentions, a good understanding of Goya’s paintings and, most of all, an ability to narrate the story of each piece and subtly express its emotions and melodic lines. The American pianist, of Dutch-Bolivian origin, Ana-Maria Vera completely fits the bill.

This recording of Goyescas, as performed by Ana-Maria Vera, offers the suite in its entirety (nearly 55 minutes), with all four pieces of Book I and the two from Book II, all in their logical order, as Granados created them. The first, Los Requiebros (Compliments or Flirtation) is the one I most enjoyed: it is vivacious, warm, full of wit and humour; with a lively, catchy melody and contagiously sunny rhythm. Vera’s rendition is as sparkling and expressive as her technique is brilliant. One can easily imagine flirtatious looks being exchanged and people making humorous comments in the background. Marvellous!

After this effervescent opening, Ana-Maria Vera continues to dazzle throughout the remaining five pieces. She plays the second, Coloquio en la Reja (Dialogue at the window) with a delicate melodic sense, then she is wonderfully romantic and evocative in the third, El Fandango de Candil (Candlelit Fandango); effectively creating the image of two people courting by candle-light. The fourth piece, Quejas, ó la Maja e el Ruiseñor (Laments, or the Maiden and the Nightingale), which is written almost like a nocturne, full of hidden voices, trills and arpeggios to reproduce the sounds of the bird, is given a beautifully lyrical interpretation, suitably poetic but never sentimental and always underlined by subtle emotion. In the fifth work (the first of Book II) El Amor y la Muerte: Balada (Love and Death: Ballad) the composer on occasions gives one the impression that the piece is an improvisation and not something that he very specifically wrote. Vera effectively captures and expresses this feeling, giving the piece a fresh touch that makes it incredibly attractive. Finally, the sixth, suitably named Epílogo: Serenata del Espectro (Epilogue: The Ghost’s Serenade) is as with all others beautifully interpreted with a supreme delicate touch in the closing bars to indicate how the ghost disappears.

Ana-Maria Vera has a delicate musicality supported by technical brilliance and a fresh, focused approach. She imparts new insight into a popular piece so often used as a mere vehicle to display sheer virtuosity but where the feeling is lost. Her sensibility is always present. Her style is subtle and the sound luminous. She never allows her undeniable technical prowess to overcome the soul of the piece. Thus the listener is rewarded with an interpretation full of lively, Latin spontaneity and recognisable Spanish flair; possibly fulfilling Granados’s intentions when he composed Goyescas.

I thoroughly enjoyed this performance of Granados’s crowning work and I dare say that it is possibly one of the best and most pleasing interpretations of this famous piano suite that I have ever heard.