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Ernesto HALFFTER (1905-1989)
Piano Music
Crepuscolos (1925) [10.32]; Marche Joyeuse (1922) [3.06]; Sonata per pianoforte (1926) [6.57]; L’Espagnolade (1937) [5.57]; Grűss (1940) [2.29]; Serenata a Dulcinea (1944) [6.22]; Dos piezas cubanos (1944) [7.13]; Preludio y danza (1974) [6.44]; Llanto por Ricardo Viňes (1943) [5.00]; Sonate ‘Homenaje a Domenico Scarlatti [1985) [8.13]; Nocturno otaňal ‘Recordando a Chopin’ (1987) [4.05]; Homenaje a J. Turina (1988) [2.14]; Homenaje a F. Mompou (1986) [3.09]; Homenaje a R. Halffter (1987) [3.34]
Suite de las Doncellas (1927-8) [35.12]; Valencia II –Pasodoble (1923) [3.37]; Panaderos (1923); Boleras de la Cachucha (1923) [7.31]; Tres piezas infantiles (para cuatro mano) (1923) [2.31]
Guillermo Gonzalez (piano); Belen González Domonte (piano)
rec. Sala de concierto. Fundaciones Juan March de Madrid, 9 January, 5 April, 16 May 2006
NAXOS 8.570006/7 [75.33 + 53.23]

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.
Gary Higginson


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