Our worst fears do not usually come true, but they
struck Granados in a flash and ended his life. It all started when the
American pianist Ernest Schelling persuaded Granados to convert his
piano suite "Goyescas" into an opera and arranged for it to be premiered
in New York. Although Granados was terrified of water and oceans, he
and his wife sailed to New York City in 1916 to attend the premiere.
Granados had a fruitful stay in New York, performing
concerts, making recordings, and even giving a recital at the White
House. His journey back across the Atlantic went well, but the ship
was torpedoed in the English Channel by a German submarine; both Granados
and wife were killed. Fortunately, Granados still left us a wonderful
legacy of music that revels in the Spanish folklore.
I have been a strong fan of Granados and Spanish piano
music for many years, and there are three particular aspects that I
find most compelling. First, the Spanish flourish is in a world of its
own. Second, the passion for life is so rich and unfettered. Third,
the music has what I refer to as the "Spanish rhythmic snap" which seems
in-born to Spanish composers.
The leading representative of Spanish piano music for
decades has been Alicia de Larrocha, to the point where all rivals are
immediately compared to her and usually found lacking. What makes de
Larrocha’s performances so commanding? Needless to say, she is steeped
in the Spanish musical idiom. No other artist conveys the pure exuberance
of the music as completely as de Larrocha, and the architectural sweep
and fluidity she offers also have no peers. Most important, she transports
the listener to her homeland.
Douglas Riva knows and has worked with de Larrocha.
However, he is not some carbon-copy of her style. Riva tends to employ
slower tempos and a relatively introspective presentation of Granados’s
piano music. At the same time, he does an exceptional job of giving
us the desired rhythmic snap and sweep, albeit in a more private manner.
As de Larrocha conveys the wonders of the world, Riva probes its mysteries.
He gives Granados a little of the Scriabinesque flavor concerning inward
projection. Another distinctive attraction is that Riva is drawn in
to the sensuous elements of Granados’s music to a much greater extent
than de Larrocha. If pressed to choose, I would opt for de Larrocha,
but Riva offers a valid and highly rewarding alternative which is particularly
effective in those Granados works with emotional depth (e.g. "Goyescas").
Riva’s splendid traversal of the solo piano music has
now reached its 6th volume, and it would be reasonable to
show a little skepticism that there is still highly inspired music to
uncover. With little exception, the Naxos game plan has been to program
the most popular Granados works in the earliest volumes, essentially
a ‘hit them with your best shot’ approach. Fortunately, I can report
with confidence that Volume 6 is a winning release by any reasonable
It opens with its most substantial work, the Seven
Pieces based on Spanish Folk-Lore. These are delightful and evocative
creations displaying varied moods and architecture. The 1st
piece, "Preludio", gives us enticing guitar-type arpeggios and sultry
passages which find Riva seducing us more effectively than in any other
recorded performance. "Añoranza" conveys life’s urges with a
hectic introduction followed by a demonstrative stretching of emotions.
The 3rd piece, "Ecos de la Parranda" mixes playfully delicate
passages, strong rhetoric, and a swaying/pulsating rhythm into a delectable
and uplifting aural experience. "Vascongada" comes next and has a joyful
and exuberant first subject taken over by a more restrained and contemplative
second subject; I find this highly contrasted piece irresistible, and
continued listening keeps increasing my enjoyment.
The 5th piece, "Marcha oriental", doesn’t
indicate that Granados had the slightest knowledge of oriental music,
but it is still a pure pleasure to experience. I’m always attracted
to music that easily depicts superficial heroes swaggering about town
all full of themselves. Add in a lovely second subject, and the result
is compelling music-making.
The last piece, "Zambra", refers to a tap dance and
is extremely vigorous music with mixed rhythms enhancing the excitement
factor; I can’t imagine anyone being able to stay still while listening.
Each of the world premiere works is under two minutes
in length, but it is good that they are now in the record catalogue.
"Parranda-Murcia" is a catchy dance tune, and "Pastoral" is lovely and
adoring music that is guaranteed to lift one’s spirits. Granados wrote
"Serenata" as a gift for his wife, and the piece flows like silk and
conveys a joyful glow. After listening, I have to assume that Granados
had a wonderful life-mate.
"El jardí d’Elisenda" is an arrangement made
by Granados of the first movement of his suite "Elisenda" scored for
chamber orchestra, piano, harp, and soprano. This piece is a sparkling
ballade conveying Elisenda’s various feelings as she gazes over her
garden. At times comforting, at times sad, it is a lovely and ideal
companion for late night contemplation. Riva’s performance is exceptional
as he ushers listeners into the sumptuous garden retreat; he clearly
loves this music, and its inward nature meshes beautifully with his
general approach to Granados.
"Sardana" has a stunning first section which reminds
me of a Bach fugue in its fine blend of architectural rigor and expressive
freedom. Also, being intimate with dozens of Bach piano recordings,
I have no doubt that Riva is a ‘natural’ for Bach as well as Granados.
The work "Jácara" has one of the basic themes
in "Goyescas" and is thought to likely be a study for the masterpiece.
In any event, the music is mesmerizing and ever so subtle in its messages.
Granados set out to compose a collection of pieces
titled "Países soñados" which translates into ‘Dream Lands’.
However, he wrote only the first piece which revolves around an enchanted
palace in the sea. The music is quite atmospheric and evocative of the
surging ocean and the desolation it can summon.
The Three Impromptus are undated, and each is highly
contrasted from the others. The 1st Impromptu took me by
surprise the first time I heard it a few years ago. First, it is quite
modernistic for Granados and carries a large dose of Scriabinesque attitude
and style. Second, Bachian phrasing is prevalent throughout. Third,
the sense of improvisation is strong. Of course, the Granados stamp
of sparkle and fluidity is always present. I love the music of these
three composers, so the A minor is receiving much playing time. The
2nd Impromptu has a delectable mix of legato and staccato
phrasing, while the 3rd Impromptu is gorgeous and one of
the most emotionally rich pieces on the program.
The least rewarding work on the program is the "Danza
característica". Although the piece has a highly atmospheric
and mysterious opening based on descending patterns, the music never
goes anywhere as these patterns reappear much too often and retard thematic
development. Five minutes of music demands much more from a superb composer.
As for aural considerations, the sound is slightly
veiled but meets current-day specifications in all other respects. It
also has a rich quality, which blends very well with the excellent detail
offered by Riva. I’d estimate that only audiophiles would complain about
the sound characteristics.
Volume 6 is a fine addition to Douglas Riva’s Naxos
cycle of the Granados piano works. I recommend the disc and the entire
series to all those who love the piano and superb artistry from both
composer and performer. However, do not gravitate toward Granados if
you are looking for the emotional extremes and incisiveness of a Mahler
or Shostakovich. Granados takes the brighter path and basks in the glow
of his heritage; his music is life affirming and immensely satisfying.