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Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Iberia (complete) (1905-1908)
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded at Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, UK., January 2003
CONCERT ARTIST CACD-9120-2 [77.17]

Not many of us would pretend that you have to be German to know how to sing lieder, or Russian to turn in a satisfactory reading of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, yet there are people who maintain that only English musicians can understand Elgar or Vaughan Williams. Spanish music suffers even more from this kind of prejudice.

Prodigiously talented as a child, Albéniz later toured widely and was justly celebrated as a virtuoso pianist. As a composer, patronage from a member of the Coutts family provided financial security and led to the production of a wide range of works including a number of operas. It is his piano music, however, that is best known to the general music lover.

The final years of his short life were much given over to the composition of the set of twelve piano pieces collectively entitled Iberia. Published in four volumes, these pieces were admired and praised by Debussy, and some commentators have noted similarities between them and Debussy’s music, particularly the Préludes. Whilst it is easy to perceive what it was that so impressed Debussy, attempts to draw too many close parallels between the work of the two composers are, in my view, misleading. The keyboard writing in Iberia is highly charged, ferociously difficult in places, its nature closer to that of Liszt than Debussy. Then there is the sheer scale of the pieces. They have been described as "miniature tone poems", but the word miniature gives quite the wrong impression. The longest of these pieces exceeds nine minutes, and there is a general tendency to examine and develop themes at length. Debussy, on the other hand, preferred to establish mood and atmosphere in a more concise way. Finally, there is little of that peculiar luminosity of sound we find in Debussy, the Spanish composer’s intentions being quite different. There is some similarity, though, where the Spanish aspects of the music are concerned, the rich darkness favoured by both composers a world away from the transparent clarity of Ravel.

Each of the twelve pieces carries a title referring to some aspect of Spain. Places, ceremonies or dances figure largely, mainly from Andalusia – despite the composer’s Catalonian origins – and the sombre, brooding melancholy we often associate with the art of that region is very much in evidence here, as is the harsh, fiery brilliance and unpredictable nature. Take any passage at random and the national origin of the music is unmistakeable. Melodic and rhythmic structures are clearly drawn from traditional Spanish models, but these influences are subtly integrated into the overall style. The keyboard writing, the grandeur of the composer’s intentions, the expansiveness and remarkable psychological complexity, all combine in music which stretches Romanticism to the limits of what it can express. Chromatic harmonies abound and tonality is frequently indeterminate. In intent, then, if not in sound, this music seems to follow on naturally from Liszt towards Mahler, Schoenberg and the revolutionaries of the twentieth century.

Joyce Hatto has recorded an outstandingly successful performance of this masterpiece. Collectors already familiar with her work will expect the technical mastery as a matter of course and will not be disappointed. The control she exhibits in the swirling semiquaver sextuplet accompaniment figures in Triana, for example, is astonishing, and witness also the superbly graded crescendo in the opening Evocación. Her reading of the third piece, El Corpus Christi en Sevilla, is masterly, the extremes of the piece magnificently controlled and integrated, from the colourful (yet emotionally detached) representation of the procession to the immense calm of the second section and close, achieving there a quite remarkable poise. Such wide (and wild) changes of mood are very much a feature of this music, and Hatto is particularly successful at drawing the different elements together into a convincing whole.

Comparing Joyce Hatto and Alicia de Larrocha brings us back to the point raised at the beginning of this review. Do you have to be Spanish to be able to play this repertoire? De Larrocha (in 1972, the second of her three recordings) yields nothing to Hatto in respect of technical command, and she is, as we should expect, splendidly at ease with the rhythms and melodies of her own country. Yet one of the great strengths of Hatto’s reading, heard on its own terms, is her ability to create and maintain the inevitably Spanish atmosphere that is at the heart of this music whilst at the same time placing the music firmly in its true historical (and international) context. De Larrocha’s reading has something of a classical feel to it, which is emphatically not to say that the reading is small-scale, only that the focus seems differently directed.

The Spanish nature of this music means that, on one level at least, it is immediately attractive, but in truth it reveals its full meaning only gradually. Listening to the twelve pieces in one sitting is a challenge, but immensely rewarding at the same time. Joyce Hatto’s performance is conveniently issued complete on a single disc with informative notes by my colleague Jonathan Woolf. Each of de Larrocha’s readings is available on two discs coupled with other works by Albéniz and Granados.

William Hedley

Concert Artist complete catalogue available from MusicWeb International

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