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Isaac ALBENIZ (1860-1909)
Piano Works (full track listing below)
Esteban Sánchez, piano
Recorded 1968-1974, Casino de l’Alianca del Poblenou, Barcelona, Spain
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92398 [3 CDs: 73 :10 + 71 :12 + 75 :05]
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Isaac Albéniz was a prodigiously talented pianist who appeared in public for the first time at the age of four and continued to give recitals and concerts throughout his life. He spent several years in London where he met and collaborated with Francis Money-Coutts, a member of the banking family, an association which gave rise to a number of operas. He later lived in Paris and in Nice and was living in the French Pyrenees at the time of his death. The catalogue of works he left behind him was in total chaos and the work of establishing order - and in particular any kind of reliable chronology - in his works has been a huge challenge for his biographers. This is only one of several parallels which exist between him and Enrique Granados, whose piano works on Brilliant Classics played by Thomas Rajna I reviewed here recently. Both composers were Catalonian, born less than 150 miles apart, and it can fairly be said that each composer's reputation rests substantially on a single, extended piano work, in the case of Granados, Goyescas, and in the case of Albéniz, Iberia.

It was perhaps Albéniz who was the most overtly nationalist of the two composers, and the majority of the works chosen in this collection played by Esteban Sánchez, in addition to Iberia, are directly Spanish in atmosphere and carry Spanish titles. It is known that Albéniz played the Pavana-Capricho as early as 1883, making it one of his earliest piano pieces. It is a simple, enjoyable piece without pretension, more capriccio than pavane, and with a hint of habañera here and there. The A minor Tango of a few years later is hardly more individual, though strongly rhythmic. The Sonata No. 5, in spite of its number, is also an early work, one of a cycle of seven sonatas, several of which are lost and some of which perhaps never even existed. It is not a sonata in the Beethovenian mould, but rather a salon piece in four movements of which the second, curiously entitled Minuet of the Cockerel – though there is no discernible programmatic content – is sometimes played separately.

The titles of the eight pieces comprising the Suite Española as presented here are confusing and do not necessarily correspond to published editions. Albéniz seems to have composed two such suites and the various individual pieces were written at quite different times. This is perhaps unimportant but undoubtedly troubling for those who like such matters to be clear and unambiguous. Alas, with Albéniz this will never be! No matter, these are for the most part early pieces once again, with a strong atmosphere of salon music about them and with a good dose of Spanishry for good measure. Sánchez occasionally seems stretched in the toccata-like outer sections of Asturias but is most affecting in the sometimes rather lachrymose harmonies of Córdoba. In general, however, he makes a very convincing case for these most atmospheric but undemanding pieces.

España is a collection of six "Album Leaves" which, by their simplicity, were surely destined for young or inexperienced players. Sánchez devotes as much care to them as he does to the rest of the collection: would that the composer had done the same! In simplifying his style in this music composed around 1890 he serves up a mixture not only uninspired but also banal. Malagueña is perhaps the most interesting piece, but the jaunty Capricho catalan is typical of these pieces in its predictable melodic and especially harmonic formulae. Tango is the worst offender here, surely one of the most vapid pieces ever to be found in the catalogue of a major composer.

There is rather more interesting music to be found in some of the pieces making up the travelogue entitled Recuerdos de Viaje. The rocking outer sections of the first piece vividly reflect the title (On the Sea) but the textures are opaque and less pedal – despite the composer's indications – would make for a more satisfying sound. The second piece, like the first, is in ABA form, the outer sections sweetly melodic, the middle passage dark and dramatic (marked sombrio by the composer). Any connection with a barcarolle eludes at least this listener. Alborada is a lovely tone painting, but Andalusia was to be evoked with considerably more subtlety in Iberia than in the following, albeit attractive, En la Alhambra. The fanfares of the fifth piece seem lacking in invention, and the piece as whole, though brilliantly conceived for the piano, is not compelling. In contrast the sixth piece is totally successful as well as being the most overtly Spanish of the group. Then this collection of pieces, which began on the sea, ends on the beach, though a very strange beach scene this is to be sure. Marked melancolicamente, this is a gentle valse de salon, albeit with some delicious cadences to charm the ear.

Torre Bermeja is more substantial, the last of the collection of Twelve Characteristic Pieces, Op. 92 and an evocation of the "Vermilion Tower" of the Alhambra Palace at Granada. The constant alternation of major and minor tonality, the guitar-like figuration, the boundless energy combine to make a fine and memorable piece. Nonetheless, with the first notes of La Vega, composed in 1897, we are in a different world. Subtle, evocative, mysterious, the opening notes are soon transformed by skilful development into music almost as powerful as we find in Iberia. We hear echoes of Debussy, certainly, as well as of earlier composers for the piano, but in this work, perhaps for the first time, Albéniz asserts his own identity, and also perfectly integrates, with great subtlety, the sounds of the music of his own country.

In all these works Esteban Sánchez is a fine and worthy guide but as will be clear by now, much of the music is second rate at best. So how does he shape up in Iberia, the undisputed, towering masterpiece which apparently flowed unbidden from the composer's pen during the years 1905 to 1908? Well, the answer is, exceptionally well. It goes without saying that he is totally at home in this music, the finest nuances of Spanish and Moorish style brought out with great conviction and subtlety, all of which is evident in the opening Evocación, as dark and brooding as any version I know. At last able to follow the score in the main work, I noticed a remarkably natural, yet sometimes extreme, rhythmic freedom, and in the second piece, El puerto, there is more of a feeling of regular pulse in each of the two versions I have been listening to for comparison. The first of these is by Alicia de Larrocha on Decca, and the second by Joyce Hatto, whose reading on Concert Artist I reviewed myself in these pages. Each of these readings is a fine achievement. Sánchez is less successful than either of the others in articulating the multi-voiced counterpoint of the third piece, though he is hugely impressive in the more overtly virtuoso passages as well as in the profoundly beautiful central section, even if here, as elsewhere, following the score reveals him to be less than faithful to the letter of the text in respect of dynamics and expression marks. I find that Sánchez's playing sometimes lacks the long term control and psychological power of de Larrocha and Hatto, with the result that some of the bigger pieces, such as Almeria, can seem too long, though some of this can be explained by his choice of protracted tempi here and there. Marvellously rhapsodic in Triana, he lacks the last ounce of textural clarity that we hear from both his rivals, and the same might be said of El Albacín, dangerously hypnotic though he is at the outset. Most listeners will, I think, find passages in El Polo rather too martellato for their taste, an impression which spills over into the following piece too. The piano sound can be hard above forte, and although some of this undoubtedly comes from the recording, the pianist's rather unvarying manner with sforzandi and – especially – left hand pedal points adds to this impression and makes protracted listening rather an ordeal. There are moments of remarkably passionate playing in the closing pages of Málaga, yet though Sánchez comes into his own when playing quietly I would point out that Albéniz inserts pppp no less than eight times in the last six bars of Jerez, yet you really wouldn't know it from this performance.

We learn from the booklet notes that Esteben Sánchez died in 1997 having returned to the land of his birth, apparently shunning the life of an international virtuoso in order to teach, read and play for pleasure. The booklet contains lots of information, though it is poorly organised and there is rather more pianist-worship than I think Sánchez himself would have wanted. But the set can be confidently recommended to anyone wanting an extensive collection of Albéniz piano music, especially at the price, and the reading of Iberia is outstanding. Only my slight misgivings concerning the sound would, I think, disappoint a listener not making direct comparisons. Yet there is greater control, authority and cumulative power in both alternative readings. Either will do very well, but Joyce Hatto's is really quite special, and makes an impressive and unusual entry point into the recorded repertoire of this remarkable pianist who, championed by many on this site for so long, is at last receiving her due elsewhere as well.

William Hedley

Full Track Listing
CD1 [73:10]

Iberia, Book 1
1. Evocación [5:28]
2. El Puerto [4:06]
3. Corpus Christi en Sevilla [8:32]
Iberia, Book 2
4. Rondena [6:47]
5. Almería [9:58]
6. Triana [5:35]
Piano Sonata No. 5 in G flat major]
7. Allegro non troppo [7:16]
8. Minueto del Gallo [2:10]
9. Rêverie, andante [7:06]
10. Allegro [2:25]
11. Pavana-Capricho [4:26]
12. Tango in A minor [4:31]
13. Torre Bermeja [4:15]
CD2 [71:12]

Iberia, Book 3
1. El Albaicín [7:27]
2. El polo [6:36]
3. Lavapiés [7:29]
Iberia, Book 4
4. Málaga [5:17]
5. Jerez [9:44]
6. Eritana [5:38]
Recuerdos de Viaje
7. En el mar [4:36]
8. Leyenda, barcarola [4:12]
9. Alborada [4:23]
10. En La Alhambra [4:14]
11. Puerta de Tierra [3:35]
12. Rumores de La Caleta [3:39]
13. En la playa [3:53]
CD3 [75:05]

España, Seis hojas de álbum
1. Preludio [1:53]
2. Tango [2:48]
3. Malagueña [4:08]
4. Serenata [3:23]
5. Capricho catalán [2:25]
6. Zortzico [2:12]
Suite Española
7. Asturias [5:50]
8. Córdoba [6:02]
9. Cádiz [4:28]
10. Granada [4:42]
11. Castilla [2:57]
12 Cuba [4:52]
13. Mallorca [6:05]
14. Sevilla [4:54]
15. La Vega [17:30]



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