As a performer,
Albéniz was a musical prodigy. His first public appearance as
a pianist was made at the age of four - dressed, apparently,
in Scottish costume! - playing duets with his seven year old
sister Clementina, before an excited audience. As a youngster
he made his way around Spain giving impromptu recitals (and
watching the bull-fights he loved). He had many adventures in
both Spain and Southern America – or so we are told – as an
improbably youthful touring pianist. He entertained American
audiences by playing - sometimes with crossed hands - with his
back turned to the keyboard!
For all the wealth
of his own early history as a performer and his exposure to
a huge variety of musical experiences, Albéniz was actually
relatively slow to find his real voice as a composer. Much of
his early work for piano might, if one is honest, be confused
with the salon pieces of many other ultimately lesser composers.
Quite rightly, this second disc Naxos series of his (complete?)
piano music, mixes the relative slightness of his early work
with the full splendour of his considerable later achievement.
Of course in a life which, as a serious composer, was little
more than twenty five years long, terms such as ‘early’ and
‘late’ are pretty relative. But that his music matured enormously
during that period – and that it might well have gone on to
even greater heights but for his early death – is surely undeniable.
On the present disc
the Recuerdos de viaje are ‘early’ works; the seven pieces
which make up this musical album of images from the composer’s
travels (real or imagined) are, if truth be told, fairly slight
for the most part. The booklet notes by Montserrat Bergadá refer
to the Recuerdos as “a miscellaneous collection in the
form of postcards”, and that gets it about right. They incorporate
some Spanish elements, but their essential musical idiom belongs
in the tradition of Central European romantic pianism. The results
are pretty but slight, music which doesn’t offer very much nourishment
after a few hearings. This is superior salon music; several
of the pieces became ‘hits’ on pianola rolls. The most memorable
pieces are perhaps the mildly infectious bolero ‘Puerto de tierra’,
and ‘Rumores de la caleta’ – an engaging malagueńa.
The other, later,
pieces on the disc offer far more musical substance. Especially
fine is La Vega, a long and truly poetic nocturne, tonally
adventurous, full of sophisticated polyphonic writing. The American
writer and photographer Carl van Vechten wrote (in his 1926
book Excavations) that in this piece “the composer evoked
the spirit of the plain of Granada, lying tranquil under the
high stars, sleeping to the murmur of brooks and to the soft
sweep of the breeze over the gardens and groves of blooming
orange trees” and that doesn’t seem an inappropriately fanciful
response to a lovely, subtle, suggestive piece, beautifully
played here by Guillermo González.
Also very fine
and interesting are the two pieces left unfinished at Albéniz’s
death, and written (after Albéniz’ masterpiece Iberia)
during his final illness: Azaluejos and Navarra.
Azaluejos (the title refers to a kind of glazed tile)
was completed by Granados – perhaps with a bit too much self
indulgence and a certain lack of the subtlety that Albéniz himself
might have brought to the task; Navarra was left only
a few bars short of completion and was completed with less self-indulgence!
by Déodat de Séverac. Both offer tantalising hints of the music
we might have been treated to post-Iberia had Albéniz
lived to write it.
Granados said of
Albéniz’s music that it had “a very nervous tranquillity”; that
it was characterised by “an elegance that smiles with sadness”.
There is something of such qualities to be heard in the best
music here – and those qualities are not by any means wholly
absent even from the Recuerdos de viaje.
leaves one in no doubt whatsoever that he is a pianist well-equipped
– both technically and imaginatively – to interpret Albéniz’s
work. There is little to quibble at in these performances, and
much that commands the listener’s contented assent and provokes
his satisfied pleasure.
see also Review
by John France