Albéniz studied with Liszt, and his greatest achievement, the
four volumes of Iberia, marks him out as that master’s true heir.
Composed during the last years of Albéniz’s tragically short
life, this collection therefore forms the summit of his creative
work. As such it is among the most rewarding and demanding of
challenges that any pianist can undertake.
Alicia de Larrocha has always been associated
with this music, being the leading Spanish pianist of recent
times - she has recorded Iberia three times. This version dates
from 1986 and is as fine as any as an interpretation, while
also featuring superlative Decca digital sound that succeeds
in capturing the music’s full tonal possibilities.
Some of these movements are substantial
in scale. Almeria, for example, is ten minutes
in duration, and therefore the challenge to the performer requires
command of architecture and direction as much as of keyboard
technique. The latter de Larrocha possesses in abundance but
she wears her skills lightly and never sets out to astonish
through parading her virtuosity. In comparing her performances
with those of her closest rival, Marc André Hamelin (see review),
it is true that the latter waves the virtuoso flag more vigorously,
though always in appropriate and sensitive fashion. Either performance
will satisfy, and perhaps the couplings will take on a special
importance for the potential purchaser.
Ibéria is slightly too lengthy a collection to
fit within the confines of a single CD, and the second disc
therefore requires additional material in order to make the
recorded collection marketable. Hamelin opts for several pieces
from the later stages of Albéniz’s career, La vega,
Yvonne en visite!, Espańa and Navarra, whereas de Larrocha has the particularly
appealing Suite Espańola, plus Navarra. The latter
is the unfinished single movement Albéniz omitted from the fourth
and final volume of Ibéria. An interesting comparison
here is that Hamelin opts for the completion by William Bolcom;
de Larrocha for the better known but more perfunctory version
by Déodat de Séverac.
The Suite Espańola dates from twenty years earlier and is
understandably less sophisticated in style. The very directness
becomes the music’s strength, with all but one of the numbers
relying upon that most familiar of musical constructions,
a central contrast contained within an overall ternary design.
Each number of the suite is appealing and frequently memorable
in its melodic personality and rhythmic verve. These characteristics
are maximized in these performances. As such this makes an
ideal coupling for the more substantial Ibéria collection:
the perfect foil, one might say.
Presented in a slim folding case with excellent
and thorough booklet notes by Lionel Salter, this remastering
of undoubtedly great performances forms a notable addition
to the catalogue.