Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Rapsodia Española for piano and orchestra, T16: original orchestration, edited by Jacinto Torres (1886-87) [11:21]
Navarra, T106, completed by Pilar Bayona (1909) [5:42]
Piano Sonata No.5, T85 (1888) [18:56]
Troisième Suite Ancienne, T76 (1887) [6:12]
Azulejos, T107 (1909) [7:00]
Piano Concerto No. 1, T17 Concierto Fantástico (1887) [25:10]
Miguel Baselga (piano)
Tenerife Symphony Orchestra/Lü Jia
rec. December 2007 Auditorio y palacio de congresos, Zaragoza, Spain (solo piano pieces); July 2009 Auditorio de Tenerife, Santa Cruz de Tenerife (concertos). DDD
BIS-CD-1743 [75:43]

I was first introduced to the piano music of Isaac Albéniz whilst still at school. One of the ‘advanced’ pupils used to play for me the ‘Córdoba’ from the Chants d'Espagne. It was a warm romantic piece that I loved, and I guess that he must have been very tolerant of me to play it over and over again. I have remained grateful to him over nearly forty years. What I did not understand at that time was that there were two sides to the composer’s style. Listening to Córdoba, there is no doubt that the influence of Spain was pervasive – both the rhythms of the local dance music and the impressionistic colours of the country are clearly present. This is also true of Albéniz magnum opus, Iberia. However, I remember being surprised on hearing a recording of the Piano Sonata No.5 (which is played on this disc). Here was music that had little connection with the sights and sounds of Spain. The truth is that the stylistic parameters of Albeniz’s music are not straightforward.

The present CD makes a fine introduction to the composer’s piano music, covering as it does the ‘Spanish’ music as well as pieces that derive from the mainstream classical music of Germany and France: it explores works from the early days of the composer’s career through to his last year. In addition there are two ‘concertante’ works recorded which provide the listener with a rare treat.

The Rapsodia Española for piano and orchestra is the earliest work on this CD, dating from 1886-87. It was originally written for two pianos but was also ‘dished up’ in a variety of other versions or arrangements by other composers, including George Enescu, André Breton and Cristobal Halffter. However, in this present recording, Miguel Baselga has chosen the edition produced from the original fragments by the Spanish musicologist and Albéniz scholar Jacinto Torres.

This was the first time I have heard this lovely work. For me, it balances a subtle use of Spanish idioms, whilst remaining fairly and squarely in the Lisztian world of pianism. However, the most surprising thing about this piece is the occasional use of a kind of Iberian impressionism that nods towards Debussy. The overall impression of this happy work is of exuberant fun and bright sunshine. A contemporary writer after hearing this piece wrote that ‘the name of Albeniz is destined to signify a major personality in European music.’

For every listener that knows the great Iberia suite or the ‘Tango in D’ there will be only a handful that have heard the Piano Concerto No.1 ‘Concierto Fantastico.’ This was composed during 1887 at a time when Albéniz was largely engaged on small scale salon pieces. The programme notes are quite correct in suggesting that the ‘fanastico’ element of the title is actually ‘quite discreet.’ Stylistically this three movement concerto owes more to the music of Mendelssohn and Schumann rather than to the folk traditions of Andalusia or Catalonia. Yet this is not to belittle the work: there is wide range of ‘romantic’ piano concertos that have the same allegiances. Albeniz brings his own magic to this piece – for example the second subject of the first movement is a truly gorgeous and memorable theme that is up there with the best of Rachmaninov. It is important to note that the ‘fantastico’ of the title emerges in the second movement, which the sleeve notes tell us is supposed to represent ‘the vagueness of a dream.’ This movement is in two sections- the first uses a theme from the first movement and the second is a regular Mendelssonian ‘scherzo’ with a fine swing to the main theme. Although I do not believe that the work is formally ‘cyclical’ the final allegro does clearly allude to music from the opening movement.

This concerto has a perfect balance between the piano and orchestra, with beautiful tunes being presented to the listener one after the other. The listener may not feel that this is the ‘greatest’ romantic concerto from the late nineteenth century, but it is certainly worthy of the composer and deserves to be in the repertoire. There are some totally perfect moments in this music that raise this work well above average. For me, it is one of the loveliest of Albeniz’s works in spite of the lack of Spanish colouring!

The Sonata No. 5 was composed in 1888. Strangely, there are alleged to be twelve works in this form, however only three seem to have survived. There is certainly little to tie this work down to Spain – in fact it comes straight from the romantic tradition – and is none the worse for that! There are four movements here with the gorgeous ‘Reverie’ placed third. The structure of the Sonata is a little unbalanced, the first movement being longer that the other three combined. Look out for echoes of Chopin and Mendelssohn, whilst Scarlatti features in the closing ‘allegro.’ All in all this is a good, competent and thoroughly enjoyable Sonata, although if one heard it with an innocent ear, one would never associate it with Albeniz.

Albeniz wrote three Suite anciennes (1887). The first two were recorded by Miguel Baselga in volumes 4 and 5 of this BIS edition of the piano music. In the third suite there are only two movements – a minuet and a gavotte. These were originally written as a sight-reading test for the position of assistant professor at the Escuela Nacional de Musica. These pieces can be regarded as Scarlatti seen through the eyes of a Chopin, a Schumann, a Liszt or a Weber. They exploit the interest in period forms from the past. Once again there is little of Spanish colour in these two pieces, although the programme notes point out that a ‘seguidilla rhythm’ is discreetly heard in the Minuet.

Azulejos is my favourite piece on this CD. Originally entitled Prelude in A major, it was completed by Enrique Granados after Albeniz’s death. The word ‘Azulejos’ refers to pieces of mosaic and was originally intended to be a part of a piano suite or cycle. Unfortunately only this movement was written. Interestingly, Miguel Baselga does not use Granados’ realisation: he finds that ‘it completely misses the point’ with its ‘nonsensical modal ending. So he has devise done of his own that recapitulates the opening music. This he feels is more typical of some of the composer’s other music. Azulejos is a million miles away from the concerto. The listener will be immediately reminded of Debussy in both melody and harmony. It is effectively a ‘danse lente.’

I have always enjoyed Navarra, which was intended to be a part of Iberia, but never quite made it. Albeniz himself felt that it was ‘scandalously lame’ and did not deserve its place in his masterpiece. Unfortunately it was not complete at the time of the composer’s death. The piece was dedicated to the pianist Marguerite Long, but was premièred in 1912 (three years after the composer’s death) by Blanche Selva. It was first heard in a version prepared by Albeniz’s pupil Déodat de Séverac. However, Miguel Baselga was not satisfied with this version - he felt that it was over-cautions – ‘on tip-toes, too sparing with the turmoil. So he has chosen another arrangement by the Spanish pianist Pilar Bayona (1897-1979). He believes that Bayona’s version ‘corresponds entirely with Albeniz’s style.’ It is ‘deft, simple but well considered.’

Navarra is in many ways a reflective piece, in spite of the above noted demand for ‘turmoil. It is really a musical portrait of the land south of the Pyrenees. Strangely, in spite of the composer’s misgivings it has become one of the best loved and most popular of his piano pieces. It has been arranged for both orchestra and guitar, most of which are musically successful. But I have to hand it to Miguel Baselga: Pilar Bayona’s realisation is superb.

I enjoyed this CD immensely. The playing is stunning and Miguel Baselga manages to express the dichotomy between the ‘Spanish’ music and the more classically and romantically orientated pieces: it is playing that is characterised with sympathy and understanding. This is a well produced CD; although I would have liked a wee bit more detail in the liner-notes as not all these works are familiar to me.

John France

see also review by Dan Morgan

Stunning playing that characterises the music with sympathy and understanding.