Like his older brother Rodolfo, Ernesto Halffter played an important
role in the birth of the new Spanish musical voice in the Twenties.
After studying with de Falla and Ravel, he became one of the
central figures in the progressive group of Spanish composers,
The Group of Eight. Like Rodolfo, Ernesto had to leave the country
during the Civil War. He settled in Portugal. Whereas Rodolfo’s
music is more modern, dry, at times ascetic, with some urbanistic
acidity, Ernesto’s is more soulful, more Spanish, and its most
conspicuous feature is the rich, daring harmony. The present
disc collects almost the entire known solo piano output of Ernesto
Halffter, and its span covers all his creative life. The earliest
pieces here were written when he was 14, the last ones date
from one year before composer’s death.
The disc opens with Espagnolade. As one could expect
from the name, it is very Spanish; more exactly - Andalusian.
Its cold dark drive resembles the famous Spanish Dance No.5
of Granados. In the first part of Crepusculos the young
composer grippingly depicts the creeping twilight; the impressionistic
harmonies are quite brave for a 15-year old. The waltzing second
part has more light. The last part is permeated with the idea
of time. Overall, it is enthralling, beautiful music. Marche
joyeuse is percussive, sometimes dissonant, and childish.
It is interesting pianistically, and, though sounds quite Ravelian,
is not a derivative. Piezas infantiles are another
juvenile creation – though simple technically, they are interesting
musically. The tiny Serenata is eerie, cold and angular.
The other two parts are similar to it, harmonically and in their
melodic structure: Valse with its silver sonorities,
and Petite Marche, which is not especially march-like.
A piano sonata does not have to be a large, multipartite composition
– the name that comes to mind as a proof is Domenico Scarlatti.
Halffter’s first Sonata is clearly of Scarlatti’s heritage,
but its Baroque genes express themselves in modern features.
It is a short – just six minutes long, very concentrated work.
The episodes follow each other without breaks, as in Prokofiev’s
First piano concerto. The piano writing is complex, and there
is a lot of fortissimo. The mood is jubilant, except
for the beautiful, tender cantabile episode. This music
is far from “easy listening”, but it is stimulating and rewarding.
Halffter extracted and arranged for piano three dances from
his ballet Sonatina. The first one recalls the old
French masters, especially Couperin. Light and graceful, the
music flows like a babbling brook. The second dance retains
this cool daintiness and the plaintive mood, but is more Spanish
and more danceable, like a seguidilla. The third piece is a
passionate flamenco, rhythmically rich and flamboyant.
Halffter’s father was German. Gruss, a Christmas present
to his dad, is very German in nature. It is a gentle, tranquil
Albumblatt – a transparent aquarelle which could be
created by Schumann or Grieg. Llanto por Ricardo Viñes
is a Bachian arpeggiated chorale, but the Baroque elements are
used with Halffter’s personal harmonies, troubling and dissonant.
The music has the slow momentum of a sarabande. Serenata
a Dulcinea could be the most memorable piece on the disc.
In good accordance with the original meaning of the word Serenata,
this music has a shadowy, evening mood. This is glass music,
transparent and fragile, full of sadness and yearning.
Pregón is a swaying rumba, spiced and accentuated.
The carefree mood is completely Cuban. Habanera is
sensual and soft. Martin Jones excellently highlights its meaningful
pauses and the erotic rubato. This is music you want
to hear not alone. Like a Carribean cocktail, it is sweet and
intoxicating. Preludio y danza is more advanced. The
Prelude explores the stern rhythmic figure first stated
in its opening. It is a dark and dissonant toccata, with the
dim silhouette of Bach showing through the unexpected harmonies.
Dance is very different: it is playful and mischievous,
with elfin lightness, small teeth and sharp nails. The aftertaste
of the entire work is like after one of Scriabin’s sonatas,
although the language is very different.
Nocturno otoñal is dreamy and reflective. I can’t say
it really grabs attention, but it sets a mood of unperturbed
meditation. The second Sonata is even more Scarlattian
than the first one. Again, the Baroque elements are moved into
Halffter’s personal harmonic world. The character is positive
and spirited, the music is diverse, and the compact structure
brings up a very intense musical experience, though it seems
to me that the First Sonata tells me much more.
Three short pieces written in 1988 are homages to three Spanish
composers. Homenaje a Rodolfo Halffter is a tender
lullaby. A more active middle episode quotes from one of Rodolfo’s
early works. Whereas the language of this piece is advanced,
the ensuing Homenaje a Federico Mompou is as simple
as a song. This is another lullaby with a poignant melody, sad
and sincere. As a contrast, Homenaje a Turina is a
joyous scene – boisterous, exclamatory and very Spanish. It
provides an excellent ending to the album.
Martin Jones is a perfect advocate for this beautiful music.
He is technically impeccable, and finds something special in
every work. This is “absolute” playing: the pianist does not
show off, but puts the listener right into the music. The interpretations
are honest and sound right. But they are not plain: much thought
is apparently put into the decisions. The voice of the piano
is light and round; the music sounds fragile, clean, silvery
transparent. This is aided by a clear recording. Calum MacDonald
provided excellent liner-notes with engaging historical and
musical analysis of the works.
The more I know the art of Ernesto Halffter, the more I want
to explore it further. Among the music of the 20th
Century his voice was not a loud one, but it’s worth listening
to. It said beautiful things.