Albéniz died tragically young, of Bright’s disease at the age of only 49. His passing was widely mourned. Among his many compositions the piano pieces collected under the title Ibéria
have always been regarded as his masterpiece. Indeed Olivier Messiaen went further, calling the collection ‘the greatest achievement of Spanish music’. Hearing these well-played performances by Peter Schaaf
one is inclined to agree.
Albéniz began work on Iberia
in 1905, completing the project three years later. The collection is not a suite of short pieces in the conventional sense, but rather twelve numbers that are arranged into four books of three numbers each, which can be played in any order. The technical demands are uncompromising, since the music abounds in cross-rhythms, interweaving of the fingers, hand-crossings, difficult jumps and stretched chords. At one stage Albéniz went close to destroying his manuscript, fearing that the music might be impossible to play.
During these years Albéniz was living in Paris, where he moved in the same artistic circles as the great French composers of the age: Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, D’Indy and Dukas. Added to the inevitable French flavour this brought to his writing for the piano, the Ibéria
collection also maintains a nostalgic and sensitive feeling for his native Spain. The music can be played either as a complete entity, in groupings according to the four books, or as individual movements. It is therefore ideal for listening via the medium of a recording.
The recorded sound from the Victor Elmaleh Collection
is clear and accurate enough, if somewhat resonant, and a genuine pianissimo is therefore seldom found. Schaaf’s playing may miss the subtle dynamic shadings somewhat, but perhaps (more likely) the recording is simply ‘big’ and resonant. This is worth bearing in mind since the catalogue contains several distinguished alternatives: that by the great Alicia de Larrocha (Decca 4780388
) is particularly fine. However, where Schaaf scores is that his performance — uniquely so far as I am aware — manages to fit the whole collection on to a single CD, whereas the others overspill onto a second disc which is then completed with additional music.
The presentation of the supporting material is well printed and there are informative notes, but once again here is a disc in which there are fundamental design flaws in the supporting package; I seem to have bad luck in this regard. The notes are contained in a separate slim booklet held in a pouch that only opens inwards towards the central spine when it is opened out, and accessing it is therefore no easy matter. Why on earth do it this way?