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Isaac ALBENIZ (1860-1909)
Piano Music - Volume 4

Suite ancienne No. 3, T. 76 (1886) [6:20]
Sonata No. 5 in G flat major, Op. 82, T. 85 (1887) [22:40]
Diva sin par: Mazurca-Capricho, T. 63 (1886) [4:44]
Balbina Valverde: Polka brillante humoristica, T. 64 (1886) [4:25]
Estudio Impromptu, T. 50 (c. 1885) [6:13]
Reves, Op. 201, T. 99 (1890) [9:54]
Serenata arabe, T. 60 (c. 1885) [5:41]
Cadiz-Gaditana, T. 93 (1890) [3:39]
Zambra granadina, T. 97 (c. 1891) [3:38]
Tres improvisaciones (transcr. Milton R. Laufer) (1903) [7:35]
Ruben Ramiro (piano)
rec. 8-9 July 2013, Conservatorio Profesional de Musica ‘Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos’, Spain.
NAXOS 8.573294 [75:42]

Largely consisting of works from Albeniz’s early compositional career this is an interesting exploration of his first influences. It also marks the germination of his own ‘signature’ which demonstrated an intimate knowledge of pianistic textures and an interesting use of contrapuntal elements.
 
Many of the works featured were written in the Romantic style. It is worth noting that Ruben Ramiro manages to lift these compositions, which at times suffer from repetition and glibness, out of the stuffy salon ambience. In fact he imbues each phrase with charismatic flare, much associated with Albeniz’s later works as well as intrigue and depth.
 
The Suite ancienne No. 3 illustrates a penchant for eighteenth-century dances and traces the first whisperings of the composer’s progression from imitator to innovator. Through sensitive and intelligent interpretations, this CD offers the listener a musical journey from youthful works to those of the Spanish master’s mid-career.
 
More like a suite than a sonata in form, Albeniz’s Sonata No. 5 in G flat major, Op. 82 is heavily indebted to Chopin and Grieg. Where themes generally develop through modulation, the second movement – wittily called ‘el Gallo’ (the cockerel) – is a sparkly interruption, played with here with a dash of youthfulness. The Reverie is undeniably Romantic though slightly more restrained; Ramiro holds attention through poise, though the pace seems a little slow at times. Juxtaposed with the Allegro finale, which is in the manner of Scarlatti and Soler, this piece jumps and flits in its era, its tempo and sentiment, though the pianist successfully manages to make it cohere through careful shaping and close attention to the theme.
 
First published under the nom de plume ‘Principe Weisse Vogel’, Diva sin par: Mazurca-Capricho and Balbina Valverde: Polka brillante humoristica, as well as the Estudio Impromptu are reminiscent of the works of Schumann and Liszt. In reference to the influence of the latter, it has been documented that in 1880 Albéniz went to Budapest to study with Liszt, only to find that Liszt was in Germany at the time. Nevertheless, the strength and athleticism of Liszt can be heard in Albeniz’s Estudio Impromptu. Ramiro is careful to pick out these influences as well as highlight the moments where Albeniz diverges from his forefathers. In this he unshackles himself from what Harold Bloom calls the ‘anxiety of influence’. The Ręves, Op. 201 move into a Mendelssohn style, with a predominant singing melody running through the centre of the three movements.
 
Perhaps the most recognisably ‘Albeniz sounding’ pieces on this CD are Serenata arabe (later used in his opera The Magic Opal) and Zambra granadina. Composed in 1885 and 1891 respectively, these contain the guitar rhythms and exotic scales associated with flamenco. A hauntingly beautiful melody with Moorish inflections and the use of Andalusian folk-songs are the features which give these pieces their specifically lyrical and oriental colours. Along with the constant switching between major and minor, creating an unsettlingly unpredictable effect above the ostinato rhythm, these elements conspire to produce that characteristic Albeniz effect. Ramiro performs with a captivating impression of spontaneous improvisation.
 
During the late 1880s, the strong influence of Spanish style became evident. In 1883 Albéniz met the teacher and composer Felipe Pedrell, a leading figure in the development of nationalist Spanish music. Gilbert Chase, in his book entitled The Music of Spain, describes Pedrell's influence on Albéniz as follows: ‘What Albéniz derived from Pedrell was above all a spiritual orientation, the realization of the wonderful values inherent in Spanish music’. Indeed, this instinctive sensibility and vigour colours pieces such as Serenata arabe, Cadiz-Gaditana (a world premiere recording), and Zambra gradina.
 
Albeniz’s Tres improvisaciones (1903) finish this album and are examples of Albeniz emerging as a confident and predominantly Andalusian composer whose works contain: ‘less musical science, less of the grand idea, but more colour, sunlight, flavour of olives. That music of youth, with its little sins and absurdities that almost point out the sentimental affectation’. Ramiro puts a spotlight on this vitality, intrigue and zest as he moves from stable salon-style miniatures to the more challenging and original Improvisaciones with an admixture of elegance and Hispanic fervour.
 
This is volume 4 in Naxos’ Albeniz piano music series although the first instalments were in the hands of  Guillermo González. Reviews can be found as follows: Volume 1 ~~ Volume 2 ~~ Volume 3.

Lucy Jeffery