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Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Nocturno (1896) [4:13]
Mazurka en do menor (1899) [4:31]
Serenata Andaluza (1900) [4:29]
Canción (1900) [2:16]
Vals Capricho (1900) [3:00]
Cortejo de Gnomos (1901) [2:09]
Serenata ((1901) [4:09]
Allegro de Concierto (1903/4) [9:07]
Cuatro Piezas Españolas (1906-09) [15:28]
Fantasía Baetica (1919) [13:31]
Homenaje – Pour “Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy” (1920) [3:13]
Canto de los Remeros del Volga (del cancionero musical ruso) (1922) [3:39]
Pour le Tombeau de Paul Dukas ((1935) [3:51]
Juan Carlos Rodríguez (piano)
rec. 2015 Auditori Pau Casals, El Vendrell, Spain

This new release is labelled ‘Manuel de Falla – Complete Piano Music’ and at first sight you might be expecting a double CD. This is not because Falla’s output for the piano is extensive – something which applies equally to his works taken as a whole. Naxos have in fact already released Falla’s complete piano works in 2007, with fellow Spaniard Daniel Ligorio, and this involved two complete volumes (Naxos 8.555065 and 8.555066 respectively). Ligorio chose to include Falla’s various piano-transcriptions of some of his better-known orchestral and ballet scores, while Juan Carlos Rodríguez here has concentrated purely on original solo works for the instrument.

Whether or not you feel the need for Falla’s piano-transcriptions – some of which depart significantly from their orchestral counterpart, leaving Ligorio on Naxos seemingly obliged to make some amendments with the hindsight of the original manuscripts – Rodríguez’s playing on Paladino Music, is exemplary. It is beautifully crafted, sensitively shaped and clearly shows a great empathy for the composer’s style.

Rodríguez lays his tracks out chronologically, so the opening Nocturno – written when Falla was twenty, inhabits a completely different sound-world from the final track – Pour le Tombeau de Paul Dukas which appeared some forty years later. Nocturno initially leans heavily on Chopin – the composer who influenced Falla the most, as a piano student. But just a short while into the work, there is very definitely a Spanish feel to the music, both in the harmony, and more exotic scales used, though this is short-lived as it reverts to the style of the opening. The Mazurka that follows, was written at about the same time, but discovered only much later, and published in 1989. As the name suggests, again Falla is clearly indebted to Chopin, though equally the music and nostalgia of fellow-Nationalist composer, Edvard Grieg, is not totally absent.

The title Serenata Andaluza for the next piece might possibly have a commercial rationale, in that Falla might have been hoping to appeal – and hence sell – to those who live beyond the Pyrenees. Whether this is the case or not, it’s the first overtly Spanish track on the CD, and one where the Castilian influence persists throughout. The opening bars of Canción cannot fail to suggest the rhythm and harmony of one of Eric Satie’s Gymnopédies. Vals Capricho is more reminiscent of a Poulenc Waltz at the start, followed by some delightful salon-style writing, here with hints of Saint-Saëns’s Wedding Cake Caprice tossed into the musical mix. The interesting and informative sleeve-notes – originally in Spanish but translated into good idiomatic English – describe this decidedly light and charming concert-piece or effective encore as having ‘no claim to virtuosity’. Whether the writer checked with the pianist, as the piece is certainly no technical push-over, Rodríguez despatches this little musical meringue with great charm and impressive dexterity.

The Cortejo de Gnomos (Procession of the Gnomes) might suggest something fierce and colourful, whereas apparently it’s just a reworking of a much earlier gentle little Gavotte. Outwardly quite sweet, it doesn’t significantly add to the evolution of Falla’s musical style, having been discovered and published in 1980. Serenata similarly, while composed in 1901, was unearthed only in 1989, and looks back to Chopin, but with more Spanish flavour than in the earlier Nocturno. While overall the sleeve-notes generally describe accurately what is heard, on this occasion, ‘showing great appreciation to vaudeville music in the best sense of the word’ does seem a particularly questionable description, unless the slight resemblance to a waltz-passage from Schumann’s Carnaval is the possible inference?

The Allegro di Concierto is something quite different, if only in being more substantial in length from the miniatures that have gone before. It was written for a composition contest at the conservatory in Madrid, and Falla clearly had Schumann’s work of the same name in his mind. In the event, the winning entry was a similarly-titled work by Granados, with Falla getting only an ‘honourable mention’. While there is some impressive writing in Falla’s work, it is not altogether difficult to see why Granados’s entry emerged victorious. In many of the shorter pieces Falla uses a simple ternary three-part design (ABA). Occasionally anything slightly longer seems to favour the juxtaposition of another, often seemingly unrelated section, rather than pursuing a route where organic development is the order of the day. This tends to be the case in Falla’s Allegro di Concierto, where sections grown from various different pianistic figurations follow on, one after another, before eventually returning to the opening idea, and finishing with a dazzling coda. Granados’s work seems so much more compact by comparison, even though it is really just a few seconds shorter in performance.

The Cuatro Piezas Españolas are fully imbued with all things Iberian, but it is apparent that Falla’s general harmonic language has now developed, as has the linear complexity of his writing. Impressionist elements are evident even in the opening Aragonesa, while the Cubana takes harmonic freedom and chordal juxtapositions further. There is a greater textural expanse and almost contrapuntal feel, as the melodic lines intertwine. The Montañesa opens with a quasi-Impressionist calmness, before a lively middle section breaks in, and where whole-tone scales and almost Debussy-like harmonies prevail, before the opening calm returns. Virtuosity and percussive elements are to fore in the final piece, Andaluza, with an increasingly more astringent harmonic palette evident at times.

The next track is probably the most familiar item on the CD – the Fantasía Baetica – and the most substantial in terms both of length and musical argument, and possibly Falla’s finest original work for solo piano. A far wider gamut of pianistic devices is employed, with some effects even looking towards Bartók, in striving to translate folk and ethnic idioms to the piano keyboard. There is a far more percussive feel to the writing and greater harmonic acerbity, all mingled with Impressionist traits. Again, the quasi-sectional approach of the earlier Allegro di Concierto is evident, but there is now a far greater sense of organic connection and thematic development. There's a thrilling ending to boot which Rodríguez despatches with true panache and unbridled virtuosity.

Apparently Falla deeply admired Debussy, who died just two years prior to the premiere of the Fantasía Baetica in 1920. Falla dedicated Homenaje, pour Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy, originally for guitar, to his memory. Unlike the Fantasía, however, this is an intimate, almost introverted piece, where Falla even quotes from the French composer, while still adding his own personal touches. Canto de los Remeros del Volga is, in fact, Falla’s take on the famous Russian folksong, and actually sung by the monk Varlaam in Boris Godunov. Falla’s piano version wasn’t published until 1980, and while it essentially keeps to the familiar melody, he imbues it with his own harmonic colouring, which includes a good number of unresolved suspensions, which add to the tension of his version. This is also mixed with some conventional diatonic harmony and even traces of modality at times. Listening to the final track, Pour Le Tombeau de Paul Dukas, it would be extremely difficult to second-guess its composer. None of the lightness, bravura and Iberian rhythms and colours of what has gone before is at all evident here. Falla’s writing is almost surreal in its dark and challenging harmonies, compared with anything else in his output, and, unlike the Homenaje, pour Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy, the dedication here to French composer Paul Dukas sheds no further light on this real compositional step forward. Dukas numbered Messiaen among his students at the Paris Conservatoire, so perhaps Falla was being uncannily prophetic here.

Whether, in fact, you’re a pianist with a particular interest in Spanish music of the time, intrigued to hear more than just the occasionally-aired Fantasía Baetica and Nights in the Gardens of Spain for Piano and Orchestra, or simply looking for some varied, highly-attractive and well-written music, this CD definitely has a real appeal and attraction. Couple this with a superb piano sound and recording, and it really does make it quite hard to resist.
Philip R Buttall



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