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Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860 -1909)
Iberia: Books 1-4 (1906-09) [76:51]
Alicia de Larrocha (piano)
rec. 1962
ALTO ALC1259 [76:51]

For decades Iberia was synonymous with Alicia de Larrocha and her several cycles all have their adherents. They’ve been multiply reissued, so one can’t expect novelty in this release which restores her 1962 Hispavox sessions. The first complete cycle of the suite was to prove so popular in her native Spain that, as James Murray notes in the booklet, EMI brought the international distribution rights. I last reviewed it, briefly, in the context of EMI’s Icon box devoted to the pianist [6 294862, an 8-CD set] though it has also been reissued elsewhere over the years, for example on EMI 764504-2.

When it comes to the competing cries of her cycles of Iberia, I suppose one must weigh up the question of interpretative incision and recording quality. Her digital Decca [4780388] was beautifully recorded, undoubtedly the most expansive and rich-sounding of her cycles by a long way. The earlier 1972 Decca couldn’t match that level of sonic opulence [448 191-2] but it did contain a thrilling recording of Navarra and Granados’ Goyescas.
In so well-tilled a soil as this, the listener as yet unfamiliar with de Larrocha’s performances should be aware of an inevitable corollary of her successive performances, and it’s one common to many performers across the repertory: the earliest cycle is the most lively, exciting, and technically unimpeachable. As the years progressed de Larrocha’s viewpoint broadened, though her technique remained wholly admirable and quite resilient enough to cope with some of the more wrist-crippling demands asked of the performer. But simple mathematics – never a great way of judging music, I admit – shows that the 1962 cycle took 77 minutes and the 1980s digital Decca took 85. This takes a small toll in Corpus Christi en Sevilla, Almería, El Abaicín and Jérez, in particular. Corpus Christi has a greater sense of romanticism in the processional in 1962, the treble glittering in its vivid colour. Inferior only in terms of recorded sound, Almería is more sharply characterised, too, in the earliest cycle, and the tautly darting Flamenco evocations of El Abaicín are the more volatile, as well, than they were later to become.
Which is not to decry the later Decca sets, simply to point out that there is a sense of freshness and purpose to this 1962 cycle that were never quite replicated later on – no matter how superb the playing. And few people, surely, have felt seriously short-changed by the later recordings. For me, this Hispavox cycle is the one to go for – noting that if recorded sound is your God, the digital Decca is for you.

Jonathan Woolf