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José Iturbi (piano) - The Victor and HMV Solo Recordings
rec. 1933-1952
APR 7307 [3 CDs: 73:15 + 72:35 + 65:56]

José Iturbi’s polished good looks graced Hollywood film musicals in the 1940s and on, by which time he had committed to disc a reasonable amount of repertoire for RCA Victor. Born in 1896 he lived on to 1980 but death brought the almost inevitable decline in reputation, a situation made the more pointed as few LPs were then around to document his pianism.

His Victor (as it then was) contract began in 1933 and he continued to record for the company until 1952 when he signed to French Columbia. As this three-CD box contains only his solo discs for RCA and its British affiliate HMV, it’s necessary to search elsewhere for his concertos and for the two-piano discs made with his sister, Amparo. Also, it’s necessary to point out duplication in his discography. He made a sequence of recordings on 78 during 1946-48 that were rapidly followed by tape remakes for the LP market. Rather than include both sequences APR has chosen the sonically superior taped recordings made in 1949-50. However, both sequences of the Debussy Arabesques have been included. Dedicated Iturbi collectors should study APR’s documentation carefully.

Iturbi’s repertoire has been grouped, so this is a non-chronological, composer-based running order which starts, fortuitously with the two Scarlatti sonatas he recorded in December 1933, near the beginning of his recording career. The B minor is romantically inflected and expressive with melancholic characterisation amidst the elegantly-voiced flow. This contrasts strongly with its disc pairing, the avuncular and dramatic C major, fanfares very much to the fore. The sole example of his Bach here, the Fantasia in C minor, BWV906 doesn’t sound especially convincing, whilst the Mozart sonatas – of which I reviewed the Sonata in F major in its appearance on Ivory Classics – have been much admired. I still cleave to my view expressed in that 2003 review, however, feeling that the root of the Iturbi problem here is ultimately one of a lack of projection of the inner life of the Adagio. For all his clarity and for all his self-evident finesse there is sometimes a frustrating lack of deeper exploration. Still these limitations – if such they are - are no bar to appreciation of his other strikingly persuasive strengths.

The Victor engineers extracted some fine verticality and tonal depth in Beethoven’s Andante favori, where Iturbi’s responsive wit has time to flourish through his rubati in Für Elise are rather disruptive. The 1950-52 recordings are somewhat compromised by a hard recording that renders Iturbi’s tone a touch flinty. His Liebesträume No.3 is straightforward and attractive – though again tonally constricted – and his considerable mechanism can be admired in Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, even if the performance per se isn’t especially evocative.

The second disc introduces a skittish Chopin sequence. The Polonaise in A flat major is variably done, and predictable rubati blight the Fantasy Impromptu, Op.66. There’s something oddly fey and undernourished about his Chopin – to turn from an Iturbi Waltz to one from Friedman is to experience a wholly different set of emotions. Amidst a predictable Rachmaninov-Paderewski coupling it’s good to encounter Filip Lazar’s Marche funèbre from his Sonata in A minor, recorded by Iturbi the year after the composer’s death and a rare example of him being let off the reportorial leash in the studio. The Arabesques are heard best in the 1939 performances which are earlier but also more tonally refined than the rather sternly recorded 1950 attempts; the 78s are also more sensitive, and more playful – the later ones more glib.

By now Iturbi agnostics will be casting around for signs of greatness. Some inkling of his stature finally arrives in the third disc when Spanish repertoire appears. Albéniz, Granados, Falla and Iturbi himself form a strong sequence recorded over a two-decade period from 1933 to 1952. Sevilla, from Albeniz’s Suite Española is heard in fine 1933 sound quality; tonally and expressively this is excellent and if Malagueña sounds a touch spick and span, maybe the recording quality can share some of the blame. Did he rush to fit The Maiden and the Nightingale onto one 78rpm side? His propensity for flashy left-hand detonations is another demerit in a performance that can’t compare with those of Alicia de Larrocha or Myra Hess. His flashiness could be a problem but his vitality and rhythmic verve were strongly alluring and exciting and for all the unevenness in this Spanish sequence the drive is seldom in doubt. He plays the Morton Gould pieces with vivid drama too.

Jed Distler’s notes offer sound biographical pointers and helpful thoughts whilst Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are equally fine; there’s little to be done with the unalluring LP sound.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

CD 1 [73:15]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in B minor, Kk27
Sonata in C major, Kk159
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Fantasia in C minor, BWV906
Domenico PARADIES (1707-1791)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Piano Sonata in A major, K331
Piano Sonata in F major, K332
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Andante favori in F major
Für Elise
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Arabesque, Op. 18
Romance, Op. 28/2
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Liebesträume No. 3
Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este

CD 2 [72:35]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Polonaise, Op. 53
Fantasy Impromptu, Op. 66
Waltzes, Opp. 64/1 and 64/2
Mazurka, Op. 7/1
Nocturne, Op. 32/1
Preludes, Op. 28/9 and 28/10
Étude, Op. 10/12
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
June and November from ‘The Seasons’
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873–1943)
Prelude, Op. 3/2
Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Minuet in G major
Filip LAZAR (1894-1936)
Marche Funèbre
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Allegro appassionato, Op. 70
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Clair de lune
2 Arabesques
Jardins sous la pluie

CD 3 [65:56]
2 Arabesques
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
The Maiden and the Nightingale
Spanish Dances Nos. 2, 5, 10
Eduardo LÓPEZ-CHAVARRI (1871-1970)
The Old Moorish Castle
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Dance of Terror and Ritual Fire Dance
Manuel INFANTE (1883-1958)
José ITURBI (1896 -1980)
Canción de cuna
Pequeña Danza Española
Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Boogie Woogie Etude



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