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Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Book 3: El Albaicin [7:16], El Polo [7:02], Lavapiés [6:57]
Book 4: Malaga [5:24], Jerez [10:12], Eritaña [5:28]
Alexander Boyd (piano)
rec. St. Bartholomew's, Brighton, UK, 16-18 November 2014
Reviewed as DVD-Audio 24-bit 192kHz stereo
Also available on CD CR6023-2
CLAUDIO DVD-A CR6023-6 [42:23]

The first volume of this Albéniz Iberia was reviewed here in February 2016. My interest in the current issue was piqued by a long affection for piano music from the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America, and by an equally long interest in the history of recorded sound. The latter was excited on this occasion by noticing that the new release is formatted as DVD-Audio (DVD-A), which I thought was an extinct species, having fluttered into life at the turn of this century before, it seemed, sinking without a trace. I managed to collect a handful at the time, but more out of curiosity, as then observing that a fair majority had sampling rates of 44.1kHz and 48kHz, I didn’t expect them to add anything to the CDs they mostly replicated. The new release, however, is 24-bit 192kHz. More on that shortly.

Iberia is, according to the New Grove, ‘the crowning expression’ of Albéniz’s genius, ‘a work distinguished by its extraordinarily complex piano technique, harmony that is free and bold and occasional instrumental effects, in which the piano imitates the guitar or castanets’. It goes without saying that any pianist who takes on Iberia also takes on the great Alicia de Larrocha, who recorded it multiple times. Listening to de Larrocha play any of this Spanish repertoire – Albéniz, de Falla, Granados, Turina – one senses she has the rhythm, the colour, the passion, even the aroma, of the music in her blood. But she can’t have the field to herself forever, and I agree with Dave Billinge’s review of Volume 1 that Alexander Boyd has nothing to fear. Comparing the new recording with de Larrocha’s early 1970s traversal of Iberia on Decca, I was struck more by similarities than differences – even in timing and tempo, as I set them running in parallel, and was astonished to find that though several minutes into a piece, they were still on the same bar! Quite remarkable for music that skips and dances along as this does. It’s easy of course to persuade oneself that de Larrocha is more ‘echt‘, and indeed on occasions I felt a little more secure and informed in her hands, but this marvellous music of Albéniz can have many masters, and Alexander Boyd is assuredly one of those. Plaudits as well to Gemma Kateb’s compactly illuminating liner notes which help us to savour his performance.

As noted before, this is a 24-bit 192kHz recording in DVD-A format, which requires a Blu-ray or DVD player with DACs of commensurate resolution. I presume that as Claudio is a small label, this is a more economical option than the Blu-ray Audio (BD-A) disc, considering also the short-ish playing times. For those who are not able to play the DVD-A, Claudio offers a CD alternative. I was rather surprised that, given DVD-A’s capability for multichannel sound, the recording is stereo only – not even any rear-channel ambience. Its only differentiation from the CD format, therefore, could be on the grounds of sound quality.

And the sound? The piano is well placed in the stereo field and finely detailed, if a tad too much pedal noise. The tone though struck me as rather brittle at times, and a bit too ‘live’, more I suspect an acoustic effect than anything else, as I was also acutely aware of multiple reflections off hard surfaces in fairly close proximity – the walls of St. Bartholomew’s in Brighton, I presume. It’s the sort of thing that can negate the best of technological intentions. Or was it in fact the kind of detail one could attribute to ‘high resolution’ sound? As I didn’t have the CD version for comparison, I ran the DVD player outputs alternatively through a 16-bit 44.1kHz A/D/A chain, and switched between them. With the levels carefully equalised and the switch independently operated, I frankly couldn’t separate the two signals, suggesting that if you can’t play the DVD-A, you won’t be missing out on much, if anything, by getting the CD. It’s certainly preferable to the hard, clangorous Decca sound for de Larrocha, although that shouldn’t discourage you from also adding her classic Iberia to your collection, if you don’t already have it.

Together with his first volume of this Albéniz masterpiece, Alexander Boyd now becomes a serious contender in the Iberia field regardless, it seems, of which audio format you choose.

Des Hutchinson



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