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Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
GoyescasO los majos enamorados (Majos in Love) [47:22]
Zapateado (Stamping Dance, No.6 from Seis piezas sobre cantos populares espagnole [4:06]
Ochos valses poéticos (Eight Poetic Waltzes) [11:13]
Allegro de concierto Op.46 in C sharp minor [6:44]
Xiayin Wang (piano)
rec. 2017, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
CHANDOS CHAN10995 [70:00]

Enrique Granados’s significance as a late nineteenth-century composer is probably deeper and more diverse than is customarily remarked.  Yes, Granados is lauded as the founder of a distinctly Spanish musical idiom – as, perhaps, the defining spirit of Spanish nationalism in opera and piano music – but his role in fusing European Romanticism with his native folk idiom to form a distinctive and ground-breaking musical voice, and his development of the Romantic pianism of Schumann, Chopin and Liszt is given less critical attention.  This disc by Xiayin Wang highlights varied facets of Granados’s role and influence, as well as the evolution of his own compositional technique and style.

The Oches valses poéticos (Páginas íntimas) are the earliest compositions included on this Chandos disc.  Dedicated to the Barcelona pianist Joaquín Malats (who was one of the first to perform Albeniz’s Iberia), the set of eight waltzes and duple-meter Introduction is thought to have been composed in the mid-1890s, and its title suggests an affinity with the characteristically Romantic union of literature and music.  The waltzes – a dance which, because the bodies of the two dancers touched, was traditionally considered shocking – evoke diverse poetic moods which Wang turns into a veritable emotional narrative.

The Prelude launches with forthright impishness, the cascades sparkling crisply, but the elegance of the ‘Vals melódico’ soon pushes cheekiness aside and Wang’s subtle rubatos add just the right dash of yearning at the peaks of the ascending phrases.  ‘Tempo di valse noble’ has a Schumann-esque urgency and within the slight form Wang finds variety of texture and colour; after the surprisingly pressing forward movement of the first part of the ‘Vals lento’, the rise-and-all poignancy of the middle section has a delicate bitter-sweet flavour.  Much power is brought to the assertive ‘Vals apasionado’, while the following ‘Allegretto’ sways with an insouciant cheeriness.

Graceful melodious with a touch of whimsy in the sixth waltz, ‘Quasi ad libitum’, reminds us that the young Granados worked as a café-pianist.  Moreover, while, in his liner note, Gerard Larner observes echoes of the Vienna of Schubert – the melodious simplicity of Schubert’s Valses nobles D969 and Valses sentimentales D779 – to my ear there’s an improvisatory songfulness reminiscent of Chopin here, and the subsequent ‘Vivo’ certainly has all the bravura force of the latter’s Grande valse brillante Op.18, in miniature.  Wang whips wickedly through the 6/8 Presto – try dancing to that one, Granados seems to say – before the reprise of the first waltz restores equanimity.  It’s a charming reading which captures every nuance of the quirky introspectiveness of the set.

If Chopin was an influence on Granados as a performer-composer then so was Franz Liszt, and the Allegro de concierto Op.46 in C sharp minor is the equal in terms of virtuosity and bravura of the Hungarian master’s flamboyant show-pieces.  Composed in 1903-04, the work was submitted for a competition at the Real Conservatorio in Madrid, which solicited ‘concert allegros’ for solo piano, and won first prize.  It requires muscularity and melodicism in equal measure, and Wang demonstrates tremendous force – particularly in the accompaniment figures, dense chordal melodies and rapid octave-themes – while never neglecting the searching grace of the lyrical line or failing to infuse the strong bass progressions with warmth.  The hurtling figure-work ripples smoothly and evenly, and the voicing in the dense chords is superb; the linking of the varied episodes is absolutely convincing.

There is an occasional scent of a folk scale but nothing particular ‘Spanish’ about the Allegro; however, the ‘Zapateado’ from the Seis piezas sobre cantos populares espagnole (1903-04) combines the brilliance and virtuosity of the Allegro with a distinctly nationalistic spirit.  The title denotes an Andalusian folk dance in which the dancer punctures the ground with his or her heel in time to the precipitous rhythm.  Wang starts out with a compelling toe-tap and within the dance’s four minutes creates a hypnotic sweep tempered by a central section which is itself sultry and coquettish by turn, as the dancer’s hip-sways and gestural flourishes are painted in technicolour.  Impressively, the rock of her technical assurance serves to conjure a riot of reckless high spirits.

It is the two Books of Goyescas (1909-12), though, that form the most substantial item on this recording, and where, despite the Spanish subject matter and idioms, I’d argue that we feel the spirit of Schumann most strongly: in the rich decorative ornaments, the expressive elaboration of repeated passages and the pianistic patterning, and most particularly in the sense of ‘story-telling’.

The six pieces that form the set were inspired by the work of Francisco Goya and tell the turbulent tale of o Los majos enamorados during the Napoleonic occupation of Spain.  In a letter to Malats (11 December 1910), Granados declared: ‘I have concentrated my entire personality in Goyescas.  I fell in love with the psychology of Goya and his palette; with his lady-like Maja; his aristocratic Majo; with him and the Duchess of Alba, his quarrels, his loves and flatteries.  That rosy whiteness of the cheeks contrasted with lace and black velvet with jet, those supple-waisted figures with mother-of-pearl and jasmine-like hands resting on black tissue have dazzled me.’  Wang communicates this romantic ardour, and the strength of the composer’s identification with the painter through the astonishing range of texture and colour that she creates.

One can almost hear the swish of taffeta and the flutter of a fan at the start of ‘Los reqiuebros’ (The Greetings), see the moonlight’s gleam and the glint of a star against the dark night sky in the love duet ‘Coloquio en la reja’ (Conversations at the Grille), feel the voluptuous brush of thick velvet in the layered textures of the lament of the maja and the nightingale (‘Quejas, ó La maja y el ruiseñor’), or the delicate tracery of the lace filigree and the hardness of the dancer’s jewels which sparkle in the candle-light in ‘El fandango de candil’.

That Wang is able to breeze through such fiendish music, allying power with sparkling clarity, and moving easily between ever-shifting emotions, is breath-taking.  Just when a sombre shadow seems to fall, there is an upswell of heated emotion; the tragic tint which glows darkly is unexpectedly lightened by a glistening rush of joy.  Wang includes the epilogue, ‘Serenata del espectro’ (Spectre’s Serenade) that Granados omitted when he fashioned the piano suite into an opera of the same name – premiered at the Met in 1916 – and relishes its ghoulish glee.

Overall, Wang balances sadness and drama with the sunny consolations of Spanish light, love and life, and makes a convincing case for the poetry of Granados’ piano music.

Claire Seymour

Previous review: Robert Beattie


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