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Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
The Best of Martin Jones: Discover Manuel de Falla
Allegro de concierto (1903-04) [8:00]
Mazurka en do menor (c.1889) [5:09]
Serenata andaluza (1900) [4:41]
Nocturno (1896) [4:35]
Vals Capricho (1900) [2:58]
Serenata (1901) [3:50]
Obras desconocidas: Canción (1900) [2:23]; Cortejo de gnomos (1901) [2:06]; Canto de los remeros del Volga (1922) [3:09]
Homenaje: Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (1922) [3:26]
Homenaje: Pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas (1935) [3:50]
Cuatro piezas españolas (1906-1909): Aragonesa [3:10]; Cubana [4:17]; Montañesa (Paysage) [4:33]; Andaluza [3:45]
Fantasia Bætica (1919) [12:58]
Martin Jones (piano)
rec. 1996/97, Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI7731 [72:50]

First things first: Martin Jones delivers a masterclass in this performance of the piano music of Manuel de Falla. Whether he is playing the Spanish-inspired works or the more universal salon pieces, Jones brings complete technical skill, sincerity of interpretation and sheer magic to this music. It is an ideal disc to ‘Discover’ de Falla’s varied and often exciting piano music.

It is not clear what the antecedent of this repackaging is. The only information given in the liner notes is the original recording dates. I am guessing that these Manuel de Falla pieces were originally released on Volume 2 Spanish Piano Music (NI5619) released by Nimbus in 1999. A simple statement of ‘previously released on…’ is all that was required.

The content of this disc includes the vast majority of de Falla’s music for solo piano. There are several lost works as well as a piano transcription of the Three-Cornered Hat and various arrangements of songs for piano solo which are not included. The pieces on this CD are not presented in chronological order.

The recital opens with the ‘Allegro de concierto’ (1903-04) which was the composer’s entry for a competition to write a test piece for the Madrid Conservatory. It did not win, just losing out to Enrique Granados’s entry with the same title. De Falla’s piece was forgotten and was not rediscovered until 1980. This is a sometimes-exciting work that seems to be formally free in design. I am never quite sure just how ‘Spanish’ in mood this piece is. It has been said that that it owes much to Robert Schumann; other influences must include Liszt and Chopin. This is a technically demanding work that somehow just seems to lack interest (for me). The composer gave the premiere performance of this work in Madrid during May 1905.

The earliest piece on this disc is the ‘Mazurka’. This was composed in around 1889 when the composer was in thrall to Chopin and possibly Edvard Grieg. The same enthusiasms were evident in the pleasant ‘Nocturne’ written five or six year later. These pieces are quite definitely ‘salon’ music; they owe little to Sunny Spain.  Both are enjoyable but almost by definition are derivative. The ‘Serenata andaluza’ (1900) has little to justify the title but at least it creates a captivating atmosphere which just hints at the strumming of guitars.

The delicious Vals-capricho has a lovely tune worthy of Erik Satie or even Francis Poulenc; it is pure French ‘café’ music.

The ‘Serenata’ written in 1901 is an attractive little piece that does have some Iberian sunshine about it. It seems more than ‘mere’ salon music and presents some typically indolent sounds, especially in the middle section.

Obras desconocidas translates as ‘unknown works.’ The first is the melodic ‘Cancion’, composed in 1900. There is a lovely simplicity about this piece that may remind the listener of Erik Satie or Gabriel Fauré. The short ‘Cortejo de gnomos’ nods in title and style to Edvard Grieg but is less strident in tone than the Norwegian’s effort. It was first performed in Cadiz in 1899. The last of the ‘unknown works’ is the ‘Canto de los remeros del Volga’ which was composed for de Falla’s friend the diplomat Ricardo Baeza. It is based on the traditional Russian folksong ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ first published in 1868.  De Falla’s reworking was written in 1922 as a tribute to the large number of refugees from the Russian Revolution. This is percussive and sometimes dissonant music, that occasionally has reminiscences of Debussy’s ‘La cathédrale engloutie’.

‘Homenaje: Le tombeau de Claude Debussy’ was the result of a commission by La Revue musicale to ten composers to write a piece of music in memory of Debussy who had died on 25 March 1918. These included works by Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel, Erik Satie, Eugene Goossens and Igor Stravinsky.  Manuel de Falla wrote a short ‘Homage’ for guitar solo. The music included allusions to Debussy’s ‘La sérénade interrompue’, ‘Ibéria’ and at the end, ‘La soirée dans Grenade’. In 1922 the composer transcribed the piece for piano solo. The music is written in a slow habanera rhythm and is sombre and dark-hued.

Some eighteen years later another commemorative volume was published by the La Revue musicale this time for Paul Dukas who died on 17 May 1935. Composers contributing to this included Olivier Messiaen, Guy Ropartz and Florent Schmidt. De Falla’s contributed his ‘Homenaje’, composed once again for guitar. This is a downright gloomy ‘threnody’ in a dark F minor which has no Spanish overtones. There are even hints of atonalism and ‘expressionistic’ harmonies in these few bars. There is also a brief reference to Paul Dukas’ Piano Sonata dating from 1906. De Falla’s piece was later published for piano and was subsequently orchestrated as the third movement of Falla’s Homenajes.

The ‘Cuatro piezas españolas’ (Four Spanish Pieces (1906-09) are dedicated to Isaac Albeniz who was seriously ill at this time. The suite balances folk music with the sensuality of French Impressionism. The opening ‘Aragonesa’ is based on the jota, which is a highly rhythmic dance from Northern Spain. That said, the composer once declared that he had not used any authentic examples of the dance but had created a synthesis. The sometimes ‘languorous and sensual…atmosphere’ of ‘Cubana’ clearly nods to Spanish culture as exported to Latin America. ‘Montañesa’ will remind the listener of Debussy. It is a splendid example of impressionism that would come to full fruition in de Falla’s ‘Noches en los Jardines de Espana’. The music is an evocation of the mountainous region of La Montana near Santander.  It incorporates a local folksong as well as alluding to the sounds of the local countryside including bells in the valley. The final number ‘Andaluza’ is an all-out exploration of the rich musical and dance traditions of that part of Southern Spain. Dance, castanets, strumming guitars are all hear here. The middle section presents the improvisatory style of Flamenco. The piece closes with a quiet, nocturnal coda; it is hardly surprising that this final movement is often used as an encore.

If some of the pieces on this CD seem to be devoid of Iberian colouring, this cannot be said about the main event in this CD, the Fantasia Bætica.  This brilliant and evocative showpiece is the most technically demanding of all de Falla’s piano works. It is also the longest at nearly thirteen minutes.
The title refers to the Roman province of Baetis, which is now part of Andalusia. The piece was written in 1919 for the great virtuoso pianist Arthur Rubenstein (1887-1982). Although Rubenstein gave the work its premiere in 1920, he never included it in his repertoire: certainly, he never recorded it. The rumour is that he felt that it was too long. Furthermore, some critics suggested that the music was not pianistic and did not lie well under the hands.

This work is a celebration of Andalusian culture, history and landscape. Some of the musical material is derived from the Flamenco tradition: we hear strumming guitars, chattering castanets and heel stamping interspersed with several snatches of dance tunes. I understand that these are all original and not ‘collected.’ The ‘middle section’ features a reflective gypsy’s song and an ‘intermezzo’ before the opening material is recapitulated.  Fantasia Bætica follows in the footsteps of de Falla’s great Andalusian inspired works, El Amor Brujo and El Sombrero del tres picos. It was to be the composer’s last excursion into the smoky Flamencan musical world before he adapted his musical style towards neo-classicism.

For me this a piano masterpiece. Perhaps some of the ‘less-favoured’ pianistic devices such as tremolandos and glissandos give the work its overheated Andalusian sensibilities rather than detracting from its playability.  From the performer’s point of view, there is always the danger, I guess, that the music will run away with them. This is not an issue for Martin Jones who presents a totally absorbing performance of this remarkably sun-drenched work.

Finally, the recorded sound is excellent.  Some listeners may wish to delve deeper into the history and aesthetic of these piano works; however, the succinct liner notes are most helpful. Clearly this release is part of a planned reissue of Martin Jones’ back-catalogue. Long may it continue…

John France

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