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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]

Martin Jones is the pianist on this very attractive disc which effectively contains the whole of Falla’s piano music: it contains everything that the composer originally wrote for piano. Other recordings which claim to be the complete piano music (Nimbus do not make that claim), such as Benita Meshulam’s two-CD set Piano Music: Complete on Brilliant Classics seem at first glance to contain rather more than Jones’s disc. That, however, is only because they include the transcriptions Falla made of dances from works such as El sombrero de tres picos, La vida breva and El amor brujo, none of which were initially meant for the piano. So far as I can work out (without access to a specialist library during the Covid lockdown), Falla’s original music for piano consists of just 15 pieces. Yet, you shrewdly observe, there are sixteen tracks on the CD. Indeed; the cuckoo’s egg in this particular nest is track 10, Homenaje – Le tombeau de Claude Debussy. As David Andrew Thresher’s booklet essay reminds us, it was written for solo guitar. Perhaps it was included here to make a pair with the other Homenaje: Pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas. The two are sensibly grouped together in the running order here.

Falla studied both piano – he was taught originally by his mother – and composition in his early years. After graduating from the Conservatory in Madrid, he taught piano snd harmony. He gave concert performances around the same time, both in Madrid and in Cadiz, the city where he had been born. As his career developed, however, he became a composer rather than a pianist, or even what we might call a pianist-composer. Though by all accounts a perfectly competent pianist, Falla was not – and did not aspire to be – a virtuoso like Albeniz. The surviving music he composed for the piano (putting transcriptions aside) is not extensive. It would amount to less than 70 minutes of music by most reckonings. But quality matters more than quantity in matters such as these. And, while it would be wrong to claim that everything on this disc is of the highest quality (some of it is really juvenilia, albeit the work of an exceptionally talented ‘juvenile’), there are pieces which would not be out of place in any piano recital, such as the Cuatro piezas espagñolas and the Fantasía Bætica. A case might also be made for the Homenaje – Pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas.

Apart from their own musical value, and there is very little on this CD that one could call dull, the music Falla wrote for the piano offers insights into a complex, and in some ways paradoxical man. These insights are somewhat different from those provided by his more famous music, such as El retablo de maese Pedro, Noches en los jardines de España , El amor brujo and La vida breve. Falla was, in the words of Walter Aaron Clark (Music and Letters, 99:4, 2018) “reserved, bookish, ascetic, devoutly Catholic to the point of neuroticism, and seemingly asexual – in other words, the exact psychological antithesis of the extravagantly passionate characters that inhabit his musicodramatic universe”. The piano works are altogether quieter and more thoughtful than the theatrical works, more personal one might say, with a sense of introspection and of an important relationship with the Spanish tradition.

In Falla’s years in Paris, 1907-1914, his friends and acquaintances included Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Dhiagilev, Dukas and Albeniz. But his most significant friendship with a fellow artist was probably that with the fellow Spaniard, the poet Lorca. It is discussed at length in a fascinating book by Nelson R. Orringer, Lorca in Tune with Falla: Literary and Musical Interludes (University of Toronto, 2014). The book studies the influence each had on the other –though they could scarcely have been more different in personality – and the analogies between the ways in which each of them sought to achieve an aesthetic reconciliation of Spanish traditions and the contemporary international languages of their respective arts.

Falla’s piano music begins by registering the influence of Debussy, and perhaps also earlier models like Chopin, though a piece such as Cortejo de gnomos (The courtship of gnomes) suggests that he had listened attentively to Grieg too. Yet it seems to have been principally through French eyes and ears that Falla, paradoxically, initially encountered his own country’s music. Even when his attention turned more directly towards his Spanish inheritance, he never forgot the lessons he had learned from such non-Spanish masters. So, in the Cuatro piezas espagñolas, the bells heard in the third piece in the set, Montañesa (Paysage), though they may sound through a mist in Northern Spain, have obvious precedents in then-recent French keyboard music, most obviously by Debussy (Cloches à travers les feuilles) and Ravel (La vallée des cloches). It should be noted, however, that this piece also makes use of at least one folksong from northern Spain; I think it is called ‘San Martin del Rey Aurelio’. In Aragonesa, the first of the Cuatro piezas, the maturing Falla sounds more than a little like Abeniz, and the result is a certain ‘showiness’ not frequently encountered in the piano music of the younger man. Cubana, appositely, is less obviously Spanish; it has, though, a certain sultry charm The last of the Cuatro piezas espagñolas, Andaluza, is more obviously Spanish and can perhaps be regarded as a statement of Falla’s affection for the Andalusia in which he would later choose to live. There is far more sense of dramatic intensity here, compared to its immediate predecessor Montañesa, with the use of fandango and zapateado rhythms contributing to the sense of vivacity and vibrancy. Martin Jones captures admirably, though without over-characterisation, the distinctive personalities of these four pieces.

Andaluza paved the way for the Fantasía Bætica, published in 1919, just one year before Falla decided to live permanently – or so he intended – in the beautiful Andalusian city of Granada; it was Franco’s dictatorship that compelled him to make his way to Argentina in 1940, where he died. His house in Granada can still be visited. There, he was visited by many distinguished friends. There is a very evocative photo of 1922, taken outside the house, of a group including, alongside Falla, both Lorca and Wanda Landowska.

The Fantasía Bætica is one of Falla’s very finest works in any form. (Bætis was the name of the Roman province which covered much the same territory as modern Andalusia does.) Orringer, see above, p.53, writes: “of all Falla’s music in the Andalusian idiom Fantasía Bætica can claim the greatest depth”; he cites observations by Michael Cristoforides, an important Falla scholar, who sees this as the work in which Falla succeeds most completely in “translating and synthesizing into a modern language the musical traits of the folklore singers and dancers, the ornamental, rhythmic phrases of the guitar, and the simulation of microtonal modulations and the scales of cante jondo”. Fantasía Bætica is, indeed, a substantial and beautiful work, which deserves to be far better known. Martin Jones gives it the kind of performance it merits, and which makes its quality clear. He plays with both intensity and precision. Transitions of mood and tempo/rhythm are handled especially well.

This CD has a potentially misleading title, Discover Manuel Falla. This might seem to imply that it is intended as a starting point for those who do not know his music. But this, surely, would not be the best place to begin one’s acquaintance with his relatively small output. The Falla novice would probably do better to begin with the ballet scores, and would be more likely to become an enthusiast. But we can, perhaps, take the CD’s title in another sense: to imply ‘Discover the less familiar Falla’. So, an invitation to discover an area of Falla’s oeuvre which is too often neglected. His compositions for piano tend to be ignored by reference books and the like, including at least one history of Spanish music I have read. They are sometimes subsumed into a category called ‘minor works’. This disc gives the enquiring listener a fine opportunity to discover that the best of Falla’s works for piano are much more than that.

Glyn Pursglove

Previous review: John France



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