I don't remember how or when I first heard any of Albeniz's keyboard works, but the beginning of my infatuation with his work dates from the day I bought a two disc recording of the complete Iberia Suite, played by the Cuban born pianist Jose Echaniz.*
In my late teens, I'd had a resurgence of interest in the keyboard, though I would never have been sufficiently skilled to play any of the twelve separate pieces of Iberia. My mother had had recordings of Echaniz playing Cuban music in the house when I grew up, so his was a familiar name. By today's standards, Echaniz might not be considered a first line virtuoso, though styles of play (and taste) do change over time, and the recording technologies have improved immeasurably as well in the decades following his death in 1969. His interpretations were popular, romantic and effective. Classically trained Spanish pianists of the Seventies and Eighties and after, have tended to treat the early Modernist works (Albeniz, Granados, Rodrigo, et al) with more severity and reserve, and today I suspect that anyone playing Iberia as I heard it first done by Echaniz in the late 1950's, would be characterized as too "soft" or "slushy." Still, we often hear what we want to hear, and pianists play music they way they "hear" it in their mind(s)--this is what musical interpretation means. There is no one way to play any piece of music, despite the frustration of some composers (such as Stravinsky) who insist that just playing the music "as it's written!" is the best way. And the best music should be complex and inspiring enough to be enacted in various ways without harming or distoring its essential quality.
In order to understand Iberia, one must contextualize it (and Albeniz's aims and inspiration) in terms of the resurgence of Spanish nationalism in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Albeniz was influenced by the teacher/composer/scholar Felipe Pedrell. Pedrell believed that the contemporary Spanish composers should emulate the musical traditions of their own heritage, rather than imitating the French, German or Viennese classical styles of the preceding three centuries.
During the Moorish period of influence in Spain, 8th through 15th Centuries, the character of Spanish culture was decidedly exotic, and was concentrated particularly in the southern region of the country. Gypsy culture incorporated some aspects of the Arabic musical tradition, but transformed them. These elements, together with the court music of the nobility, formed the foundations of Iberian music. Given the rejection of the "infidel" culture of the "Moors" coupled with the condescension of the rest of Europe towards a "backward" unsophisticated country, there were clear reasons why Spanish composers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries felt an ambivalence to declaring and realizing their own musical heritage.
Nevertheless, the young Albeniz, a keyboard prodigy from early childhood, was drawn in early manhood, as a composer, to the operatic and classical traditions of Paris, Leipzig and Vienna. By his early twenties, he had established a career as a virtuoso classical pianist, and concertized throughout Europe in his late twenties and early thirties, following the late 19th Century tradition. At age 32 he encountered Pedrell, and began to compose works influenced by the Andalusian and Gypsy streams, in dance, ballad or elegy forms. Though he tried his hand at operatic composition, it was his nativist piano pieces that we today consider to be his important contribution. Though he composed primarily for the piano, many of his works are "guitaristic" in setting and style, and are easily adaptable (an early example is the justly famous Asturias--played here by Segovia) to the Spanish guitar. The works from his middle period--the Suite Espanola--as well as the mature works of his last period--which include Iberia, employ the cante jondo (or "deep song") lyricism, the exotic scales (or "modes") associated with Flamenco. The soulful quality we associate with classical Spanish music derives in large measure from the use of these elements.
Granada (Serenade) - played by Julian Bream
Cataluna (Courante) - played by Wolfgang Lendle
Sevilla (Sevillanas) - played by Julian Bream
Cadiz (Saeta) - piano version (artist unknown - de Larrocha?)
Asturias (Leyenda) - piano version played by Pablo Galdo
Aragon (Fantasia) - version for three guitars
Castilla (Seguidilla) - played by Bream & Williams (guitars)
Cuba (Nocturno) - piano version played by Daniela Novaretto
At the height of his career, living in London, and then in Paris, Albeniz was exposed to the rich musical culture of the Fin-de-Siécle in Europe, and realized that his earlier compositions lacked the richness and range which characterized the most ambitious music of his age. At the turn of the century (1900) he suffered a number of defeats: He developed kidney disease, his wife became ill as well, and they lost a child.
Between 1905 and 1909, he composed his masterpiece, Iberia, a twelve part suite in four books. Pianistically, it's among the most difficult and challenging pieces in the repertory. But its sophistication, delicacy and elegant inventiveness place it at the highest levels of musical achievement in any time. Influenced by Debussy, Liszt, d'Indy, among others--it is nevertheless so original in its adaptation of Spanish musical elements, that it forms the basic foundation for a nativist Iberian tradition, which continues to inform Spanish composers a hundred years later. Iberia is a synthesis of romantic, impressionist and folk idioms. Deeply evocative, nostalgic and haunting, its melodies are unforgettable. It is impossible to imagine 20th Century Spanish music without it.
Suite for piano with 12 pieces in 4 books ("quaderns"):1º quadern: Evocación, El Puerto, El Corpus Christi en Sevilla.2º quadern: Rondeña, Almería, Triana.3º quadern: El Albaicín, El Polo, Lavapiés.4º quadern: Málaga, Jerez, Eritaña.
Evocacion - played by Marc-Andre Hamelin
El Puerto - played by Marc-Andre Hamelin
El Corpus en Sevilla - played by Pedro Carbone
Rondena - played by Marc-Andre Hamelin
Almeria - played by Marc-Andre Hamelin
Triana - played by Marc-Andre Hamelin
El Albaicin - played by Marc-Andre Hamelin
El Polo - played by Marc-Andre Hamelin
Lavapies - played by Marc-Andre Hamelin
Hamelin's interpretations have the most polish and focus of any I've listened to lately. What he lacks in passion and fervor he more than makes up for with his technique. The brightness, the deep lyric, the coordination of crossing themes--all this is accomplished with aplomb.
What critics invariably remark is Iberia's deep emotion "recollected in tranquillity" which it creates in the listener. Though the pieces seem programmatic in quality, their structure is abstract enough to attain a sublimation which makes them universally applicable. Individual visions may follow any diversion, channeled by the seductive courses of the music's tortuous, yet tantalizing pathways. Amusement, stirring pride, passionate affection, loss, resignation and gratitude are born out of each other in a cornucopia of feeling and dream which feels timeless.
When Albeniz was young, he tried to run away several times. The pressure of having to live up to the expectation and promise of the childhood prodigy role was not one he was initially comfortable with. As he matured into the great virtuoso he was destined to be, he may have felt nostalgic for a life he may have imagined he had sacrificed, for artistic devotion. In any case, whatever the source of his inspiration, it rings true.
Toward the end of his life, Albeniz said this about his own musical works: "There are among them a few things that are not completely worthless. The music is a bit infantile, plain, spirited; but in the end, the people, our Spanish people, are something of all that. I believe that the people are right when they continue to be moved by Cordoba, Mallorca, by the copla of the Sevillanas, by the Serenata, and Granada. In all of them I now note that there is less musical science, less of the grand idea, but more color, sunlight, flavor of olives. That music of youth, with its little sins and absurdities that almost point out the sentimental affectation…appears to me like the carvings in the Alhambra, those peculiar arabesques that sway nothing with their turns and shapes, but which are like the air, like the sun, like the blackbirds or like the nightingales of its gardens. They are more valuable than all else of Moorish Spain, which though we may not like it, is the true Spain." One can feel in this Albeniz's own sense of contradictory tendencies, not just in his own nature, but in his sense of his own people's cultural traditions. He accepts the instability and frustration of the Spanish character, and really revels in it.
A fitting send-off is Albeniz's great concert-piece, Navarra, played here by Alicia de Larrocha--the late diminutive virtuoso of Spain. We shall have more to say about Spanish music in later entries--it's an insistent preoccupation.
* (If I were more of an internet detective, I could probably locate a copy of this now undoubtedly rare recording. I'm not sure I have my copy of the album any more.)