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Naxos continues its project to record the piano music of Isaac Albéniz

An example of the rhythmic complexity of superposed themes that Albéniz could capture
An example of the rhythmic complexity of superposed themes that Albéniz could capture
from Wikipedia (public domain)

In 1999 Naxos released a two-CD set to launch a project to record the piano compositions by the Spanish virtuoso pianist Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909). For that first release pianist Guillermo González prepared some of the composer’s best known works: the four books of his Iberia and the two “Spanish” suites (Suites españolas). Gonzales then continued the project with two subsequent volumes. The second, released in 2007, featured as its “main attraction” the suite Recuerdos de viaje (travel memories) along with several shorter pieces maintaining the “geographical” theme of the first volume. The third volume then constituted an “international dances” collection, the Opus 37 set of six Spanish dances, the Opus 25 set of six waltzes, and the Opus 66 set of six mazurkas. The arrangement of this album suggested that, while still true to the spirit of his personal nationalism, Albéniz felt a need to acknowledge the popularity of Frédéric Chopin.

After that third volume, González seems to have withdrawn from the project, which lay fallow until last year. A little over a year ago, Rubén Ramiro spent two days recording a selection of salon miniatures and longer-scale compositions, including the Opus 82 sonata in G-flat major (the fifth), composed in 1887. Those performances were then released as the fourth volume on June 10. According to Amazon.com, a fifth volume is scheduled for release this coming August 12; and Amazon is currently taking pre-orders.

My personal experience with listening to Albéniz is that his piano music does not get anywhere near the attention it deserves. When I was a student his music was championed by the Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, but I do not think I have heard an Albéniz composition in a piano recital since de Larrocha’s death in 2009. These days his music seems to be far more popular in arrangements for guitar, and it is certainly the case that many of those arrangements do an excellent job of capturing that Spanish spirit that Albéniz sought to evoke in his keyboard compositions.

Nevertheless, Albéniz could achieve far more with a piano than could possibly be achieved by a single guitarist. There is no questioning his virtuoso talents, which are without a doubt as significant as those that both Chopin and Franz Liszt brought to their keyboard performances. I suspect that one of the reasons that Iberia has been such a great temptation to those with a gift for orchestration is that the piano score is already thick with multiple simultaneous layers of activity. As the above example demonstrates, Albéniz frequently required more than two staffs to make it clear to the pianist how all those layers are divided across the keyboard.

Thus, the most important observation to make about the Naxos project as it has progressed thus far is that none of the three pianists currently involved have been shy about their own virtuoso capabilities. One listens to González take on Iberia with the same awe one reserves for a fearless interpreter of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies. Yet beneath those thick textures of embellishment and superposition, one can also appreciate the visceral vibrancy o the music’s Spanish passion. However, in the third volume González then turns on a dime and takes us into the intimacy of the performances of familiar dance forms in a salon setting.

At the same time I have to credit Ramiro for providing my first exposure to one of Albéniz sonatas. I have never been shy when it comes to writing about my opinion that, for all of Chopin’s virtues in working with short forms, his efforts to work on a longer scale, particularly the sonatas and the concertos, tend to be disappointing. Albéniz may have experienced similar frustration. While the “sonata count” in his catalogs goes up to six, only three of them were completed, the last of which was Opus 82. I have to say that I feel that he was more comfortable with the architecture of sonata form in the piece’s first movement that Chopin was in any of his efforts. However, the following three movements then fall back on Albéniz’ own preference for more modest durational scales, meaning that, if nothing else, we can credit him with knowing his limits.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that the five CDs currently available amount to a generous share of Albéniz; and I would agree that he is not necessarily a composer to be taken in large doses. Nevertheless, there is much to admire in the art of his composition technique and how it reflects the art of his own piano virtuosity. Those unfamiliar with this composer would probably do best to begin with the first volume and follow up on later volumes as moved by curiosity. At the same time I have to say that I was sufficiently impressed with González’ interpretation of Iberia that even those who have heard it performed by other pianists will not want to pass by his recording.