The Masterpiece of Spanish Music
Born in 1860, near the French border in the Catalonian town of Camprodón, Isaac Albéniz was a phenomenal child prodigy who began touring Spain and Cuba as an itinerant piano virtuoso already in his early teens. He was not yet 20 years old when he finished his studies, avec distinction, at the Conservatoire Royal in Brussels. During the 1880s and ’90s, Albéniz emerged as a composer of originality and significance, creating a Spanish national style in such evergreen favorites as the Suite española no. 1, Recuerdos de viaje, and Cantos de España. In these musical travelogues for solo piano, Albéniz combined Romantic harmony with Spanish rhythm and melody to capture the allure of exotic peninsular locales, especially Granada, Sevilla, and Córdoba.
However, despite the nationalist orientation of his music, Albéniz felt increasingly disenchanted with the conservative politics, religion, and cultural backwardness of Spain. So, in 1890 he moved to London, and four years later to Paris, which remained his principal residence for the rest of his life. Under the influence of French music, Albéniz’s style underwent a dramatic transformation. The end result of this was his chef d’oeuvre, Iberia.
Albéniz began work on his monumental Iberia collection in 1905, putting the finishing touches on it in 1908, only a year before his death from Bright’s disease, in Cambo les Bains, on May 18, 1909, just eleven days short of his forty-ninth birthday. Iberia is not a “suite” in the traditional sense because the twelve numbers, arranged into four books of three pieces each, can be played in any sequence. Indeed, their order of composition was not the same as that of publication, and it is clear that the composer expected they would be programmed piecemeal and in variable order. Though Iberia was premiered in its entirety by French pianist Blanche Selva, Albéniz’s correspondence makes it clear that he had the Catalan virtuoso Joaquim Malats in mind when writing it. Apparently only Malats could do justice to music in which Albéniz declared he had taken “españolismo and technical difficulty to the ultimate extreme,” as indeed he had. For the music abounds in counter-rhythms, interweaving of the fingers, hand crossings, difficult jumps, and nearly impossible chords. With its superabundance of accidentals and multilingual markings, the score itself is dauntingly hard to read. In fact, Albéniz almost destroyed his manuscript at one point, as he feared it was impossible to play.
Iberia represents Albéniz’s distinctive merging of three principal style elements: Impressionist harmonies, especially the use of whole-tone scales; Lisztian virtuosity taken to the limits of human ability; and the Spanish nationalism he himself had developed and defined. This nationalism evoked a variety of regional styles of song and dance, especially Andalusian flamenco, along with intimations of the guitar’s rasgueo and punteo (strumming and plucking) and of the singer’s coplas (songs or song verses). However, as Albéniz insisted,” I never utilize the ‘raw material’ in its crude state.” Rather, as Debussy noted, he had absorbed native melodies and rhythms so completely that “they have passed into his music, leaving no trace of a boundary line.”
“Évocation” is a prime example of these traits. But what most impresses us is the profoundly interiorized mood that pervades this piece, as Albéniz views his homeland from a distance in time and space, through a haze of memory and nostalgia. This is one of the eight Iberia selections in sonata form, with its attendant exposition, development, and restatement of themes. While the principal theme here harkens to southern songs and dances of the fandango/malagueña type, the second theme evokes the northern jota. Thus, this “evocation” (entitled “Prélude” in the manuscript) seems to embrace the entire country in a sweeping musical gesture. “El Puerto” exudes a completely contrasting atmosphere of noisy good spirits, the hustle and bustle of a seaport, El Puerto de Santa María near Cádiz. It is in the style of the zapateado, a dance based on an insistent rhythm in 6/8, and Albéniz highlights his score with occasional rhythmic flourishes suggesting rasgueo. “Fête-Dieu à Séville” (or “El Corpus en Sevilla”) is a programmatic piece in ternary form that paints a captivating picture of Corpus Christi in Seville, during which a statue of the Virgin is carried through the streets accompanied by marching bands, singers, and penitential flagellants. The piece begins with some rataplan, then introduces a march-like theme inspired by the popular song “La Tarara.” What follows in the B section is an evocation of the soulful saeta (literally “arrow”), a piercing cry of religious ecstasy. Despite all the festive tumult, the piece concludes in a tranquil mood, as if the procession had passed into the cool evening of the composer’s romantic imagination.
Book Two commences with “Rondeña,” a type of song and dance named after the city of Ronda in Andalusia. But this piece bears only passing resemblance to it and is a hybrid of various styles. The hemiola rhythm of the principal theme marks it as Spanish, while the “copla” secondary theme is suggestive of the jota. Almería is a city on the Mediterranean coast of Andalusia, where Albéniz’s father once worked briefly in the 1860s. Hemiola rhythms dominate this piece as well, but the mood is altogether different, and there is a strong suggestion of the seguidillas, a jondo (literally “deep”) Gypsy song and dance. The secondary theme is again a “copla” à la jota, but stretched out in slow motion, over a gently rocking accompaniment. As in “Fête-Dieu à Séville,” Albéniz resorts to three staves here, giving the score the appearance of organ music. Triana is the Gypsy quarter in Seville and one of the cradles of flamenco. This number resounds with all the clamor of a juerga (flamenco party), with the strumming of guitars, snapping of castanets, palmas (clapping), and percussive zapateo (footwork). After a pasodoble-like introduction, the principal theme evokes the sevillanas, a lively and lighthearted song and dance popular in Seville.
Book Three begins with “El Albaicín,” the Gypsy quarter of Granada, a city Albéniz loved and often evoked in his works. This number is structured as a series of three alternations between a dance-like principal theme and a freer, copla-style secondary melody. The dance section recalls the rhythm of the flamenco bulerías, while the distribution of the notes simulates a guitar technique alternating thumb and index finger. The jondo-style copla has a chant-like quality that creates an entrancing reverie. Albéniz’s “Polo” does not bear much of a resemblance to the flamenco song after which it is named, except in its inconsolably melancholy character. The most famous concert polos are those of Manuel García, but Albéniz does not seem to have used them as a model either. What most interests us about this selection is the persistence of the rhythmic pattern from the first beat to the last, giving the piece an almost obsessive quality consistent with its mood. In fact, Albéniz instructs the performer to play as if “sweetly sobbing” and again “always in the spirit of a sob.” The rhythmic figure itself suggests this. Book Three concludes with “Lavapiés,” a district in Madrid named for the local church where a foot-washing ritual was performed on Holy Thursday. This locale was known in Albéniz’s time for its lower-class denizens called chulos. There was a lot of noisy street life in this district, which Albéniz simulates through a riot of wrong-note dissonance. Both principal and secondary themes are based on the Cuban habanera, which was all the rage in Madrid in the late nineteenth century.
Book Four opens with “Málaga,” one of the shortest pieces in the collection. The rhythmic freedom, triple meter, and modality of the principal theme suggest the malagueña, while the secondary theme evokes a jota malagueña, one of many regional varieties of jota. The reappearance of the jota throughout the collection, in one guise or another, gives it the character of a leitmotif, unifying the various numbers. Jerez is a city in western Andalusia famous for producing the liquor named after it, i.e., sherry. This is the only piece in the collection with a key signature of no flats or sharps. Its emphasis on A minor and melancholy mood have reminded some of the soleá, one of the most jondo of flamenco songs and dances. The rhythms may not be quite right for a soleá, but the unusual alternation of meters gives the piece a rhythmic complexity thoroughly flamenco in character. In any case, Albéniz masterfully elicits from the keyboard colorful suggestions of singing and guitar playing. The final piece in Iberia takes us again to Seville, this time to the Venta Eritaña, a popular inn on the outskirts of the city that was famous for its flamenco entertainment. The rhythms of the sevillanas permeate the entire piece, and there is no contrasting copla section. The exuberant spirit and piquant dissonance of “Eritaña” convey in unforgettable fashion the excitement of a juerga, and Debussy singled out this number as the finest in the entire collection.
Indeed, Debussy offered an assessment of this monumental collection that posterity has amply confirmed: in Iberia, Albéniz “gave the best that was within him.” It is a work Olivier Messiaen would later describe as “the masterpiece of Spanish music.”
Walter Aaron Clark
Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic (Oxford, 1999/2002)
Luis Grané, piano.
Backed by critics as “A pianist on the exemplary path”, Luis Grané is one of the most popular names amongst the promises on the current piano scene.
Since his debutat the Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona for Ibercamera, Luis Grané has been invited to join internationally renowned festivals such as the Pau Casals Festival in El Vendrell (which paid tribute to composer Isaac Albéniz) or the International Piano Festival of Santander (where he premiered a piece for two pianos by Sofia Gubaydulina, played with the orchestra of the festival directed by Péter Csaba, performed a duet with Ivan Monighetti and offered several recitals).
He he has been invited to play the full Iberia Suite to the Isaac Albéniz International Festival and he received the tenth Albeniz Medal, one of the most important awards for spanish music given to pianists such as Alicia de Larrocha.
Recently he has been invited to play Iberia Suite to the Golden Key Festival in New York, in the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall.
His career has led him to play in some of Spain’s most important halls, such as Auditorio Nacional de Madrid, the Palau de la Musica Catalana (in February 2007 being the youngest Spanish pianist in the Ibercamera history), the Teatro Principal de Alicante (acting in a recital for the prestigious Sociedad de Conciertos de Alicante), L’Auditori de Barcelona, etc. and also in countries as Cuba, Germany (International Steinway Festival 2004), Tunisia (International festival of classical music and Arabic, 2008), Italy (recital in the concert series Giovanni per Tutti en el Centro Congressi del Lingotto) and in Holland.
He has nine first prizes in competitions like “Infanta Cristina” and the “Concurs internacional de piano d’Andorra Alícia de Larrocha”, among others. His performances have been recorded live by RNE, TVE, Radio Hamburg, Catalunya Música, TV Syria and Tunisia TV in the mode of solo piano, chamber music and piano with orchestra.
In May 2007 Luis was named “Cavaller Confrare de Merit’’ by the ‘’Confraria del Cava’’ together with other established artists of international fame, for merits in the development of his musical trajectory.
In October 2004 he participated as a soloist on tour with an orchestra and he performed in several of the most important auditoriums of Spain.
Born in May, 1986, began his musical studies at age of eight and from 1998 to 2004 he studied with Carlos Julià. He received advice from teachers such as Alicia de Larrocha, Zoltan Kocsis, Menahem Pressler, Jacques Rouvier, Sergio Perticaroli, Emmanuel Krasowsky, Ralph Gothoni, Martha Gulyás, Joaquin Achúcarro, Joaquín Soriano, Claudio Martinez Mehner and Ana Guijarro.
He has been working with the professor and pianist Adolf Pla for two years in Barcelona and finished the musical studies with the highest honors and marks in the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya.
He has studied for five years under the direction of Galina Egyazarova, receiving the distinction of “most outstanding student” of the chair of piano at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofia for two consecutive years. Both awards were presented by Her Majesty Queen Sophia of Spain.
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