Saturday, August 16, 2014

Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz: Spanish Piano Music, Vol. 1

The English Nimbus label has released many excellent world music (especially Indian) and classical recordings over the decades.  This 4-disc set of the piano music of the eminent Spanish composers Enrique Granados and Issac Albeniz is a top-notch recording that not only presents the works for which both are principally knows, Granados' Goyescas and Albéniz' Iberia, but other pieces representative of the two men.

The composers were contemporaries, who were born and died seven years apart, and they studies from the same musicologist, Felipe Pedrell, who inspired the men to embrace the idea of a particularly Spanish music. 

Albeniz was from a small town in the northeastern part of Spain, not far from the French border, among Basque country.  He was a child prodigy, taught by a sister, who made his concert debut in Barcelona at five years of age.  Though he passed the entrance exam to the conservatory at Paris, he was denied admission because he was considered too young.  Like Mozart, to whom he was compared, he was then shepherded by his father around Spain for performances with his sister.  After studying in Madrid, he went to Leipzig and Brussels and contemplated studying with Franz Liszt, but his plan never materialized.  Later, he lived and worked in London, though his interest in promoting a Spanish national music led him to his masterwork.

Albéniz composed, between 1905 and 1909, his Iberia suite of four books reflecting his impressions of the Spanish peninsula, with most of the focus on the Andalucía region.  A fishing village, a town overlooking a famed gorge and a suburb of Seville are impressionistic subjects in the first book.  The second reflects concepts derived from observing gypsies in Granada, an Andalucian dance, people in a tavern near Seville, architectural splendor in the Andalucía region and, in the only instance of a non-Andalucian subject matter, a neighborhood in Madrid.  Just after finishing the work, Albeniz, who had Bright's disease, succumbed to liver disease a few days prior to this 49th birthday.

In addition to Iberia, this set contains his Suite Española, the España "souvenirs", a tango, and other works, including two unfinished pieces, Navarra (intended for Iberia) and Azulejos, which were completed by pianist Martin Jones for this recording.

Granados, a Catalonian who was raised in Barcelona, was best known initially as a pianist with highly-regarded improvisational skills, though his first published work, the Danzas Españolas brought him attention as did an opera, María del Carmen.

The composer based his Goyescas on the work of the famed painter Francisco de Goya and was completed in the early 1910s.  Notably, the composer was asked to adapt the music for an opera, which was completed in 1914, just as World War I erupted.  Finally, two years later a performance was held in New York and it was well received to the extent that President Woodrow Wilson invited Granados to a White House reception.  Delaying his return to Europe for the honor, Granados and his wife were on the ferry, the S.S. Sussex in the English Channel when the ship was hit by a German torpedo and partially destroyed.  Granados, who was 48, made it on to a lifeboat, but his wife Amparo struggled in the ocean and the composer dove in the water to save his wife, but both drowned.

Other works by Granados included in the set are a reverie, transcribed by Jones from a piano roll recording of the composer that was made the year he died; a set of Escenas Románticas (romantic scenes), and an Allegro de concierto.

There is a great deal of romantic feeling and emotion in these beautiful pieces, along with a high degree of technical precision, and Jones, who recorded the works over several sessions between late 1995 and Spring 1998, is excellent throughout.  He has recorded many, many albums for Nimbus, including the complete works of such composers as Mendelssohn, Debussy (part of which was featured here), Brahms, and Stravinsky.  The recording quality is clear, crisp and rich and the set is a real treat, especially for an amateur who knew little of Granados and Albéniz and their work.

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