Albéniz: Iberia – Recorded Live in Concert by Alicia de Larrocha

Isaac Albéniz

On March 2, 1980, a remarkable recital took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall.  The pianist was Alicia de Larrocha (1923-2009), and the program consisted entirely of music by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909): the twelve pieces of the Iberia suite and, as an encore, Navarra.  Just how remarkable this program was can be gathered from remarks about Iberia made by Harold Schonberg in his 1963 book, The Great Pianists:

In the last three years of his life [Albéniz] set to work on a series of complicated piano pieces, and with them was assured of immortality.  They were published in four books under the title of Iberia.

Nothing in Albéniz’ previous work had led anybody to expect from him music of this complexity, muscularity and difficulty.  His friend, the fine French pianist Blanche Selva, read the manuscript and was appalled.  “It is unplayable,” she said – a remark echoed by many later pianists who have struggled with Triana, Fête-Dieu à Seville and El Puerto.  Albéniz reassured Selva.  “You will play it,” he said.  She eventually did.  But those twelve pieces in Iberia are reserved only for superior pianists.

In the same book, Schonberg also writes, albeit briefly, about Alicia de Larrocha:

The most impressive Spanish pianist to have emerged after the war is Alicia de Larrocha, a tiny woman who tosses off things like the Albéniz Iberia and Granados Goyescas as though they were basic Czerny.

Though this is an obvious case of poetic license – nobody tosses off Iberia and Goyescas as though they were basic Czerny – it’s clear that Alicia de Larrocha had an exceptional technique, even in an age in which the exceptional seems to have become the rule.

Her London recital was reviewed by Frank Barker of The Guardian, who wrote of it as follows:

It was a rare treat to have a piano recital devoted to Iberia in its entirety, all 12 of the masterly impressions of Spanish scenes with which Albéniz finally proved himself a composer of real international stature.  Not only did he prompt Debussy to declare that “music has never achieved such diversified and colourful impressions”; he also exploited the expressive potential of the piano as delicately yet surely as did Chopin in his different time and place.

Alicia de Larrocha, one of the few great pianists of our time who carries thoroughly professional dedication to the composer to the point of self-effacement, proved herself the ideal interpreter.

She adjusted with deceptive artistic ease to the essential spirit of each pianistic impression, gently dreamy in the opening Evocation, powerful in the pealing of bells during the Corpus Christi procession in Seville [Fête-Dieu à Seville], vibrantly brooding in El Albaicin, arguably the most evocative of all these impressions and one which will make anyone who has penetrated the gypsy quarter of Granada hold his breath.

Alicia de Larrocha’s unfailingly poetic realisation of each individual scene merits a whole page of praise, but let me just salute her for bringing Iberia to life in a performance to be cherished.

The recital was also reviewed by Joan Chissell, who wrote, “Since all 12 pieces were equally evocative (and incidentally all were played from memory with quite astonishing accuracy) it seems almost invidious to pick out one rather than another.”  Just the same, I want to mention a few of my favorite movements – and moments – from this magnificent work.  I have loved the first movement, Evocación, almost from the first time I heard it.  It has always felt to me like an invitation – a welcome – to the suite as a whole, and evokes in me feelings of sadness, perhaps, or some undefinable melancholy.  El Puerto, on the other hand, is a cheerful, extroverted companion to the introspective Evocación.  Finally, in Fête-dieu à Seville, we have one of my favorite passages in the entire work, from 12:20 to 14:16 in the attached video, which conveys to me a peace that is almost otherworldly.

Albéniz’ great achievement in Iberia, it seems to me, was to create a suite of pieces so evocative of Spain that, after listening to it, you feel as though you’ve been there.

This recital is almost an hour and a half long, but there’s no need to listen to it all in one sitting.  If time is an issue, you can listen to Iberia one book at a time.  The titles of the twelve movements, and their start times in the attached video, are as follows:

Book I                                       Book III
Evocación 0:07                       El Albaicín 41:40
El Puerto 5:42                         El Polo 48:54
Fête-dieu à Seville 9:55         Lavapiés 56:00

Book II                                      Book IV
Rondeña 19:11                         Málaga 1:03:00
Almería 26:32                         Jerez 1:07:53
Triana 36:14                            Eritaña 1:17:14

Encore: Navarra 1:22:59

 

Advertisements
Published in: on July 31, 2017 at 8:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,