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

 

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Published in: on July 31, 2017 at 8:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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De Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain Pianist – Alicia de Larrocha

Manuel de FallaManuel de Falla, who lived from 1876 to 1946, was born in the city of Cadiz in the Andalusian region of Spain.  Nights in the Gardens of Spain was composed between 1909 and 1915.  It was originally conceived as a set of nocturnes for solo piano, but evolved during its composition to become a suite of “symphonic impressions”, and de Falla’s only work for piano and orchestra.

Nights in the Gardens of Spain was steeped in the musical language of de Falla’s homeland, and is easily his most impressionistic score.  Even the title reminds one of Debussy, as do the names he gave its three movements: “In the Generalife”, “Distant Dance”, and “In the Gardens of the Sierra de Córdoba”.

Concerning this piece, de Falla wrote as follows:

If these ‘symphonic impressions’ have achieved their object, the mere enumeration of their titles should be a sufficient guide to the hearer.  Although… the composer has followed a definite design regarding tonal, rhythmical, and thematic material… the end for which it was written is no other than to evoke [images of] places, sensations, and sentiments.  The themes employed are based upon the rhythms, modes, cadences, and ornamental figures which distinguish the folk music of Andalusia, although they are rarely used in their original forms; and the orchestration frequently employs certain effects peculiar to the popular instruments used in those parts of Spain.  The music has no pretensions to being descriptive; it is merely expressive.  But something more than the sounds of festival and dances has inspired these evocations in sound, for melancholy and mystery have their part also.

I was introduced to Nights through a wonderful RCA Victor recording from 1962 that featured Artur Rubinstein on piano, with Enrique Jorda conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  It was Rubinstein, incidentally, who gave the work its Western Hemisphere premiere in Buenos Aires in 1917.  This video features the inimitable Alicia de Larrocha together with Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.

(Note: When you click on the links below, you may see a message that embedding for this video has been disabled.  Just click on the “Watch on YouTube” link to view the video in YouTube.)

Published in: on September 30, 2012 at 10:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My Interview with Lola Astanova

“Everything (Horowitz) did had his own individual and unmistakable stamp, which is not only desirable, but is an absolute must for an artist.”

lola astanovaThis interview had its beginnings in an email that I received last month from Lola Astanova, as one of many who registered at her website, lolaastanova.com.  The email introduced a video of Lola playing Chopin’s magnificent étude Op. 25 No. 12, together with a short message from Lola about supporting the arts during difficult economic times.  I was crazy about her Chopin, and shared her conviction about the arts, and wrote back to tell her so.

A few days later I received another email, thanking me for introducing Lola to readers of this blog through her videos of Rachmaninoff’s second sonata, and pointing out that the year of her birth as given in my comments (1981) made her a little older than she really is.  I did a little more research and found a different source that listed her year of birth as 1982, and updated my blog accordingly.  I also wrote back to suggest an interview with Lola that would address this and other questions that I thought would be of interest to her growing number of fans and admirers.  I was happily surprised to receive – just two days later – an invitation to submit my questions via email for Lola to answer in writing.

What follows are my questions and Lola’s responses.  My thanks to Natalie, Lola’s personal assistant, for facilitating this interview, and especially to Lola herself, not only for her candid, illuminating answers, but for sharing so generously of her work and talent through her many YouTube videos.  Lola, you have opened wide the treasure chest of great music for many who might otherwise never have known the riches that lie within.

All right, let’s begin!

DERRICK:  I apologize for having misstated the year of your birth on my blog.  In my desire to make you better known to my readers, I had to choose among unreliable sources for some information.  Would you like to tell us your correct birthday?

LOLA:  I never intended to hide my correct date of birth…I think it was, probably, accidentally left out from my original online bio.  But by now it’s become such a huge deal that I feel like having some fun with it and keeping everyone guessing. (Smiles)

DERRICK:  Would you mind filling in a few more biographical details?  I know that you were born in Tashkent.  Would you like to share any information about your family and early life?  Did your musical education begin at home?

LOLA:  Sure.  My mother is a music teacher.  We had an old upright at home so she used to play it from time to time, and I used to stare at her and think: “It would be so nice to play that thing!”  But it was actually my dad who convinced her to get me started with piano lessons.  He really wanted me to learn “Fur Elise” and a few other tunes to play for him after work.  I’m sure he never imagined that music would become my career.

DERRICK:  Do you remember how you were introduced to classical music, and the first piece of classical music that you were excited about?

LOLA:   I guess the first piece that I was consciously truly excited about learning was Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu”.  I was about ten years old, but I had heard and loved that piece from the early childhood.  The score looked very busy with lots of notes so in my mind playing it well somehow symbolized being a good pianist.

DERRICK:  We know that you began to study piano at the age of six with Professor Tamara Popovich.  When and where was your first solo recital?  Do you remember the details of your program?

LOLA:  My first recital was in my school.  I think I was about seven and played most of the pieces from Schumann’s album for the young Op. 68.

DERRICK:  When and where was your first performance with orchestra?  What piece did you play?

LOLA:  It was Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in F Minor.  I was 8 years old and played in the big and beautiful concert hall called “Bakhor” in Tashkent.   I had seen Ashkenazy play on that stage only a few months earlier so being on that same stage for the first time as a soloist made me very nervous.

DERRICK:  What is your personal situation?  Are you married or single?  If single, do you hope to marry someday, or are you in an exclusive, long-term relationship with your Steinway?

LOLA:   I am not married and don’t see it in my immediate future.  My relationship with my Steinway, albeit a passionate one, is strictly professional. (Smiles)  It would have been more than a little sad otherwise.  I think it’s important to have other interests besides piano, and I, certainly, do.

DERRICK:  Would you care to comment on the passing last month of Alicia de Larrocha?  Did you ever meet her, or hear her play in person?  Have you been influenced at all by Miss de Larrocha?

LOLA:  I never had a chance to hear her in concert, alas.  She was one of the very few women who had a stellar career as a concert pianist and left a wonderful legacy.  That is always inspiring and empowering to me personally.  But, I can’t say that my own pianistic style or musical preferences were influenced by her in any way.

DERRICK:  You have described what an emotional experience it was for you to play on Vladimir Horowitz’ piano.  How would you describe Horowitz’ influence on you?

LOLA:   His influence was colossal.  I think he redefined what it means to be a pianist.  Everything he did had his own individual and unmistakable stamp, which is not only desirable, but is an absolute must for an artist.  I can’t say that I like everything that he did musically, in fact, I find some of his interpretations perfectly awful, but that doesn’t matter.  He always played his Chopin, his Mozart, and his Rachmaninoff.  He had a distinct musical personality and a style like no other, and that is what I find most valuable.

Now, obviously, Horowitz’s presence is still very much felt in the piano world and, as a result, many pianists try to imitate him and critics always itch to dub someone “the new Horowitz”.  I must say that I find both rather amusing.  There may be truly astonishing pianists that share certain qualities or attributes with Horowitz, but there will never be another Horowitz, just like there will never be another Pavarotti.  So there is no point in trying.  Actually, a little anecdote comes to mind: Gershwin once asked Ravel to teach him composition, to which Ravel supposedly responded: “Why would you want to be second rate Ravel when you can be first rate Gershwin?”  I second Ravel’s opinion, and though comparisons to the immortals are flattering, I’d never want to be “the new” anybody but myself.

DERRICK:  Have you ever played any of his transcriptions?

LOLA:  No, not in public.

DERRICK:  Who among the pianists of today do you especially admire?

LOLA:  YouTube’s Nora the Cat!  She has a special touch. (Laughs)  But if you want a serious answer…well, “admire” is a very special word for me.  Talent and skills alone do not impress me at this point as I’ve been fortunate to be among talented and capable musicians all my life.  What does impress me, however, are the people behind the talents – their human qualities, their aspirations and their integrity.  I know those don’t sound like musical terms, but they are no less important in music than in life.  And from that standpoint, so far I’ve seen more disappointments than inspirations in the classical field.  You know, Rachmaninoff almost never gave interviews on this subject because as he put it: “I was brought up never to lie…and I cannot tell the truth.”  I think I understand what he meant and I’m going to leave it at that.

DERRICK:  How would you describe the current state of music composition?  Do you see anyone writing music today whom you would place on the same level as the great composers of the past?  If yes, who?  If not, why not?

LOLA:  I presume you are asking about classical composition and if that’s the case – I am not aware of any composer today that I would compare with the greats of the past.  You see, to me a great composer is synonymous with original harmonic language.  In other words, creating something that sounds good and does not sound like somebody else. And in that sense, every composer today faces two huge challenges:  Number one – a lot has already been done in terms of harmony so it is really not easy to create something that is both valuable and original.  Number two – developing and refining one’s own harmonic language and style is a very slow and painstaking process which seems in total opposition of the super fast pace of the modern life.  And don’t forget that in addition to the tremendous technical skills and knowledge, composition requires a certain creative environment or atmosphere that simply does not exist anymore in the same way as it did in the days of Mozart or Chopin.

Of course, there is an entire group of composers that do the so-called “modern classical music”.  Those are the people who chose to experiment with atonal concepts, but I refuse to call that music.  I imagine that the original creators of that style genuinely searched for something new or “modern” and that a lot of their harsh sounds stemmed from the painful history of the 20th century.  But I also think that many of the subsequent works have simply been an attempt to shock the audience and generate publicity by inviting the press to endless “world premiers” of some god-awful pieces.  In my opinion the empty concert halls are in part the result of the industry’s long infatuation with those atonal concepts.

DERRICK:  How has the internet changed life for the concert artist today?  More specifically, how has YouTube, with its extraordinary library of music and musicians, changed the concert artist’s life today?

LOLA:  I think it’s fair to say that the Internet has changed not only the lives of individual artists, but the entire entertainment and media landscapes.  It’s even a bit overwhelming to think of all the opportunities that the Internet tools have opened for the arts, education, entertainment, and cultural exchange.  You are right, of course, about YouTube being a singular library of material, but there is much more to it than that.  It’s an amazing way to communicate with the audience directly, without intermediaries and outside the sometimes intimidating atmosphere of a concert hall.  It allows for an entirely different relationship between the artist and the listener and for a much closer, much more personal experience.

Another “YouTube revelation” actually relates to the “Holy Grail” of the classical music industry – the young audience.  For years classical presenters have been trying to lure the younger crowd into concert halls and evidently without much success.  Yet, over half of my online viewers are people in their teens, twenties and thirties.  I receive daily emails from teenagers who say that they are inspired, and who subscribe to my channel along with Taylor Swift’s or Kanye’s.  These are guys and girls of very diverse backgrounds, but they all seem to have a sort of innate appreciation for this music.  And many grasp the significance of the arts much more than the classical establishment knows.  For example, my video about the arts in this economy has been passionately supported by countless young YouTubers, including such Internet stars as Ryan Higa and Iman Crosson, while traditional classical organizations have remained completely indifferent if not hostile.

DERRICK:  Have the advantages of the internet and YouTube, such as increased exposure, made up for the fact that there is less need now for people to buy records?

LOLA:  From the artistic and audience interaction standpoint – absolutely.  From the strictly commercial standpoint – not yet, but classical music is, probably, less affected by that than pop because classical record sales have been essentially non-existent for years.

DERRICK:  What do you think of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony having been arranged as a concerto for piano and orchestra?  Have you seen the score?

LOLA:  I haven’t seen the score.  I’d have to see it before I can tell you what I think.

DERRICK:  You mentioned that you hoped to play in Seattle next year.  Are you anticipating a solo recital, or an appearance with orchestra?  Has anything been confirmed yet?

LOLA:  I have a confirmed private event performance in Washington next year, but I don’t believe I’ve been invited by any classical presenters in Seattle.  Once I’m invited, sure, I’d love to come and perform.

DERRICK:  If I were to select a few pieces that I would most like to hear you play, I would choose Scriabin’s Etude Op. 42, No. 5, Prokofiev’s 6th and 8th sonatas, and the sonata by Samuel Barber.  Is there any hope for me?

LOLA:  Yes, let’s start with Scriabin’s Etude.  I haven’t played it in a long time so thanks for reminding me.

DERRICK:  Lola, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this interview.

Alicia de Larrocha (1923 – 2009)

Alicia de Larrocha

Alicia de Larrocha

Alicia de Larrocha, one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, died yesterday at age 86 in Barcelona, the city of her birth.  Alicia began studying piano at age three, gave her first recital at age five, and made her first appearance with orchestra in a Mozart concerto at age eleven.  Although she had an extensive repertoire, she was especially well-known for her interpretations of the music of her countrymen: Isaac Albeniz, Enrique Granados, and Manuel de Falla.

I had the good fortune to hear Alicia de Larrocha in person on two occasions, once with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, when she played Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, and once in solo recital, when her program included de Falla’s extraordinary Fantasia Baetica.  She retired from public performance not long afterward, in 2003 at age 80.

The piece she performs here, “Evocacion”, is the first movement from Isaac Albeniz’ monumental “Iberia” suite for piano.  Poetic, reflective, and utterly Spanish in character, I cannot think of a more fitting musical tribute to this extraordinary pianist.

Published in: on September 26, 2009 at 6:07 am  Comments (1)  
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