Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Naxos Releases 8th Volume of Albéniz Piano Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over a month ago, Naxos released the eighth volume in its ongoing project to record the complete solo piano works of Isaac Albéniz. This effort has been progressing far slower than one might expect. Checking my records, I found that the seventh volume was released in February of 2015 (back when I was still writing for Examiner.com), meaning that the waiting time for the eighth volume was close to a month short of three years. (The first volume was released in December of 1998, over nine years ago and long before I had begun to commit myself to writing about music as my “primary effort.”) I also observed that, after Guillermo González recorded the first three volumes, every subsequent volume has been recorded by a different pianist. On this eighth volume, that pianist is Miguel Ángel R. Laiz.

It is unclear just how many volumes will be required to complete the project. One benchmark may be the piano sonatas. Albéniz composed seven of them, the sixth of which was lost. Prior to the release of the eighth volume, only two of those sonatas were recorded, the fifth (Opus 82 in G-flat major) in the fourth volume and the third (Opus 68) in the seventh volume. This new release fills in that gap, beginning with the fourth sonata in A major (Opus 72). The date of this sonata is not certain; but, presumably, it lies between the completion of the third sonata in 1886 and that of the fifth sonata in 1887.

Those who know their Albéniz well (and I have no trouble confessing that I am not one of them) will recognize that these are all early pieces. In fact the same may be said of the entire contents of this latest volume. All of the dates lie between 1882 and 1887. In the accompanying booklet notes prepared by Laiz and Francisco Javier Malpica, the 1880s were (as translated into English by Susannah Howe) “a decade during which the composer blended his initial Romantic influences with his first forays into the world of Spain’s folk traditions – a significant stage in his life’s journey in search of the quintessence of Spanish music.”

Indeed, a historically-informed listener would probably be justified in conjecturing that this was a decade in which Albéniz was trying to find his own voice while using Frédéric Chopin as a model. Opus 72 would not have very much trouble trying to pass for a lost Chopin sonata, and Albéniz’ decision to call two of the compositions in this collection barcaroles suggests that he was aware of Chopin’s work on both large and small scales. Nevertheless, both of those barcaroles have Iberian references, Mallorca for the first and Catalonia for the second. In the latter case one might wish to think of the time that Chopin spent in Barcelona with George Sand; but this is actually one of the selections on the album whose “Chopin connection” is weakest.

This album also includes the second of three pieces that Albéniz called Suite Ancienne. In this particular set Albéniz is basically experimenting with the formal structures of the saraband and the chaconne. Ironically, the chaconne comes off sounding like a gavotte, while the only attributes that would suggest a saraband are its triple metre and stately rhetoric. Finally, there is a possible “Mendelssohn connection” in the short piece entitled “Angustia” (anguish), which bears the subtitle “Romanza sin palabras” (song without words). It is unlikely that anyone would mistake this as music written by Mendelssohn; but, on the other hand, it may be the selection on the album that best represents the emergence of Albéniz’ own “Iberian voice.”

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