French composer Paul Dukas summed up his impression of Isaac Albéniz as “Don Quixote with the manner of Sancho Panza”. Indeed, almost every photograph of the great Spanish composer and pianist shows a plump, well-dressed man with a smile beaming under his moustache and a cigar in hand. To his friends he was cultured, highly respected, generous with his wallet and a great storyteller. He spoke many languages, was well read and collected books, abanicos (Spanish fans) and paintings. A man with the wit, humility and heft of a Panza, but also the romance, charm, elegance and culture of a Quixote – minus the madness, of course.
Dukas’s description is equally apt for the music of Albéniz. Though usually categorized as being of a salon nature, it is not only charming and pleasant but contains deep emotional expression. Perhaps not the deep expression of Brahms or Dvorak, but certainly far beyond the boundaries of other Spanish salon music of the time. With his endless striving to develop his talent, Albéniz created a new style of Spanish music based on the incorporation of advanced harmony and form. Antonio Ruiz-Pipo, one of Spain’s foremost twentieth century pianists, wrote that “when it’s said that many composers of our century imitate his españolismo, that word is not understood in its true dimension of its definition. If they talk of the Spanish forms and melodies of Albéniz, it is because he invented them and created a Hispanic idea of music such that it persuades them to identify with this country.”
Although Albéniz was strongly influenced by the scholar Felipe Pedrell and traditional music, he almost always avoided quoting folk melodies directly, preferring to compose his own. Claude Debussy noted that Albéniz didn’t reproduce popular melodies, but rather “absorbed them, listening until they have passed into his music, leaving no trace of a boundary line.” Another important aspect of Albéniz’s compositional technique was his virtuosic ability to improvise. At the beginning of the twentieth century he recorded three improvisations on Edison wax cylinders. These rare recordings document his ability to spontaneously create works that recall traditional music but are completely original. His compositions contain the same spontaneity and deep romance, and are not only ‘souvenirs’ but also expressions of the romantic emotions and personality of the artist. This is why it is said that the pieces of Albéniz approach that powerful emotion of jondo flamenco called duende.
The eternal romantic who continuously strove to better his art, Albéniz frequently wrote of his music in letters and, in one special case, a programme. The northerner Catalán was strongly drawn to southern Andalucia and her Moorish past. When he was in his twenties, he composed Granada during a stay in that city; “I live and write a Serenata, romantic to the point of paroxysm and sad to the point of despair, among the aroma of the flowers, the shade of the cypresses, and the snow of the Sierra. I seek the tradition – the guzla (an Arabic string instrument), the lazy dragging of the fingers over the strings. And above all, the heartbreaking lament out of tune. I want the Arabic Granada, that which is all art, which is all that seems to me beauty and emotion, and that which can say to Catalonia: Be my sister in art and my equal in beauty.”
There is an extraordinary maturity in Albéniz’s later works, composed after he had lived both in London and Paris. The sophistication of the Tango, closer to a Cuban habanera rather than the fiery dance, and the Serenata from the miniatures Six Album Leaves, written in London, foreshadow the works of Manuel de Falla. The flamenquismo Prelude (later renamed Austurias – Leyenda, ) and Oriental are from the later Chants d’Espagne, as is the fantastical Cordoba, which is altogether something different, more in the style of a tone poem. It’s an impressionistic piece, opening with tolling bells and a himno of floating chords that recall the Mezquita and Catedral; these elements, combined with the burning melodies of the following dance, give a magical portrait of the city at night. In an unusual programme, something he never included with other piano works, Albéniz wrote: “In the silence of the night interrupted by the whispering of the jasmine scented breezes, guzlas are heard accompanying serenades and are radiating in the air ardent melodies and notes so sweet, like the wavering of the palms high in the heavens.”
The structure of Albéniz’s pieces typically alternate between rhythmically dynamic, dance-like sections and sections that are more expressive of a copla, or song. These coplas contain the influence of the jota or of the cante jondo, a step-wise melodic line ending with a rhythmic flourish or rhythmically free melismas. Albéniz did
not feel obligated to actually match these dance sections with the corresponding copla of a genre. Rather, he freely combined different styles, a sevillana with the cante jondo. He never limited his musical inspirations to the pedantic. Late in life he said, “I believe that the people are right when they continue to be moved by Cordoba, Mallorca, by the copla of the Sevillanas, by the Serenata, and Granada. In all of them I now note that there is less musical science, less of the grand idea, but more color, sunlight, flavor of olives. That music of youth, with its little sins and absurdities that almost point out the sentimental affectation appears to me like the carvings in the Alhambra, those peculiar arabesques that sway nothing with their turns and shapes, but which are like the air, like the sun, like the blackbirds or like the nightingales of its gardens. They are more valuable than all else of Moorish Spain, which though we may not like it, is the true Spain.” In this Albéniz is reminiscent of the Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, who wrote, quite humbly, that when listening to his own sonatas, one “should not expect profound learning but rather an ingenious jesting with art.”
Albéniz frequently performed the music of Scarlatti in his concerts. And like Scarlatti, Albéniz constantly imitated the sound of the guitar in his compositions. On 25 April 1889, Albéniz gave a recital in Paris at which Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and Dukas were present. Albéniz’s piano playing and his style of writing, especially in the Torre Bermeja, were a revelation to them in the way he was able to evoke, with the piano, the characteristic sounds of the Spanish guitar. It is no surprise then, that transcriptions to the guitar of his compositions are common and have been since they were first published. But in transcribing Albéniz to the guitar there is always a danger of actually lightening the intention of the music and bringing it back towards the salon music that he so successfully surpassed. For the transcriptions in this recording, I worked with urtext editions whenever possible in order to correct the many discrepancies, changes of tempo, dynamics, melody, rhythm and harmony of other editions. Rather than compromise Albéniz’s harmonic language, very little was done in order to facilitate execution on the guitar. The evolution of the guitar since the early twentieth century, in both its technique and scholarship, has been dramatic. The transcriptions in this recording exemplify this evolution and seek to embrace the Romantic scope of Albéniz