Albeniz Iberia Hamelin Hyperion CDA67476-77

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2005 and the recording is still available.

Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)
Iberia Books I – IV (1905-08)
La vega (1897)
Yvonne en visite! (1909)
España; Souvenirs (1897)
Navarra (1909, completed by William Bolcom)
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. 2004, Henry Wood Hall, London
Hyperion CDA67476-77 [2 CDs: 126]

Often portrayed as one of the leading klaviertigers of our day, a musician of nonchalantly unflappable brilliance and superhuman technical security, Hamelin’s sensitivity is apt to be overlooked. Well then, let’s start here. Here’s an Iberia rich in poetic response, rich in colour and incident; not short on wit or quick humour either. It’s played with all the sweep and clarity we have come to expect from Hamelin and is illuminated with his special brand of architectural understanding.

One could instance Evocación with its languorous Francophile shimmer, splendidly weighted, a touch aloof; quite relaxed as well and slow-ish. His great gift here is the sense of weightlessness he conveys through the most acute arm weight and touch. Invariably, comparisons come from de Larrocha and her multiple recordings of Iberia. Her playing here is that much more insistent, more tactile – and more animated. In El Puerto he’s a touch quicker than she is; his sound is more cushioned as well, not as hard, and his dynamics register more equably, as does his subtle rubati. Whether you will prefer his more temperate view is a matter of taste; I do like the visceral de Larrocha imagination, which is never afraid to embrace the brittle and the transient – qualities that apply equally in El Corpus en Sevilla. If one responds to her greater sense of the theatrical and flourish, you will find her more immediate here, though his rhythm is buoyant. Book II reflects the same dichotomies in performance when it comes to touch, though not always tempo. De Larrocha is generally more direct, maybe not as detailed textually (as in Almería) as Hamelin, whose playing can sound just a mite perfumed when measured against her relative gauntness in forte passages.

In El Albaicín she is imposing, grand, imperial, and rather drier than Hamelin. And there’s really very little between them in those lustrous right hand roulades, though the sound Hamelin has been accorded is very much warmer than in any of de Larrocha’s recordings. In El polo he evinces tremendous amplitude and style; in comparison de Larrocha tends to be more vertical and to go in for less expressive shading and colouration, though there’s still plenty of teeming life from both pianists. We got a mollifying Lavapiés from Hamelin; rhythms are smoother than the competition, less biting and less austere; he wears lighter colours than de Larrocha’s darker garbed performance. He’s a touch impatient in Málaga but uses rubati with distinction; colour and tonal shading are everywhere in evidence and a powerfully propulsive sense too in the left hand. In Jerez, we find different interpretative viewpoints with Hamelin taking a decidedly more brooding line with the music. And in the concluding Eritaña we find their playing once more takes a divided path between relatively lush vegetation – Hamelin – and more prickly gorse, de Larrocha. She uses less pedal, is crisper in articulation, drier in sound, and can force through fortes sometimes. He’s clearly more romanticised and his technique is seldom at all compromised, as hers occasionally can be, by the gargantuan demands that this music makes. So these are two very differing, complementary Iberia performances representing differing traditions and lineage. For a romanticised and relatively brittle-free traversal, Hamelin’s is mightily impressive – textually warm, burnished and brilliantly played. It’s not the only way of performing Iberia – but it’s a powerfully convincing way.

This is a two-disc set and so Hamelin gives us more Albéniz. The most remarkable is the 1897 La vega which opens with – and sustains – a rapt, devastating simplicity over the span of its entire sixteen-minute length, interspersed as it is with a powerful rhythmic charge. This is magical musicianship. Hamelin shows his droll side in Yvonne en visite! with is naughty evocation of a stumbling pianist and he’s every bit as evocative and colour drenched in Espana: Souvenirs as he proved to be in Iberia itself. A final pleasure; William Bolcom’s completion of Navarra – which is more complex than the usually encountered Séverac edition.

Splendid notes and, as I’ve indicated, warm recorded sound complete an auspicious and very welcome disc.

Jonathan Woolf

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