Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)
Suite Española No 1 Op. 47
Suite Española No.2 Op.97:   No.1 Zaragoza; No.2 Sevilla
Suite ancienne No.3
Zambra granadina
Cadiz (Gaditana)
Sebastian Stanley (piano)
rec. May 2022, Studio 150 Bethlehemkerk, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Piano Classics PCL10262 [64]

It is not unusual for music to be repurposed; J.S. Bach was a master at this practice. What is unusual, if not rare, is for music, relative to the instrument for which it was composed, to become better known, more frequently played and more popular via the instrument for which it was transcribed. Generally, the music of Isaac Albéniz is better known and more frequently played on the guitar than by exponents of the piano. This is especially true of his Suite española Op 47, every movement of which has been transcribed for the guitar and enjoys high levels of popularity on that instrument.

A Catalan, Albéniz was born in Camprodon, province of Girona in 1860. He was a child prodigy who first performed publically at the age of four. At age 6 he passed the entrance examination for the Conservatoire de Paris but was refused admission because he was considered too young. Albéniz was not only a virtuoso pianist and a conductor, but also one of the foremost composers of the Post-Romantic era. His best-known works for piano are based on folk music idioms.

Franciso Tárrega (1852-1909), considered the modern awakener of the guitar, an epithet with which he became endowed, was also a fine pianist. We may assume that Tárrega was not particularly impressed with the extant repertory for the guitar because his concert programmes did not include any original works for guitar, aside from his own. Tárrega turned to music, often popular of the day, especially piano music. He transcribed a number of works by Albéniz which have subsequently become staple components of the guitar’s repertory. His pupils Miguel Llobet and Emilio Pujol also made similar transcriptions

It has been suggested that it takes two guitars to do what one piano can, and in many instances this may be true. However, gems from the pen of Albéniz including Asturias (Leyenda), Granada, Sevilla, Cádiz, Córdoba, Cataluña, Mallorca and Tango (Op 165 No 2) exhibit special and unique qualities when played on the guitar. There is a story that when Albéniz heard Llobet play transcriptions of his music on guitar, he expressed a preference for it over the original on piano. Segovia was circumspect about this story’s authenticity, but quite emphatic that Granados expressed a similar preference when he heard Llobet play his originals on the guitar. A personal friend of Llobet’s, he was in a position to share this story.

The Suite Española Op. 47 comprises the bulk of the music on this CD. It was Albéniz’s first major effort writing in the Spanish style. Presented to the publisher in 1886, with eight listed titles, he included only four complete titles. The remaining numbers first appeared later, and under different titles. After his death, the publishers completed the collection by inserting works, changing the titles to reflect the composer’s original list. This licence did not always reflect the actual music character of the piece. A relevant example is Asturias; this was originally published in 1892 as the Prelude to Chants d’Epañola Op 232 and later added to the Suite Española. It embodies pure Andalusian gypsy music and has nothing to do with the folk music of the Asturias region of the north. Further evidence of Albéniz’s continuing fascination with locales he explored in Suite No 1, is manifested in Zambra granadina published in 1889, and Cádiz (Gaditana) published 11 years later.

Although born in Spain, Sebastian Stanley moved to the UK at an early age. A graduate of the Royal College of Music, he has travelled globally, receiving glowing reviews for his recitals in such venues as St Martin in the Fields, Solti House, and Leipzig Gewandhaus. A specialist in Spanish romantic and 20th century composers, he also has a deep love for the works of Beethoven, having recently performed all 32 Sonatas for charity.

It has often been implied that music of a specific ethnic origin is best performed by those with the same birth affiliation. It may have contributed to an initial slow acceptance of Englishman, Julian Bream playing the Spanish guitar? A comprehensive, comparative review of Alicia de Larrocha playing this same music, in no way supports this concept. While Stanley Sebastian may have been born in Spain his adult life has been spent in the UK. He plays this music with much vigour, and sensitivity, reflecting a deep understanding of the composer’s inspirations and vision. One also gets the impression that music written with Andalusian character remembers the guitar, a key source of compositional inspiration. Segovia referred to guitar transcriptions of such piano music as a form of restitution. This inspiration is profoundly reflected in a communication from Albéniz. In 1886, speaking of his serenata Granada, Albéniz wrote to a friend Enrique Moragas: I live and write a Serenata…. sad to the point of despair, among the aroma of the flowers, the shade of the cypresses and of the snow of the Sierra. I will not compose the intoxication of a juerga. I seek now the tradition… the guzla, the lazy dragging of the fingers over the strings. And above all, a heartbreaking lament out of tune…I want the Arabic Granada, that which is art, which is all that seems to me beauty and emotion. 

Although a Catalan, Albeniz felt himself a Moor a heart, and this sentiment was infused in much of his Spanish music. The Moorish or oriental impression is especially conspicuous in Asturias where he employs augmented seconds to convey a flamenco flavour.

The sonic recording quality of this CD is impressive. The percussive nature of the piano is a challenge to record accurately and an even a greater challenge to reproduce faithfully. The recording quality here represents one of the very best for the piano that I have encountered. On tracks two and three, especially, there is a ‘presence’ in the recorded sound that is quite remarkable. The dynamic range with which Stanley executes the music adds to the aural illusion.

Zane Turner

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