30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
J Scott Morrison
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
I never, ever thought I'd write anything like this: This traversal of Albéniz's masterpiece, 'Iberia,' is the equal of, perhaps even better than, the third and last recording of these works by Alicia de Larrocha. As recently as last October I wrote a glowing review of a release of Larrocha's digital recording and honestly felt it would never be superseded. Then I heard that Marc-André Hamelin was recording the set -- actually he told me backstage after a recital some months ago that it was already 'in the can' -- and I eagerly anticipated its release, wondering how it would be. I am a huge admirer of Hamelin's playing. For me, he represents the ne plus ultra of technical skill coupled with the soul of a true musician. He has always been given superb sound by the engineers at Hyperion; I knew the set would sound fabulous, and it does. The piano is surrounded by ambient space and has a warmth and body that only the best piano recordings have. But much more important is the thoughtfulness, the grace, the virtuosic fire Hamelin brings to these pieces. Especially in Books III and IV Hamelin outplays de Larrocha. The six sections of Books III and IV were written at a much more virtuosic level by Albéniz; he wrote them for the technically superior Catalan pianist, Joaquim Malats, whereas the first two books had been for the more modestly skilled Blanche Selva. Just listen to the fireworks in the final piece, 'Eritaña,' and you'll see what I mean. But also in the more melancholy, lyrical pieces, such as 'Jerez,' Hamelin imbues the music with such utter musicality that one simply sits back, soaks it up and notices the tears beginning to form in one's eyes. I may have skipped over mention of Books I and II, but they, too, are all one could ask for. The first piece, 'Evocación,' is so inward and melancholy, and so languorous, that one knows we're in for a lovely journey. It is followed immedidately by 'El puerto,' whose boisterous high spirits is infectious. Hamelin may not be Spanish but he manages the tricky Spanish rhythms here and throughout the set with aplomb and abandon. And so on to the end of Book II in 'Triana,' with its tricky cross-rhythms.
The big surprise for me, aside from the superb quality of Hamelin's 'Iberia,' are the other pieces included here, some of which I'd never heard before. 'La vega' (1897) is generally considered Albéniz's first characteristic piano piece. It was to have been part of a never-written series called 'Alhambra,' but it stands alone. He wrote that in this piece one can see 'the entire plain [vega] of Granada, as contemplated from the Alhambra.' It is a sixteen-minute evocation of that landscape and is utterly lovely. It is mostly serene music with occasional interruptions. 'España: Souvenirs' is also from 1897, a two piece set comprising 'Preludio' and 'Asturias.' It, too, is mostly serenely reflective, like 'La vega,' and given a haunting reading here. A bit of a ringer in this recital is the two-piece set, 'Yvonne en visite!,' written for 'children large and small' for the Schola Cantorum in Paris, where Albéniz lived after 1894. Particularly amusing is the Satiesque second piece, 'Joyeuse rencontre et quelques pénibles événements!!' ('Merry meeting and some painful events!!'), with its imitation of the halting playing of a young student pianist.
Even more interesting is Bill Bolcom's completion of 'Navarra,' left incomplete at Albéniz's tragically early death at 49. It is generally heard in a completion done by Albéniz's student, Déodat de Séverac, who pretty much brought the piece to a sudden end after about five minutes. Bolcom extends it, composing an extended (and bang-up) recapitulation of Albéniz's opening material so that the piece feels more formally complete, lasting about nine minutes. It is a neat job, and Hamelin plays it beautifully.
Urgently recommended, even to fans of de Larrocha's 'Iberia' recordings.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Great to hear Marc-Andre Hamelin tackle this beautiful and tremendously difficult pianistic masterpiece. (Quite a lot of it is written on three staves: there's too much going on for the usual two.) Actually, "tackle" is hardly the word. As you would expect, the more demanding the piano writing becomes, the more fluid is Hamelin's response. There is never a sense of strain, or that he is coping with the notes at the expense of rhythmic crispness. All the bass lines, melodies and rhythmic figures are caressed and outlined, regardless of the torrents of scale passages which may be happening at the same time (for example, in Book 2's Triana and Book 3's Lavapies.) Hamelin is a sensitive virtuoso.
That's not to say de Larrocha is outclassed. She still has an authentic Spanish bravura. In the Double Decca release of her 1973 recording of Iberia, she also has a far better coupling in her masterly rendition of Granados' Goyescas. Hamelin's couplings are interesting but not essential listening. Larrocha's earliest recording, now on EMI, is more devil-may-care. Her playing back in the 60s was brilliant and the piano has a slightly out of tune tang: it could be in the back of a Spanish tavern (which is right, in a way).
Barenboim doesn't quite achieve this level of technical prowess, but his heavier touch and great musicality make his Iberia (Books 1 and 2 only) a serious masterwork: there's not a whiff of the salon about his version- which can't always be said for Hamelin. I haven't heard Nicholas Unwin, but judging from his playing of the music of Joachim Nin he is well worth hearing too.
This is great music, filled with tunes you can't get out of your head. Virtually every version available has 5 stars. Hamelin should have 6: his control and dexterity are phenomenal.
53 of 70 people found the following review helpful
F. P. Walter
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
After reading enthusiastic notices in Gramophone Magazine (Bryce Morrison) and here on Amazon (Messrs. Scott and Morrison below), I ordered Marc-Andre Hamelin's IBERIA with considerable eagerness. Yet when I ultimately listened to it, my bottom-line reaction was disappointment. Yes, I instantly admired many aspects of Hamelin's work, but as early as "Almeria" I had a nagging sense that something was missing -- and a large something at that; by the time I'd reached "Jerez" I was fairly sure where the problem lay, and after auditioning the whole set a second time through, I'd confirmed my fears.
Down to cases. Hamelin's Steinway has a lean, pingy tone and a fast, light action. Thanks to this instrument (and to shrewdly chosen tempos), Hamelin produces exceptionally clear, fastidious playing in all the knotty finger passages, so "El Corpus en Sevilla" and "El Albaicin" are as shipshape, crisp, and transparent as you're ever likely to hear. But there's trouble with the basic sound itself. First, due to a combination of the instrument's limitations and his own, Hamelin fails to generate an authentic, full-bodied fortissimo anywhere on these discs -- when "Triana" calls for grit and power, de Larrocha easily outplays him, to say nothing of such oldsters as Rosenthal, Backhaus, or Rubinstein.
Second and even more crucially, the many cantilena episodes point up a major hole in Hamelin's technical apparatus. To oversimplify the matter while furnishing a sizeable grain of truth: he can't play legato and he can't turn a phrase. Listen to the cantabile playing in "Evocacion," "Rodena," "Almeria," and "Jerez": his tone is thin and glassy, there's no real line, and dynamics are frequently restricted to pp-ppp -- which means that nuances or inflections are marginal, and such niceties as pedal tintings, echo effects, and tapered cadences are nowhere to be heard. True, the snap and tidiness of Hamelin's passagework often saves things, but not always -- among the fillers here, the meditative, quarter-hour "La Vega" comes off as bland, colorless, and interminable.
So what's wrong with this picture? Well, a pianist with a poor sound, according to the pedagogue Pedro de Alcantara, "may have great dexterity, which is but one aspect of technique, but he does not have a great technique. A complete technique implies the ability to play legato and sostenuto, in a wide range of dynamics and articulations, in every imaginable colour." Unfortunately this kind of balanced, encompassing mechanism is a scarce commodity these days -- Hamelin's shortcomings, sadly, are shared by many of our current East Coast conservatory products (and even by some big-name outsiders, e.g, Kissin).
It's dismaying, too, that Hamelin could follow so closely on Rubinstein's heels (not only here but in his Szymanowski and Villa-Lobos projects) and glean so little from the experience -- especially since Rubinstein's work models just what Hamelin most needs to learn: production of a huge, deep, columnar fortissimo, as well as round, floating, prismatic tone from ppp to f (the equivalent of a great singer's mezza voce). At the very least Hamelin needs to consider giving up the ease and safety of his shallow-action Steinway and adjusting to a more neutral specimen with greater solidity and range: with such instruments, after all, several prior greats -- not only Rubinstein but the likes of Gieseking, Novaes, Rachmaninoff, Richter, and Kempff -- had no trouble generating the round, full-throated legato phrases that many of today's pianists can't.
The other fillers here are of variable interest: Hamelin is too earnest and literal to extract much humor from Yvonne's comic stumblings, while he's small-boned and dainty (though immaculate) in the inevitable appendix of "Navarra," a piece Albeniz disliked and abandoned. It's normally heard in a completion by his protege Severac, but Hamelin presents an alternative: an extended version composed by William Bolcom back in his student days. Whereas Severac's edition is in simple ABA song form, Bolcom stretches the piece into a sonata structure that often sounds merely busy and clattery. And since it winds up in exactly the same place as Severac's, the advantage is unclear.
Where do you go for your desert-island IBERIA? Needless to say, all of de Larrocha's recordings are authoritative, but for power, dash, humor, earthiness, and a generous palette of gaudy colors, her 1962 Madrid traversal (EMI 764505) is arguably the richest, fullest statement of this music. This set also includes Albeniz's instantly adorable SUITE ESPANOLA plus de Larrocha's zesty "Navarra" in the standard version. As for integral versions that skip "Navarra," the top runner-up is the little-known Ciccolini set from 1966 (EMI 76906), balletic, muscular, as transparent as Hamelin's but with a good deal more color and richness of line.
So does this mean Messrs. Morrison, Scott, and Morrison are mistaken about Hamelin's new offering? Not entirely. As a backup set this release has several things to hold the interest: lovely recorded sound, offbeat filler pieces, and plenty of preternaturally neat fingerwork.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Alicia de Larrocha has held the field in this towering piece of piano literature for what seems like forever (personally, I've always had a soft spot for her Erato recording, the middle of her three versions). Pretenders have come and gone, but no-one has come near her innate understanding of the idiom combined with the ability to encompass all the work's prodigious virtuoso demands, despite her relatively small hands.
Which is not say that Marc Andre Hamelin's performance supersedes de Larrocha. It is just different and, on its own terms, equally valid; it provides a revealing new light on the many facets of this ever-fascinating set of pieces - much praised by Messiaen amongst others. De Larrocha captures the essence of these Spanish landscapes with a crystalline brilliance that perfectly reflects the brightness and heat of the Spanish sun, the clarity of its skies and the earthiness of the land and its people. Hamelin, on the other hand, is more impressionist in his approach. He makes these works cousins to the Debussian or Ravelian view of Spain - think Debussy's Iberia or Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole. Try the first piece of the Suite, Evocacion, for a flavour of what I mean. With Hamelin there is a little more heat-haze over the landscape than there is with de Larrocha: speeds can be a little slower, a little more languorous: there is time to take in a little more of the detail of Albeniz's often daring harmonies as they shift and change and inner voices come to the fore. When virtuoso technique is called for (which is pretty often and not only in the louder faster pieces), Hamelin is, as you would expect, more than equal to the task - and it is never virtuosity for virtuosity's sake, but always at the service of the music.
The extra pieces are all worth hearing and wonderfully played, if not in the same class as Iberia. The completion of Navarra makes a more balanced and satisfying piece of it than we're used to - but why leave it to the end of the disc (where it admittedly makes an exciting finale) instead of attaching it to the end of Iberia where it really belongs? That quibble aside, this is a highly commendable disc. Hamelin has clearly thought through his interpretations very carefully and presents a thrilling range of colour, harmony and melody - though I wouldn't want to be without one of the de Larrocha performances as well.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Albeniz was a romantic self-exile, unable to live with the stifling and conservative culture of his native Spain but full of nostalgia. He migrated first to London and then to Paris where he became acquainted with, among others, Faure, and where his style of composition came under French influences, possibly including Faure's to some extent but more obviously that of Ravel and Debussy. His musical idiom is a subtle and unstraightforward mix of different threads, and so the interpreter's task is not straightforward either. There are various legitimate ways of going about Iberia, but I'd say that neither a simplistic Spanish style nor an over-frenchified style is among them. Each interpreter needs to have a concept of the works that is coherent (`consistent' sounds too restrictive), and it's not to be expected that when another great exponent of them comes on the scene he will resemble his most important forerunners in any major way. I find Hamelin's approach completely convincing. He is not trying to be `son-of-de la Rocha' or to be anyone but himself, and that fulfils my own first requirement. He looks at the pieces from his own standpoint, he makes his own sense of them, he conveys that sense to me, and the monstrous technical difficulty of much of the music seems to be nothing to him.
Iberia is 12 separate works bound into 4 books of 3 apiece. They are not suites of pieces in the way we usually regard Chopin's preludes as being a single suite for performance in toto. They are more like Brahms's later piano works, grouped in collections that admit of performance either as grouped or equally well as separate items. I don't hear them as `representing' towns in Spain, Corpus Christi processions and what have you. These places and these events had their own characteristic music, recalled but not quoted or imitated by Albeniz, and it is this music, not the locations and activities directly, that he evokes in his own original music. Hamelin is not French but Canadian, and while he inclines more to the French content in the music than others do he has an effortless sense of the Spanish rhythms, and when it comes to Navarra at the end of the recital he gives a full-blooded `Spanish' rendering suited to this piece, which the composer thought too straightforward and crowd-pleasing to belong with the others, replacing it with Jerez. The Frenchness in Hamelin's way of doing things comes in various forms, usually cool and lucid but not afraid of some impressionistic pedalling when he sees fit, as you can hear right away in the first number, the so-called evocation simply entitled `prelude' by Albeniz.
I think what I like best about this recital is the sense of effortless command about it. It may seem an odd comparison, but Iberia reminds me of Brahms's Paganini variations in one important respect - it presents the player with some technical challenges of the kind we used to think mind-boggling except that they seem to be easy meat for today's crop of technicians, and it demands that they be not just overcome but played as if the performer had not even noticed them, otherwise the music can sound dull and ugly. Whatever sense Hamelin's playing conveys to you it is not a sense of struggle. Everything is under perfect control, but there is a real feeling of enjoyment and of genuine love of the music as well as (to my ears anyway) a slight but definite sense of quiet triumph. The other thing that thrills me about this player is a real feeling of individuality about him. It's individuality without eccentricity or wilfulness too, which is a hard trick to take - Argerich for one is nothing if not individual, but a sense of wilfulness is all part of the deal. Both Horowitz and Michelangeli disparaged the younger generation of players for what they perceived as a lack of differentiation among them, but I wonder whether Michelangeli himself might not have found some characteristics to admire in Hamelin, these being of course characteristics similar to his own, which were what he mainly approved of.
Albeniz's music is music of the mind as well as of the heart. Excessive heartiness in playing it tends to put me off, and Hamelin is very much to my own taste although so are other styles. The influences of his French contemporaries only go a certain distance in Albeniz's writing. The harmony is more tonal than Ravel's and more so still than Debussy's, and I fancy I catch a touch of Faure in his handling of key-shifts. I am not at all surprised that Debussy thought Eritana, which comes last of the 12 pieces in order of publication, to be the best of the lot, as it could almost be taken for his own work at least in part. Debussy and Ravel were more than slightly keen on giving a Spanish flavour to their own work, they knew how to mix the idioms, and they knew another master of the technique when they heard one. However music exists only in performance, and the performer has to be such a master in his or her own right too. Hamelin fills the bill for me, but if you find too much Frenchness in some of the earlier numbers, try the composer's rejected Navarra at the end by way of counterbalance. Albeniz never actually finished it, his pupil de Severac tagged a few bars on, but Hamelin gives us a barnstorming conclusion, nearly half the length of the total piece, by William Bolcom. This is more as I like it, and I hope you will too.