This CD is a delightful set of pieces for piano and orchestra by Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz, and Joaquín Turina, three noted Spanish composers living in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Performances are by French pianist Jean-François Heisser and the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne [Lausanne Chamber Orchestra], conducted by Jesús López-Cobos. The music was recorded digitally (DDD) at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in June, 1996, with Jean-Martial Golaz as sound engineer. Originally an Erato recording, this CD was released on the Apex label (Warner Classics) in 2001. The sound quality is excellent throughout in well-imaged stereo.
Although French pianist Jean-François Heisser (born 1950) is not nearly so well known as the late, magisterial Alicia de Larrocha, his performances here are first-rate and lacking in no respect. Aged 46 at the time of these recordings, he was presumably around the peak of his pianistic powers as he negotiated with apparent ease as well as artistic sensitivity and stylistic empathy the substantial demands of works by composers who were themselves all excellent pianists. A graduate of the Paris Conservatory, where he himself has now taught for a number of years, he developed a special relationship to the works of Spanish composers such as the three here, plus others including Granados and Mompou. In addition, he has recorded pieces by Beethoven, Bartok, and a number of others. He played Schubert for the soundtrack of Louis Malle's 1987 film "Au Revoir, les Enfants" [Goodbye, Children].
The Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne was founded in 1942 in Lausanne, a city on the shores of Lake Geneva in Romandy (French-speaking), Switzerland. The well-reputed group plays this intensely colorful and brilliantly orchestrated music to near-perfection. Responding to the authoritative leadership of its then conductor, the Spaniard Jesús López-Cobos, the group produces filmy tissues and opaque washes of sound, song-like melodies, distinctive motifs, decorative arabesques, toccata-like passages, and more in service of this pleasurable music.
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946} was born in the southern Spanish city of Cádiz, Andalucía. The longest-lived of the composers here, he traveled a good deal and became broadly cultured. In Paris he familiarized himself with the impressionistic music of Debussy and Ravel, which influenced his own compositions, as did the flamenco music of his native Andalucía. His interests were literary as well as musical, and he became a close friend of the poet Federico García Lorca. When Franco's conservative forces won the civil war in 1939 he emigrated to Argentina, never returning to Spain.
Falla wrote "Noches en los Jardines de España" [Nights in the Gardens of Spain] in 1916 (at age 40), when he was living in Madrid. The work for piano and orchestra includes three movements: (1) En el Generalife, (2) Danza lejana, and (3) En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba. The first movement is pure impressionism, with a Spanish accent. Falla's command of Debussy's musical style and techniques is very obvious here. The piano is used mainly as an orchestral instrument, adding colorful arabesques but not really taking the lead. The title refers to ancient gardens, part of the large Alhambra complex in Granada, Andalucía, built and extended over a long period, originally by Berber invaders from North Africa, but later by Spanish royalty after the centuries-long Muslim occupation ended in 1492. The second movement title means "Distant Dance," and is a lovely and lively Spanish dance, with a more vigorous piano presence playing melodies, toccata-like passages, and arabesques, but still very much a partner, not a dominator, of the orchestra. (The opening is reminiscent of the Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo [Love, the Magician] Falla's ballet of the previous year.) Harmonies are generally simpler, but with hispanic color and feel, and impressionistic flavors still abound. The third movement begins with a rhythmic motif in the piano's low register. The piano part is often very prominent, playing florid melodies and arabesques, but the orchestra is never relegated to mere accompaniment. The orchestration is quite brilliant, and the horns, as well as other instruments, are employed masterfully. The title, En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba [In the Gardens of the Cordovan Mountains] refers to the Andalusian province in the southern part of Spain, where during the Arab/Berber occupation an Islamic caliphate was centered.
Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) was born in a small town in the Pyrenees near the French border, in the province of Girona, Catalunya. A child prodigy pianist, at age nine he, along with his sister, was taken on tour by his father, having already passed the entrance exam for the Paris Conservatoire (which however refused him admission as too young at age seven). This may remind you of young Mozart and his sister "Nanerl." He is the earliest of the composers here, being about half a generation older than Falla and a full generation older than Turina. Most of his composition was for piano, but today much of it is known as well or better in transcription, mainly for guitar but also for other instruments/groups. Though broadly familiar with the mainstream music of his time, under the influence of his fellow Catalonian, the musicologist/composer Felip Pedrell, he began in 1883 to focus his compositions increasingly upon music idiomatic to Catalonia or Spain at large. Although he lived only 48 years he was very prolific, and the wide popularity of his works, along with his brilliant pianism, made him a noted figure in Europe and abroad. Thus, he wielded substantial influence upon his contemporary composers as well as their successors.
The Rapsodia Española (1887) provides a good example of the Spanish influence upon Albéniz's music and his mastery of the piano. Almost immediately the mood is set as Spanish-sounding themes and guitar-like rhythms build up an impression suggestive of Debussy's approach, though less so than in the Falla work. The piano plays a song-like theme while the orchestra takes on the role of accompanist before the mood changes to a rhythmic, march-like section. A dance-like finale closes the piece. Overall this light, free-form piece employs a rich palette of orchestral colors to charm the ear. Heisser's performance of the virtuosic piano part is masterful, sensitive, and evocative--a great interpretation of this bit of musical delight. The digital sound is excellent.
In the Concierto Fantástico Albéniz largely abandons Spanish impressionism to adopt a more mainstream European symphonic style which, though bearing tinges of Spanish ethnic color, reflects a more abstract classicism. The first movement Allegro offers a texture of tuneful motifs followed by a sweet, simple, song-like second theme. The Andante movement features an aurally pleasant, classical melodic section followed by a livelier virtuosic theme wherein the piano takes the lead. (At the end we are reminded somewhat of Rachmaninov's piano writing.) The Allegro third movement begins with a declamatory theme, later followed by more melodic language. Overall, the concerto is classical, but not Germanic in style. The performance, both by pianist and orchestra, is excellent, and the leadership of López-Cobos makes it all hang together beautifully.
Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) was born in Seville, the Andalusian capital, though he was of northern Italian lineage. Like the others he wrote music evoking Spanish ethnicity and color. His harmonies and orchestrations are simpler than those of his compatriots here, and he is little influenced by Debussy's impressionism. His melodic invention is pleasant and ear-catching. He begins the Rapsodia Sinfónica with a brilliant piano passage, and it is the piano which dominates this concerted work with its contrasts between the solo voice and its orchestral setting. Some fine piano colors and textures display Turina's skill and imagination in writing for his chosen instrument. His personal virtuosity is reflected in the demanding, toccata-like, rhythmic passages the pianist is called upon to perform. Again the performance is excellent, by both soloist and orchestra.
This selection of concerted Spanish piano works is a bouquet of musical delight. Far distant from the cerebral, Teutonic rationalism of northern Europe, it projects the pleasure-loving, southern charm of the Iberian peninsula at its best. The excellent performances and sonic captures make this CD an irresistible musical offering, and I recommend it most highly.