Iturbi’s Solo Recordings Available at Last

iturbi-cover

JOSÉ ITURBI: THE VICTOR AND HMV SOLO RECORDINGS / D. SCARLATTI: Sonata in B min., Kk27 (L 449). Sonata in C, Kk159 (L 104) / J.S. BACH: Fantasia in C min., BWV 906. PARADIES: Sonata No. 6 in A: Toccata. MOZART: Piano Sonatas: in A, K. 331; in F, K. 332. BEETHOVEN: Andante Favori in F. Bagatelle, “Für Elise.” SCHUMANN: Arabesque in C. Romance in F-sharp. LISZT: Liebestraum No. 3. Les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este. CHOPIN: Polonaise in A-flat. Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor. Waltzes: in D-flat, Op. 64/1; in C-sharp min., Op. 54/2. Mazurka in B-flat, Op. 7/1. Nocturne in B, Op. 32/1. Preludes: in E, Op. 28/9; in C-sharp min., Op. 28/10. “Revolutionary” Etude in C min. TCHAIKOVSKY: The Seasons: June; November. RACHMANINOV: Prelude in C-sharp min. PADEREWSKI: Minuet in G. LAZǍR: Piano Sonata in A min.: Marche funebre. SAINT-SAËNS: Allegro appassionato. DEBUSSY: Clair de lune. Rêverie. Arabesques: Nos. 1 & 2 (2 vers.). Estampes: Jardins sous le Pluie. ALBÉNIZ: Suite Española: Sevilla. Cantos de España: Córdoba. España: Malagueńa. granados: The Maiden and the Nightingale. Spanish Dances: No. 2, “Oriental”; No. 5, “Andaluza”; No. 10, “Danza triste.” LÓPEZ-CHAVARRI: Cuentos y Fantasias: The Old Moorish Castle. DE FALLA: El Amor Brujo: Dance of Terror; Ritual Fire Dance. INFANTE: Sevillanas. ITURBI: Cancion de Cuna. Pequeña Danza Española (under pseudonym of J. Navarro). GOULD: Interplay: Blues No. 3. Boogie Woogie Etude / APR Recordings 7307 (3 CDs, mono)

José Iturbi Báguena (1895-1980), handsome, debonair, charming in front of a camera and immensely talented, was at once the most popular classical pianist of his time and the target of vindictives from critics who deplored his “selling out” to Hollywood. Alas, we haven’t had much to judge him by in the last 35 years because most of his recordings have never been reissued, but here at last are all of his solo recordings issued by RCA Victor and its British affiliate, HMV, between 1933 and 1952.

My own experience with Iturbi was largely one of ambivalence. I had heard a couple of his 78-rpm recordings and, of course, seen him on TV during the late 1950s when the local New York used-movie mill, “Million Dollar Movie,” would run his 1940s films once in a while. During one such viewing my mother, who dabbled in liking classical music but wasn’t really knowledgeable (she had briefly studied singing in the 1940s but gave it up before pursuing a career), walked through the living room and saw the TV screen. “What did you think of José Iturbi?” I asked her. “He was very handsome,” she said. “Did you like his playing?” I pressed. A moment of silence. “I liked Claudio Arrau better.” Arrau was also a very handsome Latino pianist—but he wasn’t a movie star. My mother, however, knew so little about Arrau that when I called and told her that I had seen him play on TV in the late 1970s, she said, “Oh, you must be mistaken. He died years ago!” So much for my mom’s knowledge of classical musicians.

If you watch Iturbi play, on one of his YouTube film clips, you’ll notice a very unusual approach to the piano. Rather than having his hands slightly cupped over the keyboard,with fingers fluttering as usual, Iturbi spread his fingers on both hands fairly far apart and had them crawl over the keyboard like two giant spiders. It worked for him, obviously, but as a former pianist myself, I find it rather creepy.

The one Iturbi record I really enjoyed was one of his oddest, Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude, as much for the music as for its performance, although Iturbi played it very well. So, in a sense, this was my first exposure to his playing in anything like a large view, and after reading Jed Distler’s excellent and informative liner notes I have finally come to grips with Iturbi. He was a very gifted pianist who played in a wide-awake, clear-cut manner. He used little to no sustain pedal and almost as rarely used the mute pedal. His interpretations were very “outward,” meaning that he rarely indulged in introspection or delicacy though he could play softly when he wanted to. In short, he was almost a classical pianist in the style we’ve become used to nowadays: crisp, clear, and not imposing any specific point of view on the music while still retaining a fine legato, undeniably clean articulation and—perhaps best of all—a clear sense of each work’s musical structure.

Although he had studied in his early years with Wanda Landowska, very little of her innate charm rubbed off on Iturbi. So much is clear in his performance of the Scarlatti sonatas that open the first disc of this set, particularly the Sonata in C, Kk 159, which happens to be one of his earliest recordings, very much pre-Hollywood. And, in the end, I think it was this that ultimately led critics to disparage him. He simply never grew as an artist.

And yet a great many pianists loved his playing, and not just classical musicians. Thelonious Monk, of all people, enjoyed him tremendously. Thus we look among his solo recordings for those that work better than others. Among the successes are his Bach Fantasia in C minor, his two Mozart Sonatas (praised by both Monk and William Kapell), Beethoven’s Andante Favori, the excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and his renderings of two of the most “pop” piano works of his day, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp minor and Paderewski’s Minuet in G. Here, his penchant for extreme clarity, lack of sentiment and emphasis on the structure of each work do full justice to the material. The Mozart sonatas in particular, recorded in the 1930s before he went to Hollywood, show a remarkable flexibility in phrasing and touch that he rarely displayed in his later recordings.

I also liked, very much, Iturbi’s performances of the more flamboyant Chopin pieces, the Polonaise in A-flat and the Fantaisie-Impromptu, and although his Debussy just misses the poetry of such pianists as Gieseking, Pollini or Korstick, I also found his versions of Clair de Lune and Rêverie to be outstanding. Listeners who would seek Spanish charm and elegance in his performances of music by Albéniz, Granados or de Falla may be disappointed; although he observes all of the dynamics markings and does not play with brutish force, he is much more concerned with structure than elegance. A good example is “Córdoba” from Albéniz’s Cantos de España; he plays with great attention to detail, including a generally delicate rendering of the score, but in the end one is not so much aware of soft Southern breezes as simply of a very good piece of music well-played in a crisp and somewhat elegant style.

Granados’ The Maiden and the Nightingale is elegantly crafted, for instance, but in a wide-awake manner. This is a maiden with insomnia who no nightingale is going to seduce into sleep. On the other hand, I did enjoy the Albéniz as a different way of playing those pieces. I’ve never heard another rendition of de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance that combines fire and structural clarity in such equal measure, and I heard Rubinstein play it live once in the late 1960s, a very flamboyant performance that inspired me to learn it! Iturbi’s two self-composed pieces reveal a simplistic tonal style, obviously aimed for audience enjoyment. I didn’t think either piece terribly distinguished, but on their own terms they’re not badly written and would please most non-discriminatory listeners.

In toto, then, Iturbi was kind of a cross between Glenn Gould and your basic garden variety piano competition prizewinner of nowadays. In the liner notes, Distler refers to Van Cliburn and Lang Lang as two other pianists whose work was/is disparaged by critics because of their overwhelming popularity, but Iturbi was far closer to Lang than to Cliburn in style and temperament. I happen to like some of the things Lang Lang does, but he’s not one of my favorite pianists because he almost never achieves the heights in the music he plays scaled by others. The same is basically true of Iturbi, and yet I would really not be without some of the better recordings described above. A mixed bag, then.

The sound quality varies depending on the source and how much audio engineer Mark Obert-Thorn chose to clean up the original discs. Most of them are clear and noiseless, but some are clear of noise but dull on top. Several of the 1930s recordings have too much surface swish for my taste, and the Debussy Clair de Lune has some disc noise or turntable rumble left in that I found distracting in so quiet a piece. I would recommend looking for a way to download individual tracks rather than the whole album and make one good CD from them…and please don’t disregard the Boogie Woogie Etude!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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