Miguel Baselga’s Albéniz Adventure

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PIANO MUSIC Vol. 5 / ALBÉNIZ: Suite española No. 1, Op. 47. Piano Sonata No. 4 in A. Suite ancienne No. 2, Op. 64. Arbola Azplan (Zortzico). Pavana Capricho, Op. 12 / Miguel Baselga, pn / Bis CD-1443

PIANO MUSIC, Vol. 7 / ALBÉNIZ: Chant d’Espagne, Op. 232. 6 Mazurkas de Salon, Op. 66. Deseo, estudio de concierto. Op. 40. L’Automne Valse, Op. 170. Marcha militar. 3 Improvisations (reconstructed by Milton Laufer). Yvonne en Visite / Miguel Baselga, pn / Bis CD-1953

I was reviewing an entirely different release of Albéniz’ earlier piano music by a different pianist, but he was such a namby-pamby wuss at the keyboard—he sounded as if he was afraid to hit the keys too hard for fear he might break them—I went searching for an alternative version of some of the music he was playing. And, lo and behold. I ran across these albums by Miguel Baselga.

Now, I was much more impressed by Baselga’s playing than by the unfortunate Pajama Boy on the other CD, but since I already have an outstanding recording of all of the books of Ibéria played by the great Eduardo Fernández, I tried not to review any of the albums with that music on them. I did, however, want one more CD to sample, so I decided on Vol. 7 which contained a good amount of later music by Albéniz.

I will admit that the early Suite española is scarcely one of the composer’s great works, but in certain movements, i.e. “Under the Palm Tree” or “Aragon – Fantasia,” one can already hear how he was working towards a fusion of classical form with Spanish folk and pop music, and it is very well written. The fairly (but not too) early Piano Sonata No. 4, which is the piece that sent me away from Pajama Boy, is played here by Baselga with lift and drive. It’s really a sparkling piece when you don’t try to make it early Brahms. Every movement is a little gem, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Even better is the Suite ancienne, where Albéniz manages to infuse a Spanish sensibility into a Baroque framework. Yet from a compositional standpoint, I was even more impressed by the Arbola Azplan (Zortzico), an outstanding piece with the right-hand themes played against a contrapuntal left hand in a different rhythm. The Pavana Capricho takes the old classical idea of a “pavane,” which was a court dance, and gives it a Spanish spin. Written in E minor, it’s a sprightly melody consisting of lively eighth notes with mordents or turns on the third beat of every bar of the “A” theme. The “B” theme, in the major, dominates the second half.

Albeniz 1901

Albéniz at the keyboard, 1901

In Vol. 7, Baselga presents us with some pieces from Albéniz’ mature style, by which time he had produced most if not all of the various “books” of Ibéria. The Chant d’Espagnole, Op. 232 is a series of five songs with contrasting rhythms, tempos and moods. The music is much more sophisticated here, showing considerable growth since the days of his Suite española. Baselga plays this music with an eye to its structure and considerable charm, revealing its close relationship to parts of Ibéria. The fourth piece is particularly interesting and atmospheric.

I’m always curious to hear how different non-Polish composers approach mazurkas because, along with the polonaise, it is the national dance form of Poland (polkas come from Germany, even though Poles love them). Albéniz took a unique approach to them, starting out with a Polish-sounding theme but then morphing it into a Spanish tinge. Very original and creative! I can’t recall any other composer doing anything similar with this form. The fourth mazurka is possibly the most creative, as he actually manages to combine both a mazurka and a Spanish rhythm in the principal theme simultaneously. This is done via a subtle shifting of the rhythm, giving the music a Polish accent in the right hand but a Spanish feel in the left! (Incidentally, Albéniz’ mazurkas actually sound more Polish in their outer themes than those of Szymanowski, who was a Polish composer.) It really is a shame that he died at age 48 from Bright’s disease.

Deseo, estudio de concierto is a bird of a different feather. Powerful and tightly structured, it has a Spanish tinge to it but is much more classical in mein. The rather long L’autumne valse, on the other hand, I felt was too long and not varied enough in material to sustain interest. (I can only imagine how the Pajama Boy, in his own series of complete Albéniz, might have played it.) By contrast, the brief and spirited Marcha Militar is set at such a tempo and rhythm that it almost sounds like a polka. The 3 Improvisations, arranged by one Milton Laufer, are very Hispanic in sound and rhythm. The album wraps up with the two pieces of Yvonne en visite, the first being rather straightforward but the second broken up into several sections, each with its own tempo, rhythm and theme.

These are outstanding performances and, for the most part, music that illuminates the kind of work Albéniz did throughout his career.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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