The Spanish composer, who also made his career as a virtuoso pianist, Isaac Albéniz was relatively popular during my student days. This was a time when his music was championed by the Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, who always seemed to work at least one of her pieces into her recitals, if not on the program than as an encore. In addition, the leading classical guitarists of that time, most notably Andrés Segovia, would demonstrate their skill through arrangements of his music. These days he is still popular with guitarists, but I do not think I have yet encountered his music in a piano recital since I began writing for rootshed.com.
In 1995 the pianist Paul Verona published the doctoral thesis he had written at Manhattan School of Music in 1991, entitled The Iberia Suite of Isaac Albéniz: Transcendentalisms in a Flamenco World. While I have not yet had an opportunity to see, let alone read, this book, it seems valid to assume from the title that it is a study of how Albéniz was able to harness indigenous Spanish resources for the rhetoric of nineteenth-century virtuoso pianism. Now Verona has released a two-CD recording of the complete Iberia suite on the Centaur label; and those CDs are available for download from ClassicsOnline.
If these recordings were intended to demonstrate how Verona could turn the theories of his thesis into practices on the recital stage, then I have to confess that I would approach his thesis with no small amount of skepticism. I do not think that anyone would dispute that folk sources were Albéniz’ primary source of inspiration for composition. However, as one who has been exposed to those sources in a variety of settings, I would propose that those influences do not register particularly strongly, if at all, in Verona’s recordings of each of the twelve pieces collected under the title Iberia.
The crux of my argument is that the primary source of influence from any of these sources would be rhythm. We have all been exposed to “Spanish” rhythms at one time or another (even if only through the interpretation of a Russian composer); but most fantasizing or rhapsodizing on Spanish themes tends to be naïve, if not simplistic. “The real thing” was almost never limited to a single rhythmic pattern. Rather, it involved a superposition of rhythms (not always consonantly), emerging from a collection of musicians who are not always performing as a group. Albéniz recognized the significance of this complexity; and, when we look at the score pages of Iberia, we marvel at how effectively he could capture it and realize it with only two hands on a keyboard.
This is what Verona never seems to “get.” He is prodigiously industrious in bringing all the details of Albéniz notation to his fingertips, and one can imagine that a composer like Olivier Messiaen would be well served by that industry. (I cite Messiaen explicitly because he had a deep admiration for Iberia; and the Wikipedia page for this composition shows how he put that admiration into words.) However, what never emerges from the intensity of Verona’s technique is a sense of how each of those twelve pieces is driven by rhythm and, more often than not, by the thoroughly stunning complexity of polyrhythms.
A revived interest in Albéniz’ skill as a composer is long overdue; but, unfortunately, this new recording is unlikely to advocate that revival.