Isaac Albeniz set of four books of piano pieces called “Iberia” are some of the most difficult works in the piano repertoire. They aren’t difficult from the perspective of the actual notes, it is the way in which Albeniz laid thses notes under the pianist fingers.
First, its difficult, second — and perhaps most importantly — they way Albeniz has written the score makes the pianist do some very strange and awkward (for most pianists) interlocking hand positions. Most who attempt the music, spend a great deal of time re-distributing the notes in a more logical manner. This seems to have been a barrier to more pianists attempting this wonderful piano music.
Although Albeniz was an accomplished and well known concert pianist he did not write these works for himself and almost destroyed the scores fearing that no pianist would be able to play them. These works were written with Catalan pianist Joaquin Malats in mind. They take advantage of his rather odd and unique abilities to play complex music using interlocking hand positions. That means playing with at least one or two of the fingers of each hand worked in between the fingers of the other. There is no real need to distribute the notes this way and Albeniz admittedly did it specifically for the Catalan pianists unique ability.
From the few historical recordings we have of his playing his reputation as an exquisite keyboard colourist are well deserved. However, knowing all this doesn’t make Albeniz writing any easier. All we know is that someone, long dead could do it with relative ease! These days, most pianists, including the highly regarded Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, re-distributes the writing so the notes lay more conventionally under the pianists fingers.
All that said, this music is one of the landmarks in Spanish keyboard music and likely in Spanish music in general. The reason I’m going on about this is that there are new-ish recordings of these works by Quebecois pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. Hamelin, as many of you know, is well known for playing the most torturously difficult works in the piano reportoire from Alkan to all of the Chopin–Godowsky Etudes and doing not only brilliantly, but musically to!
It is always tempting to assume that because one is born in a particular country or local that the interpretation from that person is going to be more authoritative and closer to the spirit of that location than someone from another place. We have considered Alicia de Larrocha’s interpretation (Decca 2 CDs 448 1912) of these works as the panicle for many decades. Of course she had almost no competition in this area. Any other recordings of these works have long been absent from any catalogue. My memory of them fades, but I do remember that I was not impressed any of them. At that time Ms. de Larrocha’s interpretations were the bench mark. However, that said, I always had the nagging feeling that there was something missing from her brilliantly done recordings.
My suspicions have been validated by Quebecois pianist Marc-André Hamelin‘s recording of these works for Hyperion His work completely displaces Alicia de Larrocha’s reading. From the first notes of the Evocation you are aware that you are hearing something quite magical. In Hamelin’s hands, this piece breathes, it exudes Iberia from every pour, it becomes the hushed, passionate evocation of Iberia I think Albeniz intended.
Unlike the faux-Spanish music of Debussy, Ravel and Rimsky-Kosakov, Iberia is Spanish music written by a Spaniard. This music rings true to the spirit of Spain. Hamelin captures its unique beauty in a way which makes the music speak. I am always aware of thoughtful intelligence and passion when I listen to this recording.
I have listened to it in detail multiple times, and will do so again. I have always had my favourites, Triana, the Evocation, Lavapies and El Albecin; but as I listen, each one seems to me my favourite at that moment in time.
It is one thing for a pianist to play the notes as the composer wrote them; Hamelin, on the other hand, not only plays the notes but also communicates the intent, sets the scene and the drama of each piece. One can hear how each phrase answers or flows logically from one to another. Do not think for one second that this is only an intellectual exercise for Hamelin leads you though each piece in this large Suite with an emotional logic that is, in itself, undeniable.
If you thought about purchasing these recordings and didn’t, you should not hesitate the next time you see them. These are the new high water mark recordings of Albeniz Iberia and other late piano works.