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Thread: Isaac Albeniz. Guitar Strings to Heartstrings

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    Member michael walsh's Avatar
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    Default Isaac Albeniz. Guitar Strings to Heartstrings

    Isaac Albeniz. Guitar Strings to Heartstrings

    How often we relax to the quintessential Hispanic melodies of Isaac Albeniz. His Rapsodia Espanola, Sevilla and Granada, based on Catalan folk songs, are perhaps the better known of his many compositions. These lovely melodies evoke the Spanish dream more than could any Goya painting; but what of the man behind the music? Like most composers his life was as notable as was his music.

    Born in Camprodon in Catalonia (1860) this virtuoso prodigy first performed on the piano at the age of just four-years old. Such talent and precociousness. Could a possible explanation be his having being reincarnationally influenced? By the age of seven he had passed the entrance examination of the Paris Conservatoire but was refused admission: The selectors considered him too young. Perhaps his virtuousity and premature promise may reflect badly on the other gifted but older students.

    By the time he was thirteen old the errant Isaac had attempted to run away from home several times. Each time he was returned to his home with no doubt a clip across his ear. At 12-years old he did succeed in stowing away on a ship bound for Buenos Aires. From there, working his passage, he made his way to Cuba, then to the United States where he gave concerts in both New York and San Francisco. All this at an age at which most of us would have difficulty organising a local white-socks disco.

    An outstanding success, this adolescent prodigy then made his way to Liverpool, to London, and then to Leipzig. By the time he was fifteen he had already given concerts worldwide and was international recognised. Eat your heart out Wolfgang Mozart.

    There wasn’t a great deal that Leipzig Conservatory could do to advance Isaac’s enormous talent as a composer, keyboard player and guitarist. Packing his carpetbag he set out for Brussels to do a little extra studying. Four years later the tireless teenager was on his way to Budapest to study with Franz Liszt, only to find the equally effervescent German composer had already taken up residence in Weimar, Germany.

    This is where we avid listeners really meet up with the aspiring lad on the world stage. It was in 1883 that he met the teacher / composer Felipe Pedrell, who inspired him to compose Spanish music such as Suite Española, Op. 47. For most of us the most endearing of the suite is Asturias (Leyenda); an essential component of any classical guitar repertoire. You don’t get past ‘go’ without it. Interestingly however, most of these soulful melodies were written for the piano. But, as someone surmised, what is a piano but a harp on its side?

    The composer Francisco Tarrega, best known for his haunting melody Recuerdos de la Alhambra, transcribed many of Albeniz’ compositions to the elegant softer style of the Spanish guitar. The affable Isaac Albeniz conceded that he often preferred Tarrega’s way of doing things.

    During the 1890s Albeniz divided his time between London and Paris from where he penned mainly theatrical works. Much of it was to commissions by the theatre oligarchs of the period. By 1890 the composer was suffering from Bright’s Disease. Returning to piano compositions he finally rounded off with Iberia, a suite of 12 piano impressions. Do try to listen to them. If nothing else you will be impressed. ©

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    Senior Member Taneyev's Avatar
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    Iberia Suite is one of the fundamental works of romantic piano repertory of the 19th.century, and for many, the top work of Spanish music of all times. Exceedingly diffilcult technically and very hard to said with style and elegance, there weren't many pianists that tried it. I've 5 different complete recordings but IMHO nobody can beat Alicia.

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    Member michael walsh's Avatar
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    Yes, Alicia; quite a lady, bless her soul!

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    Michael:

    As a pianist myself, I can say that to play Albeniz on that particular instrument is actually to evoke the sound of the guitar, simply from the way the music is laid out.
    Albeniz is a very favorite composer of mine, his Cantos de Espana, Suite Espagnole and many of his independent compositions evoke the very soul of Spain. He very seldom quoted actual Spanish folk-tunes in his compositions, however he assmilated the 'aura' of them into his compositions with the hand of a master.

    "Iberia" (1906-1909) is one of the crowning achievements of 20th Century piano literature, at least IMO. It's horrendously difficult--I know, I've performed some of it in recital--and even when the technical roadblocks have been overcome, there is then the musical 'balance' that must be met. These are not 'showpieces' in the technical sense, they are deeply felt impressions of a Spain that Albeniz no longer resided in (they were written in Paris) and a Spain to which he was totally dedicated. Even Albeniz, a marvelous pianist, almost destroyed the manuscripts, thinking them 'unplayable'. Luckily, he did not. But "Iberia" turned out to be his musical Swan Song. Frankly, I wish he'd lived longer, because that monumental series of piano works not only capped his career but held a promise of even perhaps greater compositions to come.

    "Iberia" is strictly FOR the piano. Even the orchestral arrangements of some of the pieces by his friend Fernandez-Arbos cannot capture the particular 'incisive' sound of the piano originals (listen to the orchestration of "El Albaicin" then compare it with the biting and sensual piano original).

    Al great many of his earlier works take gratefully--and beautifully--to the guitar. In fact, many of them sound much better on the guitar than they do on the piano, and I'm not at all afraid to admit that. "Zambra Granadina", for instance, is rather simple on the piano, on the guitar, it sounds incredibly soulful. And "Leyenda"--though it's a lot of fun to play on the piano, takes on a really EPIC quality on the guitar. I'm glad that my very favorite Spanish composer is so well represented in guitar transcription.

    A marvelous composer, IMO. We guitarists and we pianists should be very grateful.

    Tom

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