Albeniz’s Iberia – a musical traveller’s delight

ALBÉNIZ – Iberia

Guillermo González (piano)

Adam Concert Room,

New Zealand School of Music, Wellington

Friday 23rd March, 2012

Surely the next best thing to actually GOING to Spain would be to listen and give oneself up entirely to either (or preferably both) of those two masterpiece collections for solo piano, Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia and Enrique Granados’s Goyescas. Fortunately, there are a number of fine recordings available of each of the cycles, although live performances of them are rare happenings indeed.

It was, therefore, an occasion worth celebrating and savouring, when Spanish pianist Guillermo González recently played the entire set of Albéniz’s Iberia in Wellington, at a concert given in the NZSM’s Adam Concert Room. As his was a name new to me, I was surprised to find González has actually recorded a good deal of Albéniz’s piano music,including Iberia, for the Naxos label, and made numerous other recordings of Spanish and non-Iberian music as well.

If his recordings manage to convey anything like the grandeur, energy and intensity with which González invested his playing of Iberia for us at the Adam Concert Room, then they ought to be snapped up by Hispanophiles and pianophiles alike. By dint of what seemed his total involvement with the music, González drew us into his Antipodean sound-world, one in which every note had its own organically-wrought impulse of colour, flavour or rhythm. So persuasive were his evocations that, once under their spell, one felt at times almost more like a native than a tourist.

Interestingly, the pianist presented his own order of Albéniz’s twelve pieces, one which (as he explained to us through an interpreter) he believed gave us “the best experience” of the work. However bold an initiative this first appeared, González (who has completed and published a new edition of the work) proceeded to justify his “order of vision” with playing whose sounds suggested total familiarity and identification with the music’s native substance.

The composer’s arrangement for the work’s publication involved four books of three, whereas González’s presentation involved three groups of four, and what seemed like an almost complete change of order of the pieces. So we had two intervals during the concert, an arrangement I found gave the music we’d heard in each bracket time and space to breathe and resonate in the memory. Like Debussy with his Preludes, Albéniz didn’t except the pieces to be played in an entirety – and though (as with Debussy’s work) when played as a set their greatness glows even more richly, each nevertheless has a stand-alone strength and depth which creates its own distinctive and satisfying world.

González spoke about the work as a whole before the concert, and then about the oncoming bracket of pieces after each interval. His words, in gently and melodiously expressed Spanish, were translated by fellow-musician Paul Mitchell, more familiar of course to audiences as a ‘cellist. I found the experience of listening to a musician’s thoughts regarding the music he was about to play fascinating – in this case it seemed to bring the specific worlds of Albéniz’s pieces more closely to us while still leaving some responsibility to our own imaginations for each evocation.

We began the journey with Almeria (Book II), González presiding over a beautifully-phrased unfolding of indolent rhythm, the melodic lines in places densely clustered, but with the intervals, however close or remote, sensitively voiced. Such was the focused earthiness of the pianist’s playing I felt something of a sense of spontaneous growth being tapped about it all; and as with the piece’s rhythms, the light falling about the notes not chiaroscuro-like but subtle and gradated. The music’s great climax was one whose trenchant tones rose and quickly died away, the effect being of an irradiated landscape, the occasional glint of some of the figurations suggesting the groundswell that filled its moment to bursting and then passed. Wide-eyed, transfixing stuff, indeed!

I couldn’t help write similar kinds of jottings about almost every piece, noting the impulsive intensities of the following Málaga, the droll syncopations of El polo masking the music’s ever-growing weight of intent (spontaneous applause for this one!), and the more familiar Triana, lighter in feeling but with a dark undertow of rhythm that native Spaniards probably register instinctively as a blood-pulse. Everything about each of the pieces seemed richly-conceived, the pianist’s silences in places as tone-saturated as the notes, making for tangy evocations of exotic atmospheres.

The second group was similarly introduced, with González telling us about Scarlatti’s influence upon Albéniz’s keyboard writing of Cádiz (sometimes called El Puerto), something one could hear in the playful insistence of the decorations surrounding the piece’s recurring motifs. He then talked about the composer’s swan-song, Jerez, a complex and candidly-written meditation whose material seemed to summon up a life’s work. I thought this drew remarkable playing from González, tightly-wrought at the beginning, then more spacious through some chromatically-coloured sequences, and later exploring the ambiences around and about an expansive theme whose appearance gave rise to a number of contrasting episodes. Here was both quiet ecstasy (lump-in-the-throat downward whole-tone modulations) and pain, which the pianist touched on in his spoken introduction, nothing too searing or scorching, but in the form of anxiety-ridden upward reachings of sounds towards light and liberation.

The obsessively rhythmic opening of El Abaicín provided a telling contrast, an evocation of the Gypsy quarter of Granada, one which González entered into with a will, imparting a wonderfully physical snap to his rhythms, and delivering the recitatives with passionate ardor. Following this, the Messiaen-like clustered tones of the opening of Lavapiés made a festive, almost chaotic effect in the pianist’s hands, as befitted the music’s inspiration from the streets and dance-halls of Madrid, complete with a catchy tune reminiscent of Debussy’s Hills of Anacapri, one whose workings developed beautifully towards a climax in this performance, then even more beguilingly wound down again.

González’s final bracket from Iberia contained both the opening and concluding published pieces of the entire set, beginning with Evocación, which opens Book One, and which he called “a simple expression of soul”. Its beautiful Chopin-like melody at the beginning dominated the piece, by turns passionate and  gently poetic, with some stunning gradations of withdrawn tones towards the end. The dance-like Rondeña opened engagingly (González played us a couple of bars of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from “West Side Story” to demonstrate the rhythm), its melodic trajectories requiring fistfuls of notes in places – an engaging but demanding piece. I loved the rhythmic directness of the lively Eritaña, and the rich baritonal voicing of the melody mid-way, surrounded by such lovely ambiences. Was that the merest hesitation at one point leading up to a cadence? if so, it was the pianist’s only hiccup of the evening, a momentary hiatus before the plunge into yet another of the composer’s individual modulations, which came thick and fast before the reprise of the main theme.

Having always thought Eritaña, for all its energy and colour, a somewhat inconclusive end to Book Four of the suite, I was pleased that González gave us Sevilla at the end, here – this was music of great spectacle, the opening processional reaching a true “shimmering-point” in this performance, the pianist generating a marvellous sonority, something Liszt would have heartily approved of! The beautiful sequential melody enveloped us in a Parsifal-like halo of solemnity, its progressions, however predictable, totally mesmeric. And the ensuing build-up towards a conflagration of bells and song had a Musorgsky-like grandeur, one whose resonances drifted across our vistas and into the most satisfying of silences at the end. We were left thinking, “What music, and what a pianist!”

(A footnote in the program acknowledged the “generous assistance of the Embajada de Espana en Nueva Zelanda, the Embassy of Spain, for making Guillermo Gonzalez’s visit to New Zealand possible”.)