Composing and story-telling are not unrelated but Albéniz was as adept as any Scheherazade at both! For many, his masterpiece was ‘Iberia’, a set of piano pieces composed near the end of his life. It contains twelve ‘impressions’ (the composer’s word) of Spain and is organised into four books of three pieces each. Although they are named after various locales, it would be facile to call these pieces a musical travelogue, because Albéniz was not interested in literal depictions of his homeland. Together with the orchestration of ‘Navarra’, Ansermet recorded five of these – Evocación, El Corpus en Sevilla, Triana, El Puerto and El Albaicín. Ansermet’s 1960 recording of these works long has been a favourite of audiophiles and even today, it retains its potency, not just as a demonstration of recording technique but also of the conductor’s skill.
The coupling on this recording, Villa-Lobos’ First Piano Concerto, receives its CD premiere from the very pianist (Canadian, Ellen Ballon) who commissioned and premiered it. This is the largest of his piano concertos, and its third movement comes to a climax with a lengthy cadenza for the soloist. (One remembers a comment made about Villa-Lobos’s Concerto
No. 5 – a ‘piano tuner’s orgy’.) Ballon, who studied with Josef Hofmann and who was praised by Artur Rubinstein as the ‘greatest pianistic genius [he] had ever met’ is a powerful soloist in this recording. Her playing is muscular – the third-movement cadenza is particularly impressive – yet she is able to make the lyrical passages sing as well. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande seems engaged and intrigued by Villa-Lobos’s bejewelled, exotic and sometimes mysterious orchestral writing and the score as whole plays to Ansermet’s strengths as an architect and colourist.
Iberia (excerpts) (orch. Enrique Fernández Arbós)
El Corpus en Sevilla
Navarra (cptd. Déodat de Séverac; orch. Enrique Fernández Arbós)
Piano Concerto No. 1 *
Ellen Ballon, piano
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
* FIRST RELEASE ON CD
Recording producers: James Walker (Albéniz); Victor Olof (Villa-Lobos)
Recording engineers: Roy Wallace (Albéniz); Arthur Haddy (Villa-Lobos)
Recording location: Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, June 1949 (Villa-Lobos), May 1960 (Albéniz)
‘As the performances are splendidly alive and the quality blazingly good, this is a disc for all Costa Brava enthusiasts and indeed anyone who finds red-blooded Spanish music a thrill’ Gramophone (Iberia)