Isaac Albeniz: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Isaac Albeniz

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Isaac Albeniz: CDs & DVDs - The Best CDs & DVDs of Isaac Albeniz

Isaac Albeniz: Overview

Isaac Albeniz: Isaac Albeniz (b. Camprod6n, 29 May 1 860; d. Cambd-les-Bains, 18 May 1909).

A caricature of Isaac Albeniz published in La ilustracion musical of Barcelona in 1883 carried the caption: 'Como homhre, un nino - Como pianista, un gigante" ('As a man, a midget - As a pianist, a giant'). Isaac Albeniz was then twenty-three, and about to settle down to marriage and study after a picaresque childhood and adolescence which had already taken him half-way round the world. He was born in Gerona, the son of a tax collector. Exceptionally precocious, he learned the piano almost instinctively, and improvised at a public concert in Barcelona when he was four. At seven he was taken to Paris, where he sailed through the entry examinations for the Conservatoire, tossed a ball through one of its hallowed windows and was refused admission, officially on account of his extreme youth.

Nothing daunted, he became a vagabond, running away from home and the Madrid Conservatory a year later, and supporting himself by his piano playing - chiefly in a vaudeville stunt with his back to the keyboard using the backs of his fingers, palms upwards. By the time he was fifteen, having stowed away on a westbound ship, he had explored Buenos Aires and Cuba, toured the USA from New York to San Francisco, and given concerts in Liverpool, London and Leipzig on the way back. His handicap was a fundamental lack of self-discipline. Felipe Pedrell found him unteachable so far as theoretical principles were concerned. Isaac Albeniz did try. He studied at different times with Pedrell in Barcelona; with Liszt in Weimar and Rome; at Madrid, Leipzig and Brussels; with d'Indy and Dukas in Paris, but the exuberance of an instinctive improviser would not be tamed.

Most of his music is for the piano, from the light salon pieces of his adolescence, through the colourful nationalistic works like the Cantos de Espaha and Suite espahola, to the ultimate stylisation of this in his last piano suite, Iberia. At the same time, Isaac Albeniz was convinced he had a neglected gift for the stage, which is no doubt why he accepted a handsome stipend from an English banker, Francis Money-Coutts, to turn the latter's verse dramas into operas. This 'pact of Faust', as Isaac Albeniz later called it, first involved a trilogy on the Arthurian legends. The composer plodded doggedly through Merlin and half of Lancelot, in a weak imitation of Wagner, before giving up. He then set Henry Clifford, a Wars of the Roses romance premiered at Barcelona in 1895 (and sung in Italian), and persuaded his patron to use a Spanish novel for Pepita Jimenez, which travelled from Barcelona in 1896 to Prague, Paris and Brussels, and has recently been revived. He also wrote three unsuccessful zarzuelas, or Spanish operettas.

Isaac Albeniz, however, was not really an orchestral composer. He lacked the technique and the feeling for it. T am a Moor', he would proclaim, and the Moorish rhythms, harmonic traits and ornate decoration of Andalucian music was what he most loved to reflect in his own. It mainly took the guitar for its instrumental model and the piano for its means of expression. An association with Faure and his circle in Paris, where Isaac Albeniz went to live in 1893, gave him loftier aspirations, and the piano hardly seems adequate to realise the full beauty of the 12 pieces that make up Iberia. They tax keyboard technique to the limit: Isaac Albeniz wrote that he came near to burning the music when he found much of it almost unplayable. They nevertheless remain unsurpassed as an idealisation of southern Spanish music and dance forms, and represent the last extravagance of the composer before his death on the 18th May 1909, after a short illness.

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