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The twelve impressions of Spain that comprise Iberia earned Albéniz great acclaim; one of the last works completed in his life, it is a masterpiece of grand vision and extraordinary imagination. Representing a dramatic departure from his earlier piano music, Iberia is a fusion of styles and influences. Traditional Spanish dance and folk music had always featured strongly in Albéniz’s work, though mostly in the form of short salon pieces, which though evocative and colourful, are limited in expressive range. Structurally and in their sentiments these pieces explore little beyond the folk idiom, largely using the guitar as a stylistic model.
In Iberia, Albéniz marries various aspects of the Spanish folk idiom with a far more adventurous use of the piano, exploiting the vast dynamic and tonal range of the instrument, using rich harmonies and the full scope of timbres that the piano has to offer. In this sense the strong influence of Debussy is unmistakeable, though a romantic vein also runs through Iberia, its soaring melodies rising passionately from a world of vibrant colours and exhilarating rhythms. This synthesis of Romantic, Impressionistic and folk genres makes Iberia a unique and memorable work that has had an enduring influence in Spain and beyond.
Nearly all of the twelve pieces are inspired by places in Andalucía, the southernmost region of Spain where hundreds of years of Moorish rule left a unique cultural heritage. Though Catalan by birth, Albéniz believed Andalucía to be the true Spain; the region’s music and dance was a strong influence on the composer throughout his life.
Evocación is a beguiling introduction to the suite, in which a lilting accompaniment underpins a hauntingly evocative melody. As in all of Iberia, dance rhythms are incorporated into the themes and here the Fandanguillo and Jota, usually lively dances, are delicately suggested in this subtle and wistful piece.
In El Puerto Albéniz uses rhythms from the spirited Zapateado dance, (the name taken from ‘zapato’ meaning shoe.) The dancers use the striking of their shoes to give rhythmic punctuation; in this piece the effect is created with brusque accents in the left hand accompaniment. With its vivacious pirouettes the melody generates a joyful energy, portraying the cheerful bustling of El Puerto de Santa Maria, a fishing port in the far west of Andalucía.
El Corpus Christi en Sevilla is a depiction of the great religious procession during Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) through the streets of Seville. Featuring gold and silver statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary with scenes depicting the Passion, Semana Santa is one of Seville’s largest annual festivals. The piece begins with a distant drum beat accompanying the parade, signalling the commencement of the march through town. Brass bands, drums, spontaneous song from the crowd, flamenco guitar and church bells are all masterfully conjured in this epic work, with a jubilant climax evoking the feverish excitement and adulation that the event inspires amongst the spectators.
Enchantingly beautiful Ronda was the inspiration for Rondeña. Dramatically set over two sides of an immense gorge, Ronda has a sense of grandiose romance, blended with an unaffected charm typical of small town Andalucía. On hearing this piece we can have no doubt of the affection Albéniz felt for Ronda. The outer sections, in the form of a Fandango, (a spirited dance in three time) are pure joy; a buoyant two bar rhythm alternates between two time and three time while its sensuous grace is peppered with vigorous, percussive outbursts. A reflective central section features a melancholy melody, based on an insistent repeated note motif typical of cante jondo. (Meaning literally ‘deep song’, cante jondo is improvised flamenco singing.)
An air of mystery pervades Almería, a tribute to the port town in eastern Andalucía, which in the composer’s day was a sleepy fishing village. An alternating two/three time rhythmic pattern akin to that of Rondeña is featured, though here it is more subdued, evoking a tranquil mood. While the lilting rhythm calls to mind gently swaying boats on the water, a radiant melody captures the town’s vibrant charm. The pensive second theme, which as in Rondeña is based on a plaintive repeated note motif, builds to a brief yet tempestuous climax, suggestive of a former glory imagined in the Moorish remains.
In turns melancholy, dazzling and swaggering, Triana is a true gypsy dance. The name comes from the famous gypsy quarter in Seville which, historically populated by sailors, potters, bull fighters and flamenco singers, is a microcosm of Andalusian culture. Rhythms of Sevillanas (triple time dance from Seville) and Pasodoble (two step) give the piece its vivacious character, while brisk imitations of castanets and exuberant outbursts conjure the feverish energy of the people who once filled the streets of Triana.
Much loved by Debussy, El Albaicín is named after the gypsy quarter of Granada, home of the famous Alhambra palace. In contrast with the flamboyance and vibrancy of Triana (the gypsy quarter of Seville), El Albaicín captures the romance and mystery of this suburb of Granada, perched high up on a hill overlooking the Alhambra. An enigmatic guitar - like motif begins faintly, gradually building to a soaring melody suffused with ardent expression. Sensuous and exotic melody is juxtaposed with violent, rhythmic outbursts reminiscent of the conflict between grace and fury that characterises flamenco dance.
A rhythmic motif gives El Polo, an Andalusian song and dance, its distinctive character. The two bar rhythmic pattern alternates between an accented first beat of the bar and an accented second beat, the result of which is a halting and somewhat tentative character. The fragmented melody emanates a poignant feel, perfectly conjuring the ‘spirit of sobbing’ that Albéniz asks for in the score.
Chaotic and strident, Lavapiés is the only movement of Iberia which takes its inspiration from outside of Andalucia. Considered an example of the true character of the city, Lavapiés is a traditionally working class quarter of Madrid which originally lay just outside of the walled city. Directions in the music such as ‘brutal’ ‘mocking and vulgar’ and the instruction at the opening to play ‘with joy and freedom’ give a sense of the scene Albéniz had in mind; the dancing, singing and everyday noises of a lively neighbourhood and its carefree inhabitants. Famously Albéniz almost discarded Lavapiés, deeming it so difficult that he thought it was unplayable
The coastal town of Malaga is represented here by the folk style named after it – the Malagueña; a melodious song accompanied by elaborate flourishes on the guitar. From the darkly coloured opening, marked ‘expressive and dreaming’, a richly textured and expansive melody emerges, ascending to an energetic and splendid climax. A subtle and delicate take on the Bolero dance, Jerez is at once luxuriantly textured and delicately understated. The vibrancy of the city famed for its beautiful architecture and Moorish remains is depicted in the constantly shifting harmonies and intricate filigree woven through the rich texture. It is perhaps the most noticeably impressionistic of the twelve pieces. An exuberant and uplifting end to a very complex work, Eritaña portrays the vivacious dancing and music making inside a tavernof the same name outside the gates of Seville. Despite its joyful nature and relative musical simplicity, Eritaña requires great dexterity and pianist acrobatics from the performer. Musically and stylistically Eritaña harks back to the romantic period, with a more conventional harmonic language akin to that of Lizst. It makes for a surprising finale to a work of such daring exploration of colour, texture and sonorities.