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  • Writer's pictureIñaki Encina Oyón

Albéniz the European

Iñaki Encina Oyón discovers unknown facets of Spain's most important composer through his songs

Basque pianist Iñaki Encina Oyón © Marine Cessat-Bégler

The repertoire of the Spanish concert song is much more extensive than one might assume in view of its scarce presence on concert programs. Whereas in Spain, less well-known national composers appear only sporadically, outside of the Iberian Peninsula they are all but non-existent. The repertoire that one hears is limited practically to the Siete canciones populares by de Falla and the Tonadillas by Granados. If one knows a few songs by Obradors or Turina, it is not due to their undisputed beauty or quality, but above all because Spain brought forth some of the greatest lyrical voices of the twentieth century (Caballé, Lorengar, Carreras, Berganza, and Victoria de los Angeles, to name a few). It was through them that the songs became known.

Thus, there remains much to do to make the public aware of the rest of our musical heritage, both in Spain as well as internationally. The case of Albéniz is however very special. Is he not the best-known and most performed composer of the Iberian Peninsula? Why are his songs not known? Why have these great singers not explored and propagated the repertoire of the most important Spanish composer of the Romantic era, even though he influenced all his successors probably more than anyone else?

Albéniz, Gabriel Fauré, León Jehin and Clara Sansoni (1906) © Family archive photograph

Assuming that the quality of the music is indisputable, I venture to propose a few answers. Albéniz’s last four songs, which he composed on his deathbed after he had completed the masterful Suite Iberia, have to be considered, by virtue of their beauty, the rich counterpoint, the complexity of the accompaniment, and the subtlety that emanates from them, among the absolutely greatest works for voice and piano. There must thus be other reasons. First, there was no edition readily available until twenty years ago. Many were unpublished, and the manuscripts dispersed among heirs, the artist’s various residences, and libraries. And it is obvious that during the Franco dictatorship, which Spain endured after the civil war, the value attached to culture in general and to music in particular was equal to zero. Second, the difficulty of the later works with their abundance of accidentals makes sight-reading practically impossible and can put off many performers. And third, the language – only five of the songs, the earliest, are in Spanish. When one searches for repertoire of Spanish composers, one does not expect to end up having to sing in Italian, French, or even English. Moreover, we tend to think that Spanish music is only of popular origin and always includes folkloric influence – more precisely: Andalusian folklore, as if the peninsula did not have a large and rich variety of songs and traditions, or that the inspirations of our artists knew no other sources. And curiously enough, Albéniz, the father of Spanish music nationalism and world-renowned for his descriptive Spanish works, presents us in his songs to an entire world of an unknown Albéniz, far from popular music and turned toward Europe.

Albéniz with his patron Francis Burdett Money-Coutts

Adriana and I often include works by Albéniz in our recitals, and after the recording of our first album, which was devoted to the songs of two entirely unknown composers (Robert Dussaut und Hélène Covatti), the desire arose to make a complete recording – knowing full well that this music, too, would be a discovery for many, and that this repertoire deserved a wider dissemination. These were months of research, rehearsing, and preparation. With this recording, we wanted to make it possible for the listener to become acquainted with that other Albéniz. This was facilitated by a project grant awarded to Adriana from the Fondation Jean-Luc Lagardère, and the valuable cooperation of Dr. Jacinto Torres, a leading expert on the work and life of Isaac Albéniz, who authored the booklet text.

We wanted it to be a chronological journey that would enable us to trace the composer’s development. And with this in mind, we allowed ourselves a bit of artistic license in the last Four Songs. Albéniz composed Amor, summa injuria first and stipulated that it be the piece that concluded the cycle. However, he wanted to write twelve songs! The cycle remained incomplete, and Albéniz died after he finished The Retreat. Although the posthumous edition of the Four Songs took into account the composer’s wish that Amor, summa injuria should be the last song – in our recitals we indeed perform it in this order – we conclude the present recording with the last thing Albéniz wrote. The postlude of the piano solo in pianissimo, which ends with a single bass note – a short C – as the end point of a life and creative activity ... When one knows about the incurable illness from which Albéniz suffered at that time, one cannot play a single note more. There is nothing to add.


Stream/Listen/Download/Buy album here.

Stream/Listen/Download/Buy album here.

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