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Isaac Albéniz Iberia Review

Album. Released 2005.  

BBC Review

Marc-André Hamelin's super-human technical ability allows him to make light of the...

Andrew McGregor 2005

Twelve impressions of Spain that ooze atmosphere, colour, and the sounds and rhythms of Spanish music. This is 'Iberia', Isaac Albeniz's masterpiece for solo piano, four volumes of Spanish sketches that Olivier Messiaen later described as 'the masterpiece of Spanish music'. Albeniz finished the set in 1908, just a year before he died, and his subtitle 'impressions' is no accident. Frustrated with Spanish politics and cultural life, he'd moved to France, where he felt his ambitions were better understood, and where he fell under Debussys impressionism is combined with nostalgia and nationalism in these vivid portraits of Albeniz's homeland.

'Iberia' has been well-recorded before, although not that often. But there's another important point to note: Albeniz was an astonishingly gifted pianist, a virtuoso in his early teens, and some of the piano writing in 'Iberia' is desperately difficult to play. But not for Marc-André Hamelin, whose super-human technical ability allows him to make light of the nastiest challenges Albeniz can throw at the pianist: outrageous leaps, impossibly stretched chords, crossed hands, interlocked fingers, and some head-scratchingly complex cross-rhythms.

Its Hamelin's trademark, in a way: make light of the difficulties that cause most other pianists problems, and then there's more room to let the music breathe. The sounds he makes aren't dictated by the strains imposed on him - you never get the feeling that he's so close to the edge physically that it's affecting his interpretation. And the over-riding impression you're left with is not of breathtaking virtuosity, but of extraordinary subtlety, a range of colours and delicately deployed effects that heightens the introspective imagination of the writing.

Hamelin plays so quietly at times that the dynamic range is stretched wider than on any other recording of 'Iberia' I've heard; and when there are cascades of notes, as in 'Lavapiés', they glitter in the Spanish sunshine. The flamenco elements of 'Triana' or 'El Albaicín' are brilliantly handled - the finger-clicks, castanets, viciously strummed guitars and stamping feet allowed to emerge as though you really had stumbled upon them in a dusty square somewhere in Andalusia.

The extras - from the hypnotic 'La vega' (Albeniz contemplating the plain of Granada), to William Bolcom's completion of 'Navarra', and 'Yvonne en visite!' in which a nervous young pianist is forced to perform for Albeniz by her mother - are more than just makeweights. The notes are exemplary, and the recording is outstanding...even the cover painting is a perfect choice. I can't imagine how this two disc set could be improved, unless it came with two free plane tickets to Seville...

Like This? Try These:

Albeniz: Iberia (Trio Campanella - arrangement for three guitars)
Godowsky: Piano Sonata and Passacaglia (Marc-André Hamelin)
Debussy: Preludes I and II (Pascal Rogé)

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