ANNIVERSARIES: Isaac Albéniz Born 150 Years Ago

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Isaac_AlbenizAlicia de Larrocha Isaac Albéniz: Iberia; Navarra; Suite Española; etc. (EMI Classics) Isaac Albéniz led one of the most exciting and unusual lives of any composer. Born May 29, 1860 in Camprodón, Spain, he was precocious in the extreme, making his public debut as a pianist when just four years old. (His sister Clementine was also a piano prodigy.) Already composing by age seven, when he became a pupil of Antoine-Francois Marmontel (who also taught Bizet, Debussy, and d'Indy) in Paris, the handsome and virtuosic Albéniz was a popular attraction even at that age and was booked for concert tours by his parents, for which he was dressed in a French musketeer's uniform complete with sword. The independent-minded youngster rebelled against this routine and ran away from home on many occasions. His most spectacular break for freedom came at 12, when he stowed away on a ship going to Puerto Rico (still wearing his little musketeer outfit). He spent about two years roaming both North and South America as an itinerant pianist before returning to Europe, where he studied with Carl Reinecke in Leipzig and then, receiving a subsidy from the Spanish government, entered the Brussels Conservatory, where he was taught by Louis Brassin. In 1878 (or 1880; sources differ) Albéniz became a pupil of Franz Liszt, his last piano teacher. Albéniz finally settled down in 1883, marrying and living in Barcelona. Musicologist/folksong compiler Felipé Pedrell interested him in more nationalistic composition, and eventually Albéniz de-emphasized his pianistic career (he stopped playing in public in 1893) in favor of increasing the depth and Spanish character of his writing (though he studied with d'Indy and Dukas in Paris). In later years he taught, and moved among Barcelona, Paris, London, Nice, and Cambo-les-bains in the Pyrénées, where he died of Bright's Disease on May 18, 1909, just shy of his 50th birthday. Albeniz_Iberia_LarrochaAs a composer, Albéniz always focused on the piano. His use in later years of his native rhythms and melodic contours set the pattern for the modern Spanish piano style. His virtuosic understanding of his instrument also influenced Debussy and thus the development of Impressionism. Albéniz spent the last three years of his life composing his most famous work, the spectacular solo piano suite Iberia in four books of three pieces each. In it, one can hear the rhythms of the zapateado, the habanera, and many other typical Spanish songs and dances. Fascinating to pianists for both its technical demands and its subtle nuances of tone, the suite gained greater exposure from the colorful orchestration by Enrique Fernández Arbós of some of its movements (later, Carlos Surinach orchestrated the remaining movements). Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha (1923-2009 -- whose birthday was earlier this week on May 23) recorded Iberia several times, but her hot-blooded 1962 version, her first, has the most flair and spontaneity. Her playing captures the full Hispanic character of the pieces, and she flawlessly hurdles their technical demands in spite of her famously short fingers. Some consider "Navarra," completed after Albéniz's death by Déodat de Séverac, to have been intended as part of Iberia; "Navarra" is included here immediately after Iberia. This two-CD set also features de Larrocha's 1959 recording of five movements of Albéniz's Suite Española No. 1, omitting pieces composed separately and inserted later. Four short unrelated pieces fill out the second disc: "Pavana -- capricho," "Tango," "Rumores de la caleta," and "Puerta de Tierra." - Steve Holtje steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.