All of Manuel de Falla’s piano music, sensitively played by fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Rodriguez.
MANUEL DE FALLA: Complete Works for Solo Piano – Juan Carlos Rodriguez, p. – Paladino Music pmr0062 (Distr. by Naxos), 73:36 *****:
Manuel Maria de los Dolores Falla y Matheu (Manuel de Falla) was born in 1876 in Cadiz, Spain and died in Alta Garcia, Argentina 70 years later. He became one of the leading Spanish composers of the 20th century, along with Isaac Albéniz (1860 – 1909) and Enrique Granados (1867 – 1916). He left music lovers with dozens of stage works, including three of the best – La vide breve (Life is short – 1913), El amor brujo (Bewitched Love, or The Magician – 1915), and El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-cornered Hat – 1917). And he spent his last decades obsessed with completing his monumental opera Atlántida, but never did. This CD presents all of the known piano music that Manuel de Falla composed – and helpfully does so in chronological order.
Manuel de Falla took piano lessons in the city of his birth, developed an interest in journalism and literature in his teenage years, and established two literary magazines. By his early twenties, he and his family moved to Madrid and his musical education blossomed. He won prizes and he premiered his first compositions, among them the first piece on this disc, Nocturno para piano. It’s a charming piece, described by one writer as “like a stroll holding Chopin’s hand”.
The next seven pieces here were all composed in Falla’s Madrid period (1900 – 1907). Several of them (Mazurka, Canción, and Serenata) were lost until after his death. The first has Grieg influences, the second those of Satie. Serenata Andaluza introduces us to the canto jondo – a kind of Spanish song that became a passion of Falla’s. The rest – Vals-Caprichio, Cortejo de Gnomos, and Allegro de Concierto all show his developing musical sophistication, with the last being a contest entry. His older contemporary Granados, won the contest with a piece having the same title – Allegro de Concierto.
In 1907, Falla moved to Paris and his life changed. He quickly fell into strongly influential circles – Ravel, Debussy, Dukas, Stravinsky and Albeniz. And Diaghilev was among those urging him to focus his creative efforts towards the stage. The Cuatro piezas españolas is Falla’s first piano composition completed in Paris, and premiered in 1909 by Ricard Viñes, a very close friend of Ravel. It is dedicated to the severely ill Albéniz who died within the year, Its four sections – Aragonesa, Cubana, Montañesa, Andalusa – constitute the longest piano piece Falla wrote, and his most ambitiously Spanish.
Having completed La vide breve in 1913, Falla traveled often to get his first opera performed – from its premiere in Nice (in a French translation) to Milan, Brussels, London, and to a triumph at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. He felt secure enough to bring his family to Paris when World War I broke out. Back in Spain, he spent much time traveling the country composing incidental music for others’ stage works, and attempting to produce his own. El amor brujo was written in Madrid, as was his most outstanding piano piece – Fantastica bætica.
The album notes contain an amusing anecdote about the prominent pianist Artur Rubenstein meeting Falla in the lobby of a swanky Madrid hotel in 1919 to go over this music, which Rubenstein had commissioned from Falla, eleven years his senior. The composer used the piano to imitate a guitar – with devilish tremolos and scales. After premiering it in New York the next year, Rubenstein admitted he had expected “a shorter and less difficult work”, and he played it rarely thereafter. It’s worth buying the disc for this piece alone.
Falla moved, with his sister (he never married) from Madrid to Granada in 1920, and spent ten very quiet and productive years there, mostly on stage works, and on a harpsichord concerto for Wanda Landowska (but no piano concerto). His health began to deteriorate in the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. Early in his Granada period, he completed Homenaje – Pour “Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy”, recognizing how kind that composer (who had died in 1918) had been on Falla’s arrival in Paris. Another piano commission came from a diplomat who wanted the composer to transcribe a familiar Russian folk song as Canto de los remeros del Volga.
His final piano composition, and the last on this disc, was also in gratitude to one who had helped Falla in Paris – Pour le Tombeau de Paul Dukas. Within a few years he made his final move – seeking a healthier climate and blessed solitude – to Argentina, and died there days before his seventieth birthday.
I’m sure it’s coincidence that our pianist, Juan Carlos Rodriguez, was born in Cadiz, as was Manuel de Falla. Less a coincidence is that Cadiz, Spain’s oldest inhabited city, was also the port of departure for two of Columbus’ four voyages to the “new world”, Columbus being the central figure in Falla’s all-consuming final work, Atlántida. Rodriguez is a fine pianist just beginning his career, and already a master of some very difficult material here. This is his third recording following a Schumann disc for Naxos, and a Beethoven/Falla/Albeniz recording for Solfa.
Paladino is a Vienna-based music producer – under its own label and others (e.g. Orlando, Kairos) and in many languages, and distributes through Naxos. This disc was recorded in Spain in February 2015, with excellent sound quality and acoustics. The packaging is excellent, with well-written notes in English and Spanish. Four photos of the pianist is a bit excessive, especially when there are interesting pictures of the composer available (e.g. one in Paris, with a bowler, gloves and a cane, and another, a line drawing done in Spain by Picasso showing Falla with enormous hands).
Overall this album is a wonderful introduction to a lesser-known dimension of a well-known and loved composer.