FALLA: Fantasia Baetica & other piano works – Garrick Ohlsson, piano – Hyperion 

Spain’s musical soul enjoys brilliant illumination in this survey of Manuel de Falla’s keyboard works.

FALLA: Cuatro piezas espanolas; El sombrero de tres picos; Canto de los remeros del Volga; El amor brujo (trans. Falla); Homenaje “Pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy”; Sequnda danza Espanola; Fantasia Baetica – Garrick Ohlsson, piano – Hyperion CDA68177, 70:00 (3/2/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:  

In his memoir My Younger Years, Artur Rubinstein recalls his first impressions upon having met Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), whom he felt “resembled a grocer or butcher; but, when he sat down at the keyboard, the very soul of Spain flowed forth like a river.”  Garrick Ohlsson (rec. 23-25 November 2016) opens with the 1909 Four Spanish Pieces, composed in Paris, where French influences—Debussy, Dukas and Ravel—mixed with the presence of Isaac Albeniz to produce Falla’s original blend of Spanish rhythm in his economical, accented syntax.  The repeated notes of the Aragonesa easily capture flamenco boots, but the sense of cante jondo (deep song) no less asserts itself. Cubana has an easy lilt, a robust night song or serenade. Montanesa exerts a music-box sensibility over a water-borne bass line, a Debussy derivative. Andaluza nods to Albeniz in its jaunty, spicy energy and brazen harmonies. Ohlsson’s Steinway packs a hard patina, so you must like your guitars ripe.

The popular three dances from El sombrero de tres picos (1917-19), a ballet conceived for Diaghilev, here in transcriptions by the composer, prove lyrical and effective.  The infectious combination of Spanish rhythms and flowing melodies captivates, no matter the medium.  The undulating bass harmonies contain an erotic glamour of their own. Ohlsson places the flirtatious Dance of the Miller’s Wife last, as a wry commentary on the machismo antics that pervade the story line. A product of his Paris musical investigations, Canto de los remeros del Volga (1922) casts the famous “Volga Boatmen’s Song” in new, percussively dissonant sonorities, capitalizing on the glories of Russian bells. Curiously, this unique piece found its debut as late as 1971.

Ohlsson plays five selections from the 1915 gitaneria or gypsy-fantasy in the form of a ballet, El amor brujo. The opening Pantomime awakens the spirit of the young gypsy Candela’s dead lover, who will thwart the wooing of her new lover. The Cancio del fuego fatuo proffers a haunted love song made exquisite in the Stokowski version with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but just as potent in its piano incarnation. The malevolence of the dead spirit emerges in the etude-like Danza del terror, with its adumbrations—via rapid staccato chords—of fire and mist. El circulo magica–Romance del pascador has Candela draw a protective, magic circle in musical mode close to the plainchant influence of Debussy. Finally, the famed Ritual Fire Dance, meant to exorcize the evil spirit, bursts forth. A favorite of Artur Rubinstein, Jose Iturbi, Oscar Levant,  and my own mentor, Carmine Arena, the piano score dazzles in cross rhythms, smoldering harmonies, and fearsome trills and glissandos.

In 1920 the French journal La Revue musicale commissioned ten composers to pay homage to the memory of Claude Debussy, who had died in 1918.  Falla originally cast his Homage as a guitar solo, but he then transcribed it for piano.  In passing, we hear allusions to the Prelude, La serenade interrompue and the Estampe, La soiree dans Grenade. Gilbert Chase, the great authority on Spanish music, often cites Debussy as the “foreigner” who taught Spaniards the capabilities of their own music.  From the opera La vida breve (1913), Falla extracted a Second Spanish Dance, a seguidilla that reels in dark, deep bass harmonies. Ohlsson makes it dig deeply into its earthy character.

The region of Andalusia once bore the name Baetica—from the Romans’ occupation—and Falla composed his sectionalized, 1919 Fantasia Baetica especially for Artur Rubinstein. The latter sported the piece for a while but abandoned it—without any recording—claiming it went on too long. Falla encapsulates much of Spain in this hefty piece, meant to be a virtuoso amalgam of flamenco, guitar figuration, deep song, and even the pre-harpsichord lute or virginal tradition. The harmonies, however, blaze with modernisms adopted from Bartok, Stravinsky, and street zarzuela. The steady, Andalusian pulse infiltrates every measure of this often sensuous work, which Ohlsson maintains in plastic tension, befitting its epic breadth. Recording Engineer David Hinitt keeps our ears alert and ringing throughout.

—Gary Lemco

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