GOTTSCHALK and CUBA – Antonio Iturrioz, piano – Steinway & Sons 

by | Oct 16, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

GOTTSCHALK and CUBA = GOTTSCHALK: A Night in the Tropics, Symphony Romantique; Ynez; El Cocoya (Grand Caprice Cubain di Bravura; SAUMELL: Recuerdos de Gottschalk; ESPADERO: Sur la Tombe de Gottschalk; CERVANTES: Serenata Cubana; BLANCK: Souvenir de le Havane; LECUONA: Danza Lucumi; Palomitas Blancas; Siempre en Mi Corazon; CASADA: Amor Lejano – Antonio Iturrioz, piano – Steinway & Sons 30102, 74:16  (9/21/18)  [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) qualifies as America’s first classical composer of international rank, a Creole pianist whose musical style absorbed Cuban, Latin-American, and African influences.  Born in New Orleans, Gottschalk already inherited a penchant for French cosmopolitanism, complemented by his deep love for Havana, Cuba and its Latin rhythms, cross-fertilized by a strict Jewish upbringing against which he rebelled, both in spirit – a convert to Catholicism – and more carnally, in debauches in Guadeloupe. The strictly aesthetic and more erotic impulses in Gottschalk find their natural milieu in the Cuban and Creole sensibilities he cultivated in the Mediterranean experience compressed into twenty years’ artistic expression. Pianist Antonio Iturrioz conceives this collection (rec. July 2017) of essentially Cuban compositions as his own homage to Gottschalk and those who directly benefitted from his contribution. For Iturrioz, these works speak “the language of the heart,” a sentiment as true for Ernesto Lecuona as it has been for the Italian Alessandro Manzoni.

A Night in the Tropics (1859) marks the first (two-part) American symphony, conceived as a grand, Technicolor spectacle on a par with the extravaganzas of Hector Berlioz, employing some 650 performers, despite its original form for solo piano. Iturrioz, in collaboration with Larry Lobel, restores Gottschalk’s initial concept, including a theme omitted from prior incarnations of the score.  The first movement, a sustained Andante, floats for some 15 minutes in a sea of chromatic harmony whose pulse more than once reminds us of the Schubert song, Auf dem Wasser zu singen cross-fertilized by colors reminiscent of Liszt. The Fiesta Criolla (Allegro Moderato) immediately transports us into the rhythmically compelling world of Bamboula, alive with seductive syncopations. The range of keyboard effects embrace percussive, bell-tones, passing hymnals, cross-rhythms, to sinuous rills and parlandi in the manner of Chopin.

The Havana temper finds its most immediate expression in the contradanza, the Cuban equivalent of the minuet. The music of Ynez (c. 1861) follows the example of the genre set by Manuel Saumell (1817-1870). The early Cuban composer who most impressed Gottschalk’s style, infusing the dance with the same national import the mazurka has for Poland. In two sections, Ynez exploits both cinquillo and habanera rhythms.

The Recuerdos de Gottschalk is the last of 51 contradanzas from Saumell – the same as the number of Chopin mazurkas – of which three find dedications to Gottschalk. The lyrical syncopes and subtle shifts in accent easily anticipate the later works of Joplin and aspects of New Orleans Jazz, especially Ragtime.

The 1870 Sur la Tombe de Gottschalk by Nicolas Ruiz Espadero (1832-1890) presents a dirge for the departed Gottschalk, both somber and lyrically poised. Rather than lament with bombast, as does the Liszt Funerailles, this large piece proceeds much in the manner of an intimate ballade. The harmonies, especially, point to Chopin’s chromatics, often in the mazurkas and polonaises. The music becomes more “public” and assertive in its last pages. Espadero had been Gottschalk’s best friend in Havana.

A master of the danza form, Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905) studied with Gottschalk and Espadero, moving on to Paris, then to create a legacy of 37 danzas. Serenata Cubana (1910) resonates from the Iturrioz palette with a tender fervor, a sense of the Cuban equivalent of cante jondo, enamored of its own arpeggios. Iturrioz next provides us the world premiere of Souvenir de le Havane by Dutch composer-pedagogue Hubert de Blanck (1856-1932). A mazurka in the Chopin style, the piece has the staggered, stately lilt of Chopin’s A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4 without sacrificing its personal, Cuban character. Ernesto Lecuona, perhaps Blanck’s most distinguished pupil, dedicated the famous Malaguena to him.

Lecuona (1896-1963) himself becomes the center of a small group of three pieces: first, the Danza Lucumi, from the Afro-Cuban dance suite. An ostinato rhythm permeates this jaunty work whose more active section takes its cue directly from Gottschalk and looks ahead to New Orleans of the 1930s. Polomitas Blancas is a song that Lecuona recorded in 1955, from which Iturrioz and David Di Grazia copied down in score, since it had never been published on music paper. The same situation holds true for the 1942 song Siempre en Mi Corozon, never previously set down in score, despite its having been nominated for an Academy Award but losing to Berlin’s White Christmas. The noble lilt of work compels Iturrioz to claim its sentiment as the rubric for the entire album.

Ernestina Lecuona y Casado (1882-1951), Ernesto’s older sister, composed Amor Lejano much in the aura of Gottschalk’s The Dying Poet. Casado’s piece receives an affectionate world premiere from Iturrioz, giving its sweet, evolving cantabile ever richer harmonic accompaniment.

To conclude, Iturrioz decides to unleash Louis Moreau Gottschalk in his most revered, Cuban guise, “Moreau.” His 1854 El Cocoya – Grand Caprice Cuban di Bravura marks Gottschalk’s arrival in Cuba as the new, native Franz Liszt. Fusing contradanza, cinquillo, and habanera impulses, Gottschalk weaves an elegant tapestry of which both Liszt and Chopin could be envious. The pearly play and singing bell tones provide a sonic contrast to the wizardry and unabashed ostentation of the national ethos, a kind of tempestuous anthem to the Cuban spirit in the form of a danza and variations presented as an extended rondo.

From the informative booklet to the program notes to the marvelous musical execution – captured by Producer and Engineer Leslie Ann Jones – this disc never pretends to be anything but a labor of love.

–Gary Lemco


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