The Art of Jose Iturbi, piano

by | Jan 20, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Art of Jose Iturbi, piano

Selections: RAMEAU: Tambourin from Suite in E Minor; CHOPIN: Prelude in A Major; LISZT: Hungarian Fantasy (abridged); Concerto No. 1 in E-flat (abridged); CHABRIER: Valse romantique No. 1; INFANTE: Andalusian Dances 2-3; FALLA: Ritual Fire Dance; GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A Minor: Allegro moderato molto e marcato; ITURBI: Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra (abridged)
Performers: Joe Iturbi, piano/ Amparo Iturbi, piano/ The Bell Telephone hour Orchestra/ Donald Vorhees
Studio: VAI DVD 4372 
Video: Color 4:3
Audio: PCM mono
Length: 48 minutes
Rating: **** 

Originally telecast 1959-1962, these Bell Telephone Hour broadcasts capture something of the musical versatility of Joe Iturbi (1895-1980), the great pupil of the Valencia and Paris Conservatories of Music. Both brilliant pianist and conductor, Iturbi at one time maintained important posts with the Detroit, Rochester, and Philadelphia orchestras. Like Stokowski, Iturbi succumbed to the lure of Hollywood, and Iturbi’s love of the limelight somewhat tarnished his reputation as a serious musician. A rather patrician temperament came to vex Iturbi, who often objected to mixing classical with popular music, in spite of his “popular” image as a medium for the distillation of the classics into more palatable forms.

This eclectic blend of high musical taste and popular kitsch haunts the Bell Telephone Hour broadcasts, which present Iturbi in both a glamorized and austere perspective.  I do not say “light,” since the lighting for the expanded set is pure Hollywood. Reds and purples form the backlighting for Vorhees’ orchestra, and even Iturbi’s Baldwins bathe in blue and purple haze. The video opens scholastically enough, with Iturbi on the harpsichord, “the grandfather of the piano,” as he avuncularly states, playing Rameau’s Tambourin on two manuals. Iturbi proceeds, a la lecture-concert, to a 19th century piano for Chopin, then the modern Baldwin for Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy, which suffers all sorts of cuts. But not so severe as the E-flat Concerto, whose opening chords segue directly into the last movement! [Ah, the needs of TV. But how many programs such as The Telephone Hour do we ever see even on PBS today? You must go to Europe to see them…Ed.]

In an attempt to humanize his image, Iturbi and sister Amparo engage in a bit of orchestra-assisted banter about which Infante dances they have chosen to play. Amparo (1899-1969) was a fierce artist in her own right, and I fondly recall how happy I was to procure her RCA LP of the Granados Goyescas. After the Chabrier and Infante pieces, given in long shots across both keyboards, with an occasional close shot of the artists’ individual fingers, Jose appears in dark relief for the Ritual Fire Dance, his Hollywood calling-card, as it often was Oscar Levant’s. The third movement of the Grieg Concerto comes across in a straightforward, literalist manner, quite forceful and speedy, with the camera lingering on the flute solo and even Vorhees’ facial expressions. The last piece, a concert-fantasy by Iturbi himself, features a mock-gazebo effect, with Sunday listeners on the grass, enjoying a promenade concert by Iturbi and Vorhees.  The music itself is a pastiche of silky Spanish rhythms and Iberian effects, and virtually no melodic gift. To me, it communicates a cross between sappy, watered-down Falla and the score for The Mambo Kings. Parts of it might have worked for the backdrop of one my favorite Westerns, Vera Cruz.  Musical playboy or fixated artist, will the real Jose Iturbi please rise?

–Gary Lemco

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