Isaac Albeniz: 100th Anniversary Gala Concert
Is no one outside Spain remotely interested in Albéniz and the fact that this year marks the 100th anniversary of his death? It seems not, judging by the turnout at Cadogan Hall for what appears to be the only large-scale concert in this country celebrating the event. Embarrassingly undersold, it indicated the extent to which this anniversary has been wiped off the radar by the other commemorations this year: poor old Isaac simply can’t compete with Haydn, Purcell, Mendelssohn et al.
But he is not without importance as the man who laid the ground for modern Spanish/Catalan composers to establish reputations in the wider, nonHispanic world. Where he led, de Falla and Granados followed. And although the route to recognition ran invariably via Paris – the home of all Spanish music, real or imagined, in the late 19th/early 20th centuries – it did in the case of Albéniz also take in London where, after time on the road as a keyboard prodigy, he spent four critical years of his life and found a rich banker who financed his transition from playing to writing.
With that connection you’d expect somebody in the capital to do something for the 100th anniversary, and the somebody here was the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – prompted by various Spanish organisations that had evidently supplied the barely literate programme notes for the occasion.
But programme notes weren’t the only problem. This was an orchestral concert celebrating a composer whose strengths weren’t in orchestral music. As a pianist by trade, background, inclination, Albéniz wrote principally for the piano. So what there is in the way of orchestral music tends either to be earlier, lesser work or keyboard scores which have been orchestrated by other hands. And it was a mixture of the two that we had here.
The main piece in the first half was an early piano concerto from the mid1880s: a piece of robust, relentlessly bright, full-on Spanish nationalism that you couldn’t call great music but had entertainment value. Published under the name Concierto Fantastico, it seems largely to have disappeared from the Anglo-Saxon concert circuit: I’ve never come across it before in live performance. But that alone gave it interest. And the young soloist, José Menor, showed impressive command of its bounding, dog-like energy. His playing had dimension, shape and style. Stamina, too, given that he played two concerto pieces in quick succession, pairing the Fantastico with another 1880s score, the Rhapsodia Española, transcribed for orchestra and piano by George Enescu.
After the interval it was nothing but orchestral enlargements of piano originals, and it all felt rather overblown: like small meals served with trumpet fanfares and turned into banquets.
There were excerpts from the Suite Española, a collection of musical responses to various cities and regions best known these days in a guitar transcription of the movement called “Asturias”, but done here in robust (there’s no getting away from that word) orchestrations by Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos. And for a finale we had extracts from Albéniz’s most enduring work, the mature Suite Iberia that occupied him in the years before his early death in 1909.
At best this music has a passionate and vital sensuality that balances bravura gestures with the subtlety of sly, come-hither looks: eyes flash, heels click, you’re captivated. At its worst it screams with the touristic garishness of a bazaar in Benidorm.
But I don’t want to be snobbish about Albéniz, because he’s too likeable.Yes, he writes music that’s permanently on holiday. But it comes saturated not just with Hispanic suntan oil but with an irrepressible buoyancy and goodwill that’s hard to resist. It’s music that forces the hardest mouth into a smile: a tonic for our grim, recessionary times.
So there should have been more people at this concert, which the RPO played about as well as it does these days under Spanish conductor Carlos Checa. As always at Cadogan Hall, the orchestral sound was congested and blaring – even with the reduced forces that the RPO uses there: five desks of first violins, reducing down to three of cellos. But you can’t blame Albéniz for that. To still be smiling sunnily after 100 years is no small thing. He needs to reach a wider audience.