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CD Review

Manuel de Falla

  • Piezas espanolas
  • La vida breve - Danza #2
  • El sombrero de tres picos - Danza de los vecinos; Danza de la molinera
  • El amor brujo - Danza del terror
  • Fantasia bética
Alicia de Larrocha, piano
EMI CDM 64527
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Falla certainly didn't invent Spanish concert music, but he did extend it in imaginative ways. This disc pretty much documents his stylistic journey.

The Spanish folk idiom became extremely popular among 19th-century composers, who fed their enthusiasm from the Romantic springs of folk idiom in general and of passion for the exotic. Curiously, the most successful examples come from Russia and France, with Glinka's Jota Aragonesa, Bizet's Carmen, Debussy's Lindaraja and Ibéria, Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagñol (not really Spanish, as much as Spanish-inspired, and a wonderful piece), and Ravel's Alborada del gracioso and Rapsodie espagñole. These are essentially picture postcards and about as Spanish as Copland's El Salón México is Mexican. Sarasate, Albéniz, and Granados graft Spanish melody onto German and Chopin idioms. Sarasate writes not only Spanish Dances but a Zigeunerweisen without any violent stylistic wrench, just as El Salón México is pure Copland. Only the scenery and props have changed.

The Piezas espanolas differ not a whit in style from Albéniz. Again, Falla grafts Spanish-inflected themes onto Chopin piano idiom. He had to begin somewhere. Even if the pieces don't innovate, Falla - among the most elegant of composers - manages to beat these early Spanish nationalists at their own game. For one thing, these pieces display all the color, with as full a sound, in fewer notes. Compared to Granados, what little there is in the way of ornament serves mainly to increase cross-rhythmic activity. All four pieces are dances; further, all of them move in triple-time. I don't know Spanish folk music deeply enough to tell you the differences among the rhythms. Nevertheless, I can definitely hear them, however subtle.

I wonder how well a non-Spaniard would succeed in conveying a sense of idiom. After all, no one swings in quite the same way as a New Orleanian jazz musician, and there are differences among Duke Ellington, Bob Wills, B. B. King, Alberta Hunter, and Doc Watson, even though all of them, strictly speaking, can play the blues. In some way, most European jazz people for me don't really swing convincingly. De Larrocha, of course, has Spanish music in the neurons of her cerebral cortex. I keep getting struck by how cleanly she plays, essential in dances and essential for generating the cross-rhythms so much a part of the music. Yet, she also knows when she can loosen the rhythmic pulse. Her rubato is a thing of chaste beauty.

The transcriptions from the opera La Vida Breve and especially the two ballets show Falla gradually drawn into an orbit around Debussy, but still retaining his Spanish accent. In fact, if anything, it becomes more pronounced. La Vida Breve lies fairly close to the Piezas espanolas, but it hints at Falla's ability to think in terms larger than the character piece, toward a notion of symphonic dance. The ideas are bigger and yield a bigger payoff. This trend continues in the dances from El sombrero and El amor brujo - perhaps his most popular works. Furthermore, the textures have become even leaner and more muscular. Clearly, Falla takes from Debussy not the music "vaguely floating about," but the expanded harmonies and sharply-etched gestures of the Trois Chansons, the Villon Ballades, Fêtes, Pour le piano, and the Études. The music excites the imagination, the feet, and the ear - absolutely gorgeous, if you haven't heard it before. De Larrocha's performance amazes me with the command and range of color and dynamic. The textures are just about crystalline and the rhythms strongly played and felt. I not only don't miss the orchestra, I actually hear it in her playing. The Danza del terror (by the way, the only piece on the CD in duple time; the variety of Falla's 3/4 astounds me, now that I think about it) just about stops the show, with its quick little stabs of melody and low, stomping bass notes. My only disappointment here is that the Ritual Fire Dance didn't make the program. The rush that got away.

With the Fantasia bética (bética refers to the region in the south of Spain the Romans called Baetica, now known as Andalusia), we come to new territory – Spanish modernism, which Falla seems to have invented. There's an obvious debt to the Stravinsky of Le Sacre, but Falla does not imitate so much as melt down and recast. Much like Stravinsky, he penetrates to the primitive heart of his culture. Falla will continue to dig, but he will also objectify in his last period, where the folk influences become refracted, broken up, and made into artifacts, like Cubist sculpture. The masterpieces of the last period include El Retablo de Maese Pedro, the Harpsichord Concerto, and the monumental, incomplete torso of Atlantida.

Falla wrote the Fantasia for Arthur Rubinstein, at that time known for his playing advanced works, rather than for Chopin and the war-horse classics. The première went badly and Rubinstein blamed the "poor structure" and "unpianistic" writing of the work. Essentially, he dumped on a masterpiece. Certainly, the Fantasia goes way beyond the Spanish salon morceau the audience was probably expecting. It's about as charming as a jackhammer, and the dissonances, though far from the "Sacrifice of the Chosen," sting and grate. The work (like much of Chopin) takes two main themes and develops them for close to nine minutes with an initial statement and fairly strict recapitulation. It's not quite straight sonata form, but you can see the parallels. The invention of new piano sonorities is so prodigal, I can compare it only with Bartók or Messiaen. We hear castanets, guitars, tapping, stamping, and the wail of the human voice. As to "unpianistic," well, Rubinstein himself has admitted to not practicing very much in those days.

I can't imagine why pianists don't program this work more often, but, on the other hand, they don't program Bartók much either. I have both this performance on CD and one by the young American pianist Gregory Allen (Homage to Arthur Rubinstein, Volume I; MHs 512076L). Allen's a fine pianist who plays the piece enthusiastically, but compared to De Larrocha, he's just a nice boy. I believe Falla's work celebrates the Spanish idea of duende. "Soul" (even in the sense that American blacks use it) only feebly approximates its meaning. It's your demon. It's getting so close to the fire burning within that you either become illuminated or consumed. An actor who digs so deeply, he becomes psychotic in real life, the singer who puts so much into a performance she shreds the voice - these people embrace the duende. De Larrocha rubs your face in every dissonance. At the wails, you hear a voice cracking. She stamps and you wonder the piano doesn't break, or your bones, for that matter. Still, it's not a one-note performance. Her mastery of color diminishes not a jot, and she can go from crushing skulls to a melting arpeggio back to the panther ferocity in an instant. It drains me. Heaven knows what it does to her.

The performances come from 1958, the "early stereo era." The sound, though not as "creamy" as, say, DGG or London, still holds up.


Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz