ALBÉNIZ Iberia – Hamelin
Here is the most immaculate, effortless and refined of all Iberias. Where others fight to stay afloat, Marc-André Hamelin rides the crest of every formidable wave with nonchalant ease and poetry. Did, as Rubinstein once claimed, Albéniz need a helping hand in Iberia, simplying textures for greater clarity, brilliance and accessibility? Hamelin’s musical grace mocks the very question.
His ‘Evocación’, audaciously free and perfumed, makes you hang on every note, and although characteristically cool, elegant and supple, he is true to the heart of Albéniz’s incomparable tapestry of southern Spain. Try ‘Almeria’ and you will hear playing of jewelled perfection, a mesmerising dream world rudely interrupted by ‘Lavapiés’, where every one of the composer’s torrents of notes is made crystal clear (was it the orgiastic clangour of ‘Lavapiés’ that made Messiaen exclaim: ‘Albéniz – il est parmi les étoiles!’).
Again, when has ‘Málaga’ been played with greater fluency and imaginative delicacy? Perhaps such playing is a compensation for Rubinstein’s legendary but never recorded performance. Certainly in its suppleness and transparency it has a Chopinesque rather than Lisztian bias, but Hamelin gives us all the notes and he is recorded in sound as natural and refined as his playing.
After Iberia there is La Vega, inspired by the plains surrounding Granada, by a ‘land of flowers and sapphire skies’. This surely ranks among the greatest recordings of a Spanish piano work. Limpid, haunting and evocative, it resolves every complexity in rapt poetry. For added measure he gives us ‘Yvonne en visite’, a hilarious imitation of a pianist who stumbles from note to note, tenacious but incompetent. Finally, there is ‘Navarra’, complete with William Bolcom’s coda, a lengthy and witty résumé and cadenza rather than de Sévérac’s brief conclusion. Comparison with de Larrocha’s benchmark Albéniz is inevitable. But Hamelin’s is radically different in both execution and character, and she, for all her magisterial command, is no match for him in musical grace and fluency.
And neither is Hervé Billaut whose Iberia could politely be called ‘low in tone’. To view Albéniz’s towering masterpiece as a form of chamber music rather than a feast of rich and vibrant virtuosity is novel rather than convincing. After a remarkably short time he has you longing for a sharper, more concentrated essence. His tempi are frequently sub-normal (his ‘Jerez’ clocks in at 13’49” as opposed to Hamelin’s 9’57”) and matters are hardly helped by Lyrinx’s shoddy presentation and shameless publicity puff. Hamelin’s Albéniz, on the other hand, proudly but nonchalantly, raises a new and astonishing standard.