Jose Iturbi: The Victor & HMV Solo Recordings
During the 1940s, the Spanish pianist of Basque ancestry José Iturbi made no fewer than nine Hollywood films, usually playing himself. His recording of the Op 53 Polonaise for the Chopin biopic A Song to Remember sold a million copies. Iturbi’s role in the popularisation of classical music in the US would be difficult to overestimate. But perhaps because he recorded relatively little after his Hollywood heyday, his career fell into relative obscurity after his death in 1980.
What a pleasure, then, to encounter the full extent of Iturbi’s superb piano playing and elegant musicianship. Prior to his enrolment in the Paris Conservatoire at 13, he had lessons with Wanda Landowska, who seems to have been a decisive influence both technically and musically. One hears it in his fiery, beautifully paced Bach C minor Fantasia but even more markedly in the Mozart Sonatas, K331 and 332. It is easy to understand why his Mozart playing was so admired by pianists as dissimilar as William Kapell, Thelonious Monk and Julius Katchen.
Beethoven’s Andante favori is a model of tenderness and poise. It also prominently displays that inerrant rhythmic undergirding that lends Iturbi’s interpretations, regardless of shifts in interpretative fashion, their perennial freshness. The poignant longing of a lyrical Schumann Arabesque, kaleidoscopic in its variety and attention to detail, leaves you wondering exactly what it is that other pianists miss about this well-worn warhorse. The same sense of understated rhetorical aptness is at the heart of the F sharp major Romance. Liszt is represented by a passionate Liebestraum, which follows the scansion of Freilegrath’s poem as though it were sung, and by a bubbling Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este, whose tremolandos fairly shimmer. At the point where Liszt superscribes the passage from St John about the waters of everlasting life, Iturbi manages a profound change of tone which hovers like an aura about the remainder of the piece.
If Iturbi’s Chopin playing seems marginally less convincing, nevertheless his Fantaisie-impromptu is persuasive, both for its polished pianism and its chaste sentiment. Each of the two Op 64 Waltzes is liltingly direct. Following an appropriately gloomy Rachmaninov C sharp minor Prelude, the Paderewski Minuet is given a sincere, straightforward reading, backed by rather greater pianistic resources than one is accustomed to from the composer’s recordings. The clarity and precision brought to Saint-Saëns’s Allegro appassionato seem a perfect marriage of style and content.
In Debussy, we glimpse another realm of Iturbi’s idiosyncratic expertise. The character of each piece is carefully wrought, though all are informed by his innately Spanish rhythmicality. This is Impressionism that takes as its starting point, in place of metric lassitude, a steady beat which is then stretched and moulded with infinite varieties of rubato. The refreshing overall impression is of great colouristic resource devoid of soggy sentimentality. (One is grateful to the producers for including two versions of the Deux Arabesques, the first from 1939 and the second from 1950.)
Naturally enough, Iturbi’s interpretations of Spanish music have a special authority and élan. The distinct personalities of Albéniz (‘Sevilla’, ‘Cordoba’, ‘Malagueña’) and Granados (‘The Maiden and the Nightingale’, three Spanish Dances) stand out in vivid relief. ‘Cordoba’ emerges as an epic in miniature, while the chromatic richness of ‘The Maiden and the Nightingale’ seems to prefigure everything that was to occur harmonically in European music through to the Second World War. Granados’s wistful nostalgia is exchanged for searing intensity in the two selections from Falla’s El Amor brujo.
Transfers are characteristically APR, which is to say, among the best. A fascinating, often surprising set that rewards repeated listening.