The Great Spanish Pianists
The Original Piano Roll Recordings
Music by Albeniz, de Falla, Granados, Segovia – and Ravel
performed by de Falla, Granados, Segovia – and Rudolf Ganz
Dal Segno DSPRCD037
reviewed by Neville Cohn
In earlier days when the piano roll was briefly king, there were any number of what looked like perfectly ordinary pianos in the front parlours of innumerable homes across the world. But ordinary they were not. They were constructed in a way that allowed them to be used for the playing of piano rolls. Once the latter had been inserted into its proper place in the innards of the instrument, the notes of the keyboard would fall and rise eerily as if under the control of some ghostly, perhaps long-dead, pianist. It was not long in vogue, though, and quite soon the 78rpm shellac record disc would depose the piano for ever.
Periodically, the musical riches of the piano rolls are made available on compact disc.
This collection is devoted almost entirely to piano music of Spain played by eminent Spanish musicians. But one track – of Albeniz’s ubiquitous Tango in D (not to be confused with the far less well known Tango in A) – is played by that greatest of all Brazilian pianists, Guiomar Novaes. This is pure magic, ineffably fine; it should be required listening for anyone – teacher or pianist – essaying this miniature which is regularly massacred by earnest schoolchildren at this or that eisteddfod.
There’s also a novelty: Ravel’s Bolero in a piano version offered by the long-dead Austrian musician Rudolf Ganz, now almost forgotten. Some pianists may recall the cadenza he wrote for Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D. The piano version of Bolero’s mesmeric snare drum part in Bolero can be tricky to bring off well. It is less than perfectly managed here. But it detracts only minimally from listening pleasure.
More interesting by far are the few tracks by Paquita Segovia, student of Granados who was once married to the great classical guitarist Andres Segovia. Listen to her splendidly characterful playing, with tone colourings that charm the ear. For modern tastes,Segovia’s approach to rhythm is at times curiously wayward. But she brings huge flair to her playing, as in Albeniz’ Aragonesa from opus 47; it pulses with life with consistent buoyancy in terms of both mood and momentum.
Granados has the lion’s share of the compilation. It’s a curious and tragic irony that this composer, who had a horror of travelling on water, was to die by drowning. Unlike his fellow Catalonian, Isaac Albeniz (who had an insatiable wanderlust), Granados far preferred to remain in his native Spain. And it was only a profound desire to be present at the world premiere of his opera Goyescas in New York that overrode his travel phobia.This was in 1916.
In the English Channel (on the way home), the steamship Sussex was hit by a German torpedo. Mrs Granados jumped into the water and her husband dived in to help her. Both perished. The dreadful irony is that the ship didn’t sink but eventually limped into port. How uncannily true the fortune teller turned out to be.
Only a few days before sailing from New York, Granados visited the Duo-Art studios where he made a number of piano rolls of, among some of his other works, his Danzas Espanolas Nos 2, 5, 7 and 10. They make fascinating listening. Dance No 5 in E minor (Andaluza), far and away the best known of the set, is played with fluctuating tempi and notes added in relation to the printed score. Entire bars are deleted from No 10 and, like Andaluza, is presented with a rhythmical freedom which sounds extraordinarily inapposite to early 21st century ears. In fact, if any pianist were brave or rash enough to emulate Granados’ playing style along these lines nowadays, they be clobbered by the critics and booed by the audience. Incidentally, the piece described as Dance No 1 is most definitely not the first dance – or any other – of the set of twelve pieces comprising Danzas Espanolas.
And track 10, Spanish Waltzes, opens with a vignette that is most certainly not in triple time. Here, the playing cries out for digital discipline; it teeters occasionally on the brink of hysteria.
Listen to Manuel de Falla playing his own In Cuban Style; his musicianship is stunning, the playing alive in the very best sense, as is his Aragonesa which comes across in an enchantingly improvisatory way.
This is fascinating fare that should appeal to anyone interested in the history of recorded sound.