José Iturbi (piano) - The Victor and HMV Solo Recordings
Contents listed below APR 7307 [3 CDs: 73:15 + 72:35 + 65:56]
Considering the dearth of Iturbi recordings available on CD, thanks must go to Michael Spring of APR recordings for this new release featuring the pianist’s Victor and HMV solo recordings, set down between 1933 and 1952. Browsing through my own collection, I could only find a Pearl CD containing some Mozart amongst other composers (GEMM CD 9103), and a twofer put out several years ago by EMI France in their Rarissimes series (351804). Both of these issues have long since been deleted.
José Iturbi (1896-1980) was born in Valencia, Spain. He took up the piano early and was something of a child prodigy. He was exploited as a youngster, spending up to fourteen hours a day accompanying silent films, and then going on to play in late-night cafés till the early hours. Following graduation from his home-city conservatory he progressed to the Paris Conservatoire in 1911. There he studied with Victor Straub, and had some tuition from the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, visiting the instrument himself from time to time throughout his career. In 1913 he took the Conservatoire’s first prize. At 24 he became head of piano studies at Geneva Conservatory. By this time he had married one of his pupils, Giner de los Santos, and the couple had one daughter. Eventually a concert career beckoned and he travelled not only around Europe, but also to South America and the USA. In 1928 his wife died in tragic circumstances. This was not the only tragedy in his life: his daughter committed suicide in 1946.
Aside from the piano, he liked wielding the baton, and regularly conducted the Rochester Philharmonic between 1936 and 1944. Sometimes he would direct his performances from the keyboard. Eventually settling in the States, Hollywood came to play a large part in his life, and he featured in several films, including Thousands Cheer (1943), Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Three Daring Daughters (1948). Though these silver screen forays were lucrative, the effect on his pianism was detrimental. Many sensed a loss of inspiration, and an earthbound quality crept into his playing during these years. After Hollywood his recording career took a nose-dive. He did, however, continue to give concerts well into his eighties. He died in 1980, aged eighty-four.
Iturbi came to Victor (later RCA Victor) in 1933, when the earliest of these recordings were made, and he remained with them for two decades. All the recordings here, with the exception of two Granados Spanish Dances (nos. 5 and 10) which were made for HMV in 1947 and only issued in the UK, are Victor productions. After 1952 he migrated to the French branch of Columbia. As a recording artist he could be both temperamental and, at times, volcanic.
The two Scarlatti Sonatas and the Bach Fantasia in C minor BWV906 are notable for their clarity of articulation. There’s no doubt that the time he spent with Wanda Landowska would have been a positive asset in this regard. The Bach has energy and vigour and is dispatched with rhythmic vitality and conviction. When it comes to Mozart Iturbi is at the top of his game. His playing has elegance and charm, and reveals the wealth of riches that lie within this music. This is especially notable in K331. The opening Andante grazioso theme and variation movement is etched with detail and refinement, and the concluding Alla Turca is affable and sprightly. The finale of K332 is dashed off with scintillating velocity and sparkle. Julius Katchen even went so far as to describe Iturbi, in a 1967 Gramophone interview, as 'the greatest Mozart pianist of our time'.
There’s a substantial Chopin selection on CD 2, beginning with the well-known Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53, defiant, heroic and triumphant, conveying an air of optimism. In the Fantasy Impromptu he doesn’t over-sentimentalize the middle section like some. The Minute Waltz is delicate, and its companion in C sharp minor is all the better for some finely judged rubato. In the B major Nocturne the melodic line floats ethereally above the left-hand accompaniment. The Revolutionary Étude is a virtuosic tour-de-force.
It’s in the performances of Spanish composers that we find Iturbi firmly ensconced in his comfort zone. He has an instinctive feel for this music, and is master of subtlety, nuance and inflection. Take Andaluza, the 5th Spanish dance by Granados — no-one has ever captured the sensuousness, colour and supple rhythm to quite the same extent. The Maiden and the Nightingale is imbued with dramatic expression, and aside from the maiden’s lament, he evokes the sad song of the nightingale. Albéniz’s Sevilla allows us to bask in the Spanish sunshine, and in Córdoba he accomplishes some breathtaking dynamic contrasts.
There’s some sparkling, evenly executed filigree in Saint-Saëns Allegro appassionato, Op 70, a piece I have to admit I’ve never heard before. The two Schumann pieces on CD 1 are eloquent and poetic. Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este is deliciously evocative, as is Debussy’s ubiquitous Clair de lune. Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude earns an enthusiastic thumbs-up for its swinging buoyancy and rhythmic acuity.
These skillful audio restorations by Mark Obert-Thorn are first class and are an improvement on the duplicated transfers of the Pearl CD, being quieter and imparting more depth to the aural perspective. Jed Distler’s biographical portrait is illuminating. This issue goes some way towards expanding the pianist’s discographical legacy and will, I hope, bring Iturbi to the attention of a wider audience.
Indispensable for pianophiles.
CD 1 [73:15] Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in B minor, Kk27
Sonata in C major, Kk159 Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Fantasia in C minor, BWV906 Domenico PARADIES (1707-1791)
Toccata Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Piano Sonata in A major, K331
Piano Sonata in F major, K332 Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Andante favori in F major
Für Elise Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Arabesque, Op. 18
Romance, Op. 28/2 Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Liebesträume No. 3
Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este
CD 2 [72:35] Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Polonaise, Op. 53
Fantasy Impromptu, Op. 66
Waltzes, Opp. 64/1 and 64/2
Mazurka, Op. 7/1
Nocturne, Op. 32/1
Preludes, Op. 28/9 and 28/10
Étude, Op. 10/12 Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
June and November from ‘The Seasons’ Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873–1943)
Prelude, Op. 3/2 Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Minuet in G major Filip LAZAR (1894-1936)
Marche Funèbre Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Allegro appassionato, Op. 70 Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Clair de lune
Jardins sous la pluie
CD 3 [65:56] Claude DEBUSSY
2 Arabesques Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Malagueña Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
The Maiden and the Nightingale
Spanish Dances Nos. 2, 5, 10 Eduardo LÓPEZ-CHAVARRI (1871-1970)
The Old Moorish Castle Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Dance of Terror and Ritual Fire Dance Manuel INFANTE (1883-1958)
Sevillañas José ITURBI (1896 -1980)
Canción de cuna
Pequeña Danza Española Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Boogie Woogie Etude