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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946) Cuatro piezas españolas
Dances from the ballet El sombrero de tres picos (transcr. Falla,
[11:00] Canto de los remeros del Volga
(1922, premiered 1971) [4:12]
El amor brujo
(ballet suite, transcr. Falla, 1915-1916)
[17:20] Homenaje 'Pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy'
(transcr. Falla, 1920) [2:49]
Segunda danza española
(from the opera La vida breve, transcr. Falla, 1905-1913) [4:33]
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. 2016, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
The American pianist Garrick Ohlsson seldom disappoints. I first heard him
in a 1989 performance of the Busoni concerto with Christoph von Dohnányi
and the Cleveland Orchestra & Men’s Chorus (Telarc 80207). Since then,
he’s recorded for more labels than you can shake a stick at, including
Hyperion. Of the latter, I’ve reviewed his Griffes (one of my top picks for
(a Recording of the Month),
Granados. It’s an interesting mix, although, as befits a Chopin prize-winner, the
bulk of his discography is devoted to that composer.
Looking at those reviews, I see that while I was impressed by Ohlsson’s
Granados, I felt his playing ‘long on technique but a little short on
[Latin] temperament’. Would that be an issue with this Falla programme?
There’s not much competition: the great Alicia de Larrocha has recorded
some of the transcriptions (Decca, VAI), as has Daniel Ligorio (Naxos), although both focus more on the composer’s conceived-for-piano pieces.
Anyone looking for the complete transcriptions will have to make do with
Azumi Nishizawa (Prometheus); at the time of writing, her single CD was
available on Amazon UK for around £33, which seems excessive.
Let’s start with the piano originals, the earliest of which is the Cuatro piezas españolas (Four Spanish Pieces). Begun in Madrid and
completed in Paris, it blends Iberian sunshine with a cooler, salon-like
ambience that I like very much indeed. David Hinitt’s recording, which is
full and finely detailed, does full justice to Ohlsson’s easy, intuitive
rhythms and his mastery of dynamic control. In fact, I’d say it’s just
right for this engaging and colourful repertoire. Moreover, in the more
animated Andaluza, there’s a sense of clarity and idiom that I
didn’t always get from this pianist’s otherwise admirable Granados album.
Happily, any doubts I harboured about this one were dispelled at a stroke.
The other piano originals here, the Fantasia Baetica and the Canto de los remeros del Volga, find the composer at his moat
beguiling. The former, which takes its name from the ancient Roman name for
Andalusia, was written for Arthur Rubinstein. But, as Roger Nichols points
out in his liner-notes, the legendary pianist felt it was too long, and
soon stopped playing it. There’s no doubting the work’s virtuosic intent,
but Ohlsson achieves an ideal balance between showmanship and sheer
loveliness that quashes all criticism of its length or quality As for The Song of the Volga Boatman, it may be short, but it’s artfully
turned; the interplay of gently tolling bass figures and a deck-tilting
treble is simply gorgeous. A pearl, this.
Smaller, but just as perfectly formed, is the Homenaje 'Pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy', a commission from the
French journal La Revue musicale. This highly concentrated homage,
which betrays its origins as a composition for guitar, is played here with
apt introspection and a touching sense of dignity. Thus far, Ohlsson has
certainly judged the mood and manner of this music very well, but would he
be as adroit with the infectious rhythms of the light-hearted ballet, El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat)? Again, I need
not have fretted, for the three dances are despatched with a fluency and
character – a palpable joy – that had me reaching for the repeat
button several times in quick succession.
In the past I’ve referred to Ohlsson as a ‘pianistic prestidigitator’, so
it’s no surprise to find he’s at his spellbinding best in the five excerpts
from Falla’s ‘gypsy revel’, El amor brujo (Love, the Magician). The
opening Pantomime and the ensuing Song of the Will-o-the-wisp
are as evocative – and as eerily elusive – as one could wish, the latter
bright and beautifully sprung. As for the Dance of Terror, he
handles those devilish trills with aplomb, the treble crisp and clear above
a well-articulated bass. A delicate lilt informs Romance of the Fisherman and the complex flare and flicker of the Ritual Fire Dance is a wonder to behold. Once more, I was bowled
over by Hyperion’s tactile, you-are-there recording.
My store of superlatives is all but exhausted, and I’ve yet to hear the Second Spanish Dance from the 1905 opera, La vida breve (Life
is Short). It may be the less popular of the two from this work, but it
brims with energy and imagination. Ohlsson ekes out all the deftness and
detail of Falla’s score; in the process, he reminds us that the composer –
a keyboard virtuoso himself – wrote for the instrument with great assurance
and skill. Really, there’s not a dud note here, and, even if there were,
Ohlsson’s charismatic, utterly disarming performances would soon persuade
you otherwise. Roger Nichols’ typically informative booklet note comptete
this fine package.
This album is a must-buy for Falla fans and newbies alike. But, as with all
exceptional recordings, it’s about a confluence of talents, musical and
technical. Indeed, Hyperion’s Andrew Keener and David Hinitt have actually
raised the bar with this one, no mean feat for a label that already has a
well-deserved reputation for class-leading sonics. They’re aided – in no
small part, I feel – by a venue whose ‘grateful acoustic’ also contributed
to the success of Flux, the Ferio Saxophone Quartet’s debut album (Chandos). That was among my top picks for 2017; this one will surely be on my
shortlist for 2018.
Distinguished pianism, a fine venue and a first-rate recording, in short, a
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