SEPTEMBER 2018 | 'Before and After Iberia': Miguel Baselga in Conversation with Ray Picot

SEPTEMBER 2018 | 'Before and After Iberia': Miguel Baselga in Conversation with Ray Picot

Miguel Baselga will be known to many of you through his concerts and recording projects, where he has a special focus on Spanish repertoire. In June 2013, the French magazine Diapason included Baselga on its list of fifteen Spanish piano virtuosos, '15 Grands d’Espagne'. His current association with the recording label BIS began in1996, when he recorded an album of Manual de Falla’s piano music to commemorate the composer’s centenary. It was met with international acclaim, following which he embarked on a 9-disc survey of the complete piano music of Isaac Albéniz, which he has recently completed. I have reviewed several of the series and very much enjoyed his refreshing approach, so I thought it would be a good time to discuss the achievement.


RP: I’d like to start where you began, with your Albéniz project. When the first four albums were released, each was allocated one of the four books of Iberia. This was an interesting concept, but what was the idea behind it?

MB: The first challenge when you're planning to record the complete works of a single composer is to decide in which order you do it: either chronological or mixing the famous and less well-known pieces. By recording the music chronologically, you have to wait to the end of the cycle to listen to the best works. However, I have to balance the interests of the audience, so rightly or wrongly I decided to have on each CD a collection of some pieces which might be interesting for the larger audience who want to be introduced to the masterworks, and the connoisseur listener who is looking out for the unknown repertoire. As a former minister of De Gaulle said, "gouverner c'est choisir!” I should add that the 2nd book first edition was published in reverse order, which is why I chose to record this way too.

RP: Much has been written about Iberia and with such a large quantity of earlier piano music, and perhaps unpublished material, the work involved in developing the series of albums must have been considerable. How often did you consult original manuscript sources?

MB: I checked my scores with all the available manuscripts (and I mean ALL of them, worldwide, as far as they are located). Thanks to Jacinto Torres, we now know where they are, which is Madrid, Barcelona and Washington DC (as far as I remember).

RP: You mentioned that you exhaustively checked the manuscripts, and I wonder whether they revealed many differences with the published scores?

MB: 'Cataluña' (No. 2 of the Suite española), whose manuscript is located at the Conservatorio Superior in Madrid. Most of the editions are incorrect (even Alicia de Larrocha plays it wrongly...); it's a chromatic scale on D7 (V7th of G minor), as simple as that. It has been corrected in recent editions - G. Henle Verlag, for instance. In the case of 'El puerto' (Iberia Book 1), the manuscript is held at the Library of Congress, Washington DC); the error is in the last bar, since the indication au premier movement does not appear on the manuscript. In 'La Vega' (Biblioteca de Cataluña), part B: there is no doubled left-hand octave. In 'Málaga' (Iberia Book 4) Albéniz himself made a mistake in the last chord (I believe); according to his manuscript the last chord should be in the minor key. And so on. There are dozens more which I cannot immediately remember...

RP: The style of the earlier music is quite different so must have required a different approach?

MB: Considering that Albéniz knew the contemporary and modern piano (I played his Bechstein at the inauguration of his birthplace museum in Camprodon, so I know it 'first hand') and bearing in mind that he was also a pianist himself, my guideline was to play what he wrote, as simple as that. No extra flashy doubled octaves or extra sparkling grace notes.

RP: The original concept for the project was seven albums but two extra were added - how did this come about? Have you been able to examine the sketches for the second piano concerto and other incomplete works? Were any of these realistic for completion, which seems to be the vogue these days?

MB: The final number of nine CDs is due to the inclusion of the Concierto fantástico and Rapsodia española. At the beginning, we planned to record only the solo piano repertoire but at the middle of the cycle I suggested that BIS should include both concerti, and they agreed. In reference to the 2nd Piano Concerto, we only have 12 bars written, with no orchestration. It would have been a non-sense and a fraud to finish it in order to present it as an Albéniz world-premiere recording!

RP: You recorded the albums at different venues, which must of been interesting in terms of achieving the right ambience, but you retained the same producer/sound engineer.

MB: Vol. 1 was recorded in Djursholm, near Stockholm. The rest of the cycle was taped in Zaragoza (Spain) with the same piano in the same concert hall. All of them with Ingo Petry producing.

RP: Given that the series contains a high proportion of almost unknown works, this must have been a voyage of discovery for you as much as the listener, particularly as the high level of your engagement with the music is so consistent.

MB: What I learned during those years is that you cannot pretend to transform lead into gold. The music is what it is, sometimes better, sometimes worse. Don't try to be smarter than the composer...

RP: Did any new works that were unknown at the start of the project come to light? Presumably there were some pieces in manuscript that had not been published.

MB: Yes. Berceuse (T.114 bis), which is absent from the catalogue and the first version of La Vega, and shorter than the version we know, with no 'Copla' but with a brand new Coda, although the beginning is the same.

RP: Looking back at how you released Iberia, did you make any changes? Would you like the opportunity to record it as a single release?

MB: Iberia doesn't have to be considered as an inviolable unit but as compilation of twelve sketches which can be played separately regardless of order, though it's worth noting the second book was published in reverse order, which is how I recorded it. Furthermore, both as performer and listener I find Iberia a bit stodgy in a single shot. But that depends on your stomach!

RP: Do you think there was a reason why Albéniz chose to publish the books of Iberia in the manner he did?

MB: It is very hard to answer this question, but according to his correspondence with Malats and other people, and to the fact that 'Navarra' was not included (and 'La Albufera' never composed), that leads us to the possibility that the Iberia we know nowadays (4 books, 3 pieces each) was not premeditated from the beginning but emerged slowly, step by step.

RP: Have many drafts of Albéniz’s work survived?

MB: We have the whole Iberia (including the galley-proof corrections he made on the 3rd book), La Vega, Navarra, Azulejos (up to approximately bar 51 where he stopped), some of the Suite española and probably more that I cannot recall right now. To be to sure, it is best to check with Jacinto Torres' catalogue.

RP: It's surprising that Albéniz wrote seven sonatas (though some are lost or incomplete), which can hardly have been the fashion at the time. The results are mixed, but what do you consider of the remaining to be the most rewarding? There were also a lot of small pieces, to programme on the albums, and I wonder if you made any surprising discoveries?

MB: Only three sonatas exist at present as finished: numbers 3, 4 and 5, of which I consider the latter is the best. The rest were never fully completed; he wrote some movements (probably to be included in further sonatas) but nothing more. That was very common of Albéniz when he started a very promising project (La Vega, for instance or Azulejos) but at the end he just left us a sketch. Hence, he was a master in music recycling! My top 'discoveries' would be Angustia (Romanza sin palabras), Asturias, Yvonne en visite, some of the Mazurkas and some of the Études (two or three, no more).

RP: Immediately prior to composing Iberia, Albéniz was mainly engaged in writing for the stage, with mixed success. However, do you think that the experience of doing this helped change his style and dramatic perceptions from his earlier more salon orientated piano music?

MB: I'm not able to get inside Albéniz's mind. I suppose that all his experiences did influence him some way, positive or negative. He wrote his salon music in order to offer affordable and accessible music to amateur pianists, so he could earn a living. Iberia was beyond the reach of most of pianists, which has a positive and negative side. The positive is that he could write anything he wanted, without limits, whilst the negative is that no editor would ever pay for the edition. This is the reason why it was published at Edition Mutuelle.

RP: The series represents a major accomplishment in raising the profile of the entire piano oeuvre of Albéniz, so what projects have you planned for the future?

MB: Needless to say that now, after almost 20 years, I need an Albéniz break. My last recording was of five short piano pieces by Spanish composer Manuel Comesaña. My wish is to use them as soundtrack in a movie script that I've written. Crazy, yes, I know…



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