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Albeniz: Iberia; Navarra; Villa-lobos: Piano Concerto No. 1

Albeniz / Ballon / Orch Suisse Romande / Ansermet
Release Date: 03/16/2010 
Label:  Decca   Catalog #: 4800456   Spars Code: ADD 
Composer:  Heitor Villa-LobosIsaac Albeniz
Performer:  Ellen Ballon
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 5 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ALBÉNIZ-ARBÓS Iberia. Navarra. VILLA-LOBOS Piano Concerto No. 1 1 Ernest Ansermet, cond; Suisse Romande O; 1 Ellen Ballon (pn) DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0456 (65:21)

Ellen Ballon was a Canadian piano prodigy who made her New York debut at age 12. She eventually settled in England but returned home when World War II started, eventually dividing her Read more time between New York City and Canada. In 1945, she met Heitor Villa-Lobos on one of his visits to the United States and commissioned a piano concerto from him. Villa-Lobos had used the piano in many of his pieces but less as a solo instrument than as a part of the orchestral fabric. This was his first “real” piano concerto (he went on to write four more) and the piano is treated in a more conventional manner, if anything composed by him can be labeled “conventional.” I have read that the concerto is partly in sonata form but I can’t grasp it—the listener is hit with such a kaleidoscopic barrage of tunes and colors that it’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on. Haydn, it’s not. I do sense some recollection of themes that occurs in the third movement. Let’s just say that Villa-Lobos found a way to organize the piece and maybe someday I’ll manage to discern it. That doesn’t mean that the music isn’t enjoyable—it’s highly melodic, colorfully orchestrated, and doesn’t wear out its welcome. The score suggests a timing of 27 minutes. Ballon and Ansermet take a half hour and they are quite fast enough, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll bet a lot of people had forgotten or didn’t know that this recording even existed—it’s a very early Decca/London, recorded in 1949, three years after Ballon and the composer introduced the concerto in Rio di Janeiro. I wouldn’t mind if the orchestra were a bit closer—the piano pretty much dominates—but I am delighted to find this rarity showing up on CD sounding as good as it does.

The coupling is Enrique Fernandez Arbós’s orchestration of six Albéniz piano pieces, five of them from his magnum opus, Iberia . The sixth one, Navarra, isn’t part of Iberia but would fit comfortably within it. Not quite finished at the time the composer died, Navarra was completed by Déodat de Séverac. All of these colorful, difficult virtuoso pieces seem to cry out for orchestration and it is said that Albéniz reached this conclusion but backed off, either because of the onset of the illness that killed him or his doubts about his ability as an orchestrater. In any event, he asked a friend, the composer-conductor Enrique Arbós, to take over the task. For whatever reason, Arbós stretched the project over 15 years. At one time, Ravel expressed an interest in orchestrating some of the suite and perhaps this is what finally motivated Arbós to publish, in 1925, the five Iberia pieces he had orchestrated. One might have expected more from 15 years of labor. And now, we pause for some discographic information.

During the mid 1950s, apparently frustrated that Arbós never finished the job, some descendants of Albéniz asked Carlos Surinach to orchestrate the remaining seven piano pieces, which he did. Although somewhat flashier than Arbós’s work, Surinach’s can be said to have taken Arbós’s style and added a measure of spice to it; the point is, Surinach’s work fits fairly comfortably with that of his predecessor. Surinach soon recorded the pieces he had orchestrated for Montilla Records. Then, unfortunately at the tail end of the mono era, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the whole thing. Never issued on CD by Columbia/CBS/Sony, this recording has been issued on a private label that specializes in (probably) unauthorized reissues. It’s a terrific performance. Eventually, two stereo recordings of the complete one appeared, roughly 40 years apart! First came Jean Morel and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra (RCA Victor); Morel juggles the order of a few movements but isn’t the only conductor who has done so. Then came a twofer by Jesús López-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony on Telarc. As it happens, others have been attracted by the possibilities Iberia offers. Peter Breiner’s take was recorded for Naxos by Igor Golovschin and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Francisco Guerrero probably intended to orchestrate the whole thing but only managed to do El Corpus en Sevilla, Málaga, El polo, El albaicín, Jerez, and Almería before he died. If you can find a copy of José Ramón Encinar’s recording with the Galicia Symphony Orchestra (Glossa GSP 98006), you’ll probably find Guerrero’s ideas more or less conventional but still interesting.

In the meantime, starting with Arbós himself, quite a few conductors have recorded the five-movement suite. I myself own, or have owned, recordings by Arbós, Argenta, Barenboim, Bátiz, Doráti, Fournet, Goosens, Munch, Poulet, Rosenthal (a very good one), Sebastien, and someone on a 10-inch Regent LP identified as “Franz Schultz.” I’m not so sure about that one. Columbia also used Ormandy’s “complete” one to compile the Arbós suite (on its pop CL series!), coupling it with Debussy’s Ibéria . Quite annoyingly, Fritz Reiner, in Chicago, made spectacular recordings of El Corpus en Sevilla, Triana, Navarra , and nothing else.

For whatever reason, Arbós added an opening chord to Evocación, the first piece. Some conductors include it; some, knowing it isn’t part of the original, omit it. I could, if I thought it mattered, tell you who does and who doesn’t, but I’ll satisfy myself with relating that Ansermet leaves it out; what he doesn’t leave out is the rhythmic snap and color of the music. Of all the conductors who have recorded this music, he and Ormandy are my personal favorites. Ansermet’s ear for detail and rhythmic dash are so effective that, unlike some other conductors, he makes El albaicín seem like a logical ending to the suite. Some conductors, who obviously have their doubts, have done a bit of order shifting—Barenboim, for example, actually moves El Corpus and Triana to the end of the suite. It isn’t a bad idea, if you’re not Ansermet. If, even after Ansermet, you still have your doubts about El albaicín , stay tuned, for, right after Iberia comes Navarra , which provides the desired socko ending. The Suisse Romande Orchestra’s light, bright sound seems right for this Spanish music and Decca’s 1960 stereo still holds up nicely. This is a welcome reissue.

FANFARE: James Miller
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano no 1, W 453 by Heitor Villa-Lobos
Performer:  Ellen Ballon (Piano)
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945 
Date of Recording: 06/1949 
Venue:  Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland 
Length: 8 Minutes 28 Secs. 
Suite Iberia by Isaac Albeniz
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1906-1908; France 
Date of Recording: 05/1960 
Venue:  Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland 
Length: 29 Minutes 6 Secs. 
Suite Iberia: no 13, Navarra [unfinished] by Isaac Albeniz
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1906-1908; France 
Date of Recording: 05/1960 
Venue:  Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland 
Length: 5 Minutes 13 Secs. 

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