Falla: Fantasía Bética

“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… Distinguished pianism, a fine venue and a first-rate recording, in short, a perfect storm.”

MusicWeb International Recording of the month (April, 2018)

Manuel de Falla was born in 1876 into a reasonably affluent family in Cádiz, where music was confined to annual performances of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words, occasional visits by grand opera companies, and folk songs—not as museum pieces, but as living elements of Spanish life. By 1896 the family fortunes had diminished and they moved to Madrid, where Falla entered the conservatoire and began to compose zarzuelas, the Spanish form of operetta. But his eyes were set on Paris and in 1907 he began a seven-year stay, making friends with Debussy, Ravel and Dukas. He had already begun the Cuatro piezas españolas in Madrid, but they were brought out in 1909 by the Parisian publisher Durand on the recommendation of the three above-named composers. Despite the obvious debt to Albéniz, also in Paris at the time and the dedicatee of the pieces, Falla’s mixture of harmonic invention and elegant counterpoint is unfailingly captivating, banishing any hint of the boredom that might otherwise accrue from the insistent Spanish dance rhythms. His tunes too recall Spanish folk music with its repeated notes and small intervals, but his textures are in general more economical than those of Albéniz.

The opera La vida breve was written in 1904–5 but not performed until 1913. It includes two Spanish dances which have subsequently achieved a life of their own. The first, which opens the second act, was published in a variety of settings, including transcriptions for piano solo and four-hand duet by the composer, and with the music from the end of the scene as Interludio y Danza for orchestra. It was also arranged by Fritz Kreisler for solo violin and piano (as Danza española) in 1926. The far less well-known Segunda danza española, taken from the second tableau of act two, is longer than the first, and incorporates the cante jondo vocalizations from the orginal scene into the piano texture, building to a final rousing shout across the breadth of the keyboard.

In 1914, just before the war, Falla returned to Madrid and the first version of his ‘gitanería’, or gypsy revel, El amor brujo (Love the Magician) was given there the following year, and a revised ballet version the year after that. The story concerns a young gypsy, Candela, who is haunted by the memory of her former lover whose spirit interrupts the wooing of her new suitor. The suite from the ballet reorders the movements. So from ‘Pantomima’ (Pantomime) in which the spirit’s power is heard to wane, as suggested by the asymmetric 7/8 metre (in 1959 Poulenc would base his third Novelette on this theme), we pass to the ‘Canción del fuego fatuo’ (Song of the Will-o-the-wisp)—as in Carmen, love is not to be caught—and from this to the ‘Danza del terror’ (Dance of Terror), announcing the malevolent spirit. The ‘Romance del pescador’ (Romance of the Fisherman), part of the movement ‘El círculo mágico’ (The Magic Circle), which Candela draws on the ground to protect herself against the spirit, testifies in its simple calm to Falla’s love of pre-Renaissance polyphony; it also contrasts starkly with the well-known ‘Danza ritual del fuego’ (Ritual Fire Dance), a further attempt to exorcise the spirit.

The Fantasia Baetica (‘Baetica’ was the Roman name for the province of Andalusia) was composed in 1919 for Arthur Rubinstein, who played it a few times before abandoning it—years later he explained to the composer that he found it too long … It was Falla’s last major piano work and the only one that belongs to the virtuoso tradition in which Falla the pianist had been trained. As Ronald Crichton has written: ‘Guitar figurations transformed into pianistic terms abound … other passages evoke the harpsichord, Scarlatti as it were, rewritten by Bartók.’ Beyond that are the smoky, heavily ornamented lines of flamenco singers and the tightly controlled gestures of Andalusian dancing, the whole work adding up to a marvellously varied and vigorous portrait of Spain. From the structural point of view, one can only admire what Falla called ‘internal rhythm’, which he explained as ‘the harmony in the deepest sense of the word born of the dynamic equilibrium between the sections’. Any attempt to shorten the work would, pace Rubinstein, be certain to blunt its impact.

In 1920 Falla moved to Granada and in that year the French journal La Revue musicale commissioned ten composers, including Ravel, Satie, Stravinsky and Falla, to write short pieces in memory of Debussy, who had died in 1918. Falla, who always considered Debussy as one of the chief influences on his music, contributed Homenaje (Homage), a slow, melancholy piece for guitar, subsequently transcribed by him for piano and containing reminiscences of Debussy’s ‘La sérénade interrompue’, ‘Ibéria’ and, at the end, of ‘La soirée dans Grenade’. One of Falla’s most important discoveries during his years in Paris had been a book that alerted him to the music of other civilizations, including Greek, Indian and Arab. Perhaps this fed in later on to his piano piece Canto de los remeros del Volga (Song of the Volga Boatmen), based on the well-known Russian tune and giving it, as described by Crichton, not entirely unfairly, ‘a dissonant, percussive, sonorous, wholly unexpected treatment’: it’s possible to argue though that the repetitive nature of the tune chimed in with many Falla himself had written, as does the mysterious, fade-out ending. The circumstances of its composition are unknown and, although written in 1922, it was not performed in public until 1971.

While Falla had been living in Paris, he had met the impresario Serge Diaghilev who was always on the lookout for new composers to contribute to his seasons of the Ballets russes. Initially Diaghilev was interested in the idea of making a ballet out of Nights in the Gardens of Spain, Falla’s work for piano and orchestra, but the composer was not keen. Then, with the advent of war, Diaghilev’s ballet seasons came to a temporary halt, but not before he and Falla had signed a contract for another ballet on the story of El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat). In 1917 a preliminary version of this was given in Madrid as a mime, which Diaghilev saw and liked, though he realized some changes would need to be made for it to stand as a ballet. In this form the work was finally performed in London in 1919, conducted by Ernest Ansermet. The main line of the plot is simplicity itself, consisting in a trick played on an old corregidor (magistrate), wearing the three-cornered hat of his office, who fancies the miller’s beautiful wife. She, as a tease, leads him on just short of infidelity, at which point the neighbours take a hand, poking fun at him and finally tossing him in a blanket, while the miller and his wife swear mutual devotion. In this recording Garrick Ohlsson takes a leaf out of Falla’s book in his suite from El amor brujo, playing the ‘Dance of the miller’s wife’, from part I of the ballet, after the other two dances from part II.

Roger Nichols © 2018

Release Date:
2 Mar. 2018
Number of Discs:
(C) Hyperion Records, Ltd
Total Length: