A most welcome attempt at one of the mountains of the literature.
The years 1905–09 saw the creation of one of Albénizs most massive works, the piano suite Iberia. Its style most easily falls into the category of Spanish Impressionism, but even that is a little too easy; the work resists careful categorization, is extraordinarily difficult, requiring a lot of strength and flexibility. French pianist Blanche Selva premiered the work in its four sections (three pieces each) from 1906–09, and critical reception has been magnanimous from the beginning. Debussy and Messiaen each considered it the masterpiece of Spanish music.
Albéniz was himself a piano virtuoso from the earliest age, and spent many years traveling and absorbing the Spanish national idiom, easily projecting this spirit into all his music. But he was not very happy with the ways of Spanish culture in all things and was particularly disappointed with its politics, which is why he eventually moved—first to London and then to Paris where he befriended most of the noted composers of the age, especially Ernest Chausson, to whose wife the first book of Iberia is dedicated.
There have also been a number of complete orchestrations done of the entire suite, and have proved almost as popular as the original piano.
The Lisztian pyrotechnics of the piece coupled with an innate Spanish sensibility and need to turn emotionally on a dime make the piece a rather steep hill to climb for any pianist. Not surprisingly there are not that many acceptable recordings. Currently top of the line must include Alica De Larrochas three (her Decca issue being the best) and that of Mark-André Hamelin, which might even top De Larrocha but she is such an icon I wont insist on it here. Esteban Sánchez, part of a six–CD Brilliant Classics set is also very worthwhile, and the inspiration behind this current recording as well. This issue under review is a bit of an oddity; Peter Schaaf is a former and current pianist. Former because he won prizes and graduated from Juilliard at the beginning of this career in the early 1960s, had a modest solo career before turning to accompaniment and chamber music (credits including Yo–Yo Ma, Kyung–Wha Chung, Renata Tebaldi and Jon Vickers), after which he turned even more completely to photography and other things, like raising children and even building a house with his own hands. It wasnt until 2008 that he became interested in Iberia, a piece he had once determined was a little out of his reach.
You would not know the man had such a profound layoff—25 years—from the piano in listening to this disc. I cant speak to the number of retakes, if any, but technically, according to Schaafs own words, “the patterns didnt look impossible anymore.” It was his friendship with Victor Elmaleh, who sponsored this recording that led to its completion. Schaaf is not a romantic; this reading is classical, virtuosic and rather dry in nature, with not nearly as much pedal used as in the Hamelin recording. As a result the pure impressionism instincts of the work are not there, which might upset some. But what he does bring is an unencumbered and very fresh take on the piece almost divorced from performance tradition and history. This is not a bad thing; its as if a rare discovery was made and this is the first recording of the work. I cannot in all honesty consider this a first choice as it is not in the idiomatic mode that one would want to have, but it is a valid and quite successful take on a piece that discourages most comers—Schaaf was not afraid to tackle the lion. Sound by the way, is excellent, very clear and with a lot of presence.