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Sketches of Spain

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
06/06/2001 -  
Antonio Soler: Two Sonatas
Manuel de Falla: Cubana from Four Spanish Pieces
Isaac Albeniz: from Iberia and Espana
Franz Schubert/Franz Liszt: Valse-Caprice # 6
Maurice Ravel (arr. Baselga): La Valse

Miguel Baselga (piano)

Miguel Baselga is a highly talented pianist of Iberian extraction who presented an extremely coherent program last evening at the 92nd St. Y. His choice of Spanish music which inhabits the world of the harmonic suspension described many of the differing moods of the peninsula while concentrating on a unique musical phenomenon which leaves the listener constantly expectant. This device is hard to describe, but has its roots in the early introduction of the guitar from the Gitano migrations in North Africa. That “Spanish sound” which we all hear unconsciously is a product of the droning aspect of the fretted instrument and can be traced all the way back to the sitar and sarod music of India. Chords in Spanish music are often unresolved and provide a background for a yearning melodic search and can still be employed in the present day for that disquieting feeling of love’s mysterious nature (cf. the music of Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club or, in another idiom entirely, the opening measures of the Adagietto from the Symphony # 5 of Mahler). Even in his non-Hispanic repertoire, Baselga consistently reminded us of the pendulous nature of the human condition.

After demonstrating profound finger strength in the two highly ornamented Soler pieces, this superb artist accompanied us on a back alley journey through one of the more delicate harmonic neighborhoods of Spain in Manuel De Falla’s Cubana. With a light touch rivaling even Madame de Larrocha, he evoked the subtle pangs of the heart with a combination of diaphanousness and rubato. This piece set the mood for the recital as a whole: a complex foray into the cross rhythms of right and left hand and the dizzying combinations available to the most diligent of keyboard craftsmen.

Many classical music fans think of Isaac Albeniz as a composer for the guitar ala Rodrigo, but actually he wrote almost exclusively for the piano, his identification with that most Spanish of instruments a corollary of the great transcriptions of Segovia. It is natural, however, to link the guitar and Albeniz in the same thought, as his music borrows heavily on the drone-melody relationship. Most impressive in Senor Baselga’s first set was his uncompromisingly dissonant reading of Lavapies, seeming to challenge everyone’s innate notions of what notes should follow naturally from kernels of melodic ideas. This performance progressed from the sense that there were wrong notes being played to the realization that no other notes could possibly express the animal rhythms of this disreputable neighborhood. After the interval, Baselga concentrated on dance rhythms, presenting in Albeniz’ Malaguena an example of right hand dominating rhythm, the melody uncharacteristically lower in pitch than the support system of the dance itself.

But by far the most amazing performance of the evening was the fiendishly difficult Schubert/Liszt. It is a work indeed worthy of its dual authorship: the right hand plays a charming Schubertian waltz, very familiar in its melodic comfort, while the left navigates the strong but not compatible rhythm of Liszt’s wild Magyar temperament. It is rare than one man can so separate his two hands so that it seemed that really two different artists were performing. The daring use of rubato, different in each hand, added a death-defying circus-like atmosphere to the reading, reminiscent of accounts of Liszt’s initial thrilling performances. I don’t know how many patrons last evening realized how difficult it was to bring this off, but it is Baselga’s genius that he makes it seem naturally easy and relatively effortless (his modest demeanor didn’t even allow him to exit the stage between pieces).

Before this recital began, I was skeptical that any one man could pull off a keyboard version of Ravel’s cacophonous La Valse. What we have here is a reversal of the norm: many of Ravel’s orchestral works are transcriptions of his amazing piano music; in this case we have a transposition in the opposite direction. There is a two piano version extant (fashioned for the rehearsals of the original ballet) and it is almost unplayable by virtue of its difficulty. And yet, Miguel Baselga, like Vladimir Horowitz, is aware enough of his own prodigious talents to arrange such a fingerbreaker for his own dexterous showcase. I doubt that this arrangement will catch on with too many of his colleagues; it is simply beyond the reach of most. In Baselga’s capable hands, however, this was a tour-de-force, the music becoming tremendously exciting as civilization begins to Ravel like a giant ball of yarn rolling downhill. A spectacular finish to an ear-opening program was followed by a very intelligent encore. Baselga’s imitation of a slowly unwinding clock was perfect for an aural essay on the nature of suspended animation.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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