Composing and story-telling are not unrelated, and Albeniz was as adept as any Scheherazade at both! For many, his masterpiece was Iberia, a set of piano pieces composed near the end of his life. It contains twelve 'impressions' (the composer's word) of Spain, and is organized into four books of three pieces each. Although they are named after various locales, it would be facile to call these pieces a musical travelogue, because Albeniz was not interested in literal depictions of his homeland. Together with the orchestration of Navarra, Ansermet recorded five of these - Evocacion, El Corpus en Sevilla, Triana, El Puerto and El Albaicin. Ansermet's 1960 recording of these works long has been a favourite of audiophiles, and even today, it retains its potency, not just as a demonstration of recording technique, but also of the conductor's skill.
The coupling on this recording, Villa-Lobos's First Piano Concerto, receives its CD premiere from the very pianist (Canadian Ellen Ballon) who commissioned and premiered it. This is the largest of his piano concertos, and its third movement comes to a climax with a lengthy cadenza for the soloist. (One remembers a comment made about Villa-Lobos's Concerto No. 5 - a 'piano tuner's orgy'.) Ballon, who studied with Josef Hofmann and who was praised by Artur Rubinstein as the 'greatest pianistic genius [he] had ever met' is a powerful soloist in this recording. Her playing is muscular - the third-movement cadenza is particularly impressive - yet she is able to make the lyrical passages sing as well. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande seems engaged and intrigued by Villa-Lobos's bejewelled, exotic and sometimes mysterious orchestral writing, and the score as whole plays to Ansermet's strengths as an architect and colourist.
"As the performances are splendidly alive and the quality blazingly good, this is a disc for all Costa Brava enthusiasts and indeed anyone who finds red-blooded Spanish music a thrill." Gramophone (Iberia).