DVD in Review: Pianist Gustavo Díaz-Jerez plays Iberia, by Isaac Albéniz

DVD in Review: Pianist Gustavo Díaz-Jerez plays Iberia, by Isaac Albéniz

DVD: Isaac Albéniz Iberia, Pianist: Gustavo Díaz-Jerez
Label: ORPHEUS (2015) Region Code: 0 (Worldwide); TV format: PAL
Running Time: 88 minutes


Attention, those interested in “firsts” in the piano world: for the very first time, a full high definition video of Iberia is now available, and it is quite beautifully played by pianist Gustavo Díaz-Jerez ( www.gustavodiazjerez.com).

For those unfamiliar with Iberia, by Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909), it is one of the masterpieces of the piano literature, a set of twelve pieces devoted to the sounds and impressions of the composer’s native Spain, with the emphasis on Andalusia. Though of strong local flavor, the set was loved and admired by Debussy, Messiaen, Fauré, and countless other great musicians and is now admired worldwide as a creation of universal expressiveness.

Composed from 1905 through 1909, each book was given its separate premiere by French pianist Blanche Selva (1906, 1907, 1908, and 1909) and almost each piece has sunk roots singly into the piano repertoire over time. The set is still seldom heard in live recital in its entirety of twelve movements, possibly due to length (around 90 minutes), difficulty (large orchestral textures with awkward hand distribution), and pacing (a challenge to sustain, with prolonged meditative parts and nuanced pianissimo levels down to ppppp). Many musicians cite the history as reason – that Albéniz did not envision the twelve played at a stretch and that the pieces are not meant as a marathon but better played separately.

From the 1960’s through the 1980’s, pianistic legend, Alicia de Larrocha, gave life to the entire opus in repeated recordings and performances of the set. There followed various other excellent interpretations of the set on compact disc. Videos, though, were a different story. Of de Larrocha, one can find only some of her CBS studio videotapes, and they are of poor sound quality (some even with commentary heard over the playing). Of complete live readings, there have been concerts by outstanding virtuosi such as Marc-André Hamelin, with some selections from these viewable on the Internet, but one needs to flip from link to link to hear several in a row (akin to listening to the old 78-RPM recordings). For the first full video of the complete Iberia, one had to wait for Gustavo Díaz-Jerez, whose performance, recorded in 2015, is now available on DVD (www.iberiadvd.com).

One uses the word “performance” because Mr. Díaz-Jerez does give what appears to be an unbroken recital, despite its having involved four days of recording (July 20-24, 2015). The atmosphere also approaches that of a concert despite the fact that there is no apparent audience in the beautiful hall of Paraninfo de la Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (the Canary Islands). The DVD opens with a dignified Mr. Díaz-Jerez, clad in black, walking with resolve towards an imposing Steinway D piano, his footsteps resonating on the large empty stage. It is seemingly a solitary event, but there is such formality and intensity in his demeanor that the occasional shift of camera focus to a hall of empty seats does not detract, but rather seems to suggest listeners past or future. There is a certain poetry in that.

From the first notes of Evocación, a feeling of spaciousness pervades, and it is clear from each expressive inflection that Mr. Díaz-Jerez is a sensitive artist with considerable dedication to this music. He soulfully projects the composer’s most heartrending melodies and lavishes each poignant turn of phrase with affection, somehow without seeming excessively self-indulgent – quite an artful balance! El Puerto follows Evocación with spirit, zest, and a perfect nostalgic lingering towards its close. Mr. Díaz-Jerez has a broad array of articulations at his disposal, and undoubtedly students will enjoy watching close-ups of his hands here and elsewhere – possibly even gaining some insight on distribution of hands in the score’s various tangles. El Corpus Christi En Sevilla brings the opening group to brilliant peaks before its quiet close, rounding out a highly successful Book I.

Book II is equally moving with an intoxicatingly sunny Rondeña and a dreamy Almeria. Mr. Díaz-Jerez has a special knack for transparent voicing in which a melody simply glows from amid other voices without badgering the listener or oversimplifying the texture. The famously challenging Triana ( Click here to view)closes this book well, expansive without being overtly showy. Here is one of the pieces that might benefit most from the synergy of a live audience, but its polish is admirable. The eternal discussion of live versus recorded is not for the current review.

A listener might want to give himself an “Intermission” at this juncture, because a saturation point can be reached. By the end of Book II, one can become so spoiled by the surfeit of sultry harmonies, nostalgic melodies, and florid ornaments, that they lose their distinctiveness. El Albaicín, El Polo, Lavapiés, Málaga, Jerez, and Eritaña all have uniquely beautiful qualities, but they do need some space after the first two books for their uniqueness to emerge. Hopefully, the listeners (viewers) will exercise some judgment in the pacing.

In summary, all the performances are excellent. Though one may have one’s favorite performances by other artists for isolated pieces, this full set makes for a fine reference collection and should be of interest for pianists negotiating the hand-overlappings and leaps for the first time. There are many close-ups. The technique in every piece is solid, there is nothing offensive, and there is much that is exemplary.

While one feels a bit incomplete not hearing the rush of applause upon the last notes of Eritaña, the silence underscores the dream element so present throughout the video. In fact, that aspect is so pervasive that one might simply decide to ignore each shot of hands and face and keyboard, and drift away. This would bring one full circle to the respective raisons d’être of DVD versus CD, visual versus aural, or in combination. As Debussy wrote of this set: “One closes one’s eyes and is bedazzled by the sheer wealth of invention in this music!” What Debussy said is true. Here, though, the listener has a choice.