Sunday 3 February 2013

Martin Jones is the ideal interpreter of piano works by the Spanish composer Óscar Esplá on a new release from Nimbus

The Spanish composer Óscar Esplá y Triay (1886/9-1976) was born in Alicante. The exact year of his birth is unknown as his birth certificate no longer exists. Many sources give the year as 1886 but other writers believe that 1889 is more likely. At the wishes of his father, he studied engineering and philosophy at the University of Barcelona. In 1911, after winning the award of the National Music Society of Vienna with his Suite Levantina, he decided to devote himself to music.

Esplá studied in Meiningen and Munich with Reger and in Paris with Saint-Saëns and, from 1932, was a professor at the Madrid Conservatory, later, in 1936, becoming its director. His music, the style of which owes something to Debussy as well as Spanish folk music, began to be performed both in Spain and abroad. He became part of a group of intellectuals that included the writer Gabriel Miró, the economist Germán Bernácer, the painter Emilio Varela and the architect, Juan Vidal, who were all attracted to the region around the Guadalest valley just inland from the Costa Blanca.

At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Esplá left with his family for Belgium not returning to Spain until 1951. In 1956 he was elected Academician of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris and in 1959 he was awarded the Grand Cross of Alfonso X.

Esplá was interested in Spanish Levantine folk music. The Levante (literally ‘the East’) is a name used to refer to the eastern region of the Iberian Peninsula, broadly including Valencia, Catalonia, eastern Andalusia, southern Aragon and the Balearic Islands. Moorish Spain developed a musical form that influenced the folk music of the Levantine region. Esplá developed a personal musical scale, inspired by this folk music, which permeates many of his piano works.

Amongst his works are the symphonic poems El sueño de Eros (1910), Don Quijote velando las armas (1924), Suite levantina (1911), a cantata La Nochebuena del Diablo (1923), a Symphony ‘Aitana’ (1958), a Symphony in D, two String Quartets, a Piano Trio, a Piano Quintet and works for piano. There are also a number of stage works, some of which are incomplete.

Nimbus Records  have released a two CD set of Esplá’s piano works played by Martin Jones , who has already made many fine records for Nimbus. The works on these discs are arranged chronologically.

NI 5889/90
The languid Romanza Antigua (1905), that opens the first CD, was written when Esplá was only in his teens and is influenced by Chopin. Impresiones musicales Op.2 (1905-09) is a series of five very attractive light pieces, not especially Spanish in feel, which open with En el hogar (at Home). Barba Azul (Bluebeard) is great fun, with sudden rapid passages on the piano, no doubt invoking the sub-title ‘Sister Ana, run to the top of the tower’. Caperucita Roja (Little Red Riding Hood) has some lovely harmonic touches, quiet and wistful in character. It is a lovely piece, as is Cenicienta (Cinderella), a lovely flowing melody with a fast, intricate middle section. Antano (Long Ago) concludes the set and is rather a nostalgic piece with an attractive theme subjected to varying treatment.

Esplá’s Scherzo Op.5 (1909) is a flowing, rippling piece beautifully played by Martin Jones. Such is the broad sweep of this piece that it hardly seems a scherzo at all. Crepúsculum (twilight) Op.15 (1912) opens slowly with, for the first time, the subtle atmosphere of Spain. It is full of interest with shifting tonality and first class playing from Martin Jones.

The five movement Suite de pequeñas piezas (Suite of small pieces) (1913) has a terrific preludio where Bach appears to peer out through Esplá’s idiom. The Canción de cuna is a lovely lullaby that even has a kind of trio section and the Arie de Danza Pastoril touches on Scarlatti though with a dissonant edge.  An elusive, rather fragmented Ronda Levantina is full of little variations and the final Paso de Opereta is an affectionate take on Offenbach, a fast, comic piece.

Levante Melodias y temas de danza (1916) consists of ten short pieces, ‘melodies on dance themes’ that pull together as a set much more than the earlier pieces on this disc. In particular there is an andante which has a lovely Spanish tune, an allegro non molto that seems to hint at a familiar tune, a beautiful little allegretto, and a lively dancing tune to finish. These pieces are at turns thoughtful, dancing, joyful and full of nostalgia. Martin Jones knows just how to bring out all their charm and feeling.

La pájara pinta, Piezas Infantiles (1916-20) A Game of Forfeits opens with El Conde de Cabra,  a simple little melody, followed by Doña Escotofina, more sophisticated than the first piece and concludes with a light sparkling piece, Anton Pirulero, that has a slight French feel.

In Tres Movimientos para piano (Three movement for piano) (1921) the Estudio (Study) again has a slightly French feel, almost Faure, but beautifully done. Danza Antigua (Ancient Dance) is a very attractive piece with just the odd Spanish inflection and Pasodoble is a lively piece to round off. This is a lovely little work, lasting around twelve minutes, played to perfection by Martin Jones.

The second disc in this set opens with Cantos de antaño, Piezas Infantiles (1930) Old Songs with a beautifully written Danza, full of lovely harmonies, a Cancion de cuna (Cradle Song), a beautifully flowing piece and the lightly dancing Trana.

Esplá ‘s La Sierra (1930-36) is subtitled Suite folklorica. It opens with Canto de vendimia (Song of the vintage), an apparent reference to wine vintages. There follows Aire Pastoral and Danza levantina making an attractive little collection of pieces invoking Esplá’s own particular Spanish idiom, never too obvious or overdone.

Esplá wrote a number of Lírica Española in the 1930’s of which numbers I, II, IV and V are recorded here. The exact date of their composition is not known. Lírica Española I Bocetos levantinos (Levantine sketches) opens with a beautifully evocative Evocación costeña (Evocation of the coast) before Danza de Valle (Dance of the Valley), a subtly Spanish dance. Canción de cuna is a gently lilting piece followed by a rhythmic, gently galloping dance, Paso de baile Serrano (Highland dance). Canto de la Umbria, nocturne is atmospheric and slightly nostalgic and the concluding Ritmos de la huerta (Rhythms of the orchard) is a lively, yet at times expansive, piece.

Lírica Española II Tonadas Antiguas (Old melodies) has just a gently lilting Romance (Castilla), a restrained, nostalgic Canto de trilla (Levante) (Song of the Threshers) and Conseja (Conte) that has a hesitating theme framed by a more flowing melody.

Lírica Española IV (1930’s) is, like Lírica Española II, a short work consisting of three pieces, a flowing and free Aire andaluz, a lovely haunting Cadencia balear and Ritmo de bolero that has a gentle rhythm, interrupted by stronger outbursts.

Lírica Española V Suite característica, although again consisting of three pieces, is a longer work. The Habanera grows from gentle rhythms to a lovely rich piece with lovely little dissonances. The following Ronda serrana has some beautiful Spanish inflections and the concluding sonatina playera is an attractive piece that could well stand alone.

Finally in this set there is the Sonata Española Op.53 Homenaje a Chopin (1949). This set opened with the Romanza Antigua that showed the early influence of Chopin on the young Esplá. Now the composer, in his later years, pays homage to Chopin. The opening andante romantico starts quietly and darkly before allowing a little Mediterranean warmth and passion to enter. Towards the end there are some little trills reminiscent of Chopin. In the Mazurca sopra un tema popolare, Chopin looms large before Esplá varies the mazurka turning this into a wildly varied piece, full of fun. The work concludes with a fiendishly difficult allegro brioso where there is some terrific playing from Martin Jones.

These attractive, rarely recorded, works are well worth exploring particularly some of the later pieces which are really quite beautiful. Martin Jones is an ideal interpreter, never allowing the slightest little piece to fail to register. The recording is excellent and there are interesting booklet notes on the composer.

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