horizontal line

With this three-CD album devoted to José Iturbi, Mike Spring’s APR label continues to take us down memory lane as part of an invaluable series. And if Iturbi (1895-1980) was a born prima donna, blessed with matinee idol looks and an aura of glamour and assurance reaching out far beyond the footlights, he was also a pianist of formidable mastery. As Jed Distler notes in his excellent accompanying essay, pianists blessed with extracurricular attributes are apt to be dismissed by the more snobbish or conservative elements of the music world. And so it was with Iturbi whose success in tinsel-town (like Eileen Joyce’s 1950s filmstar appearance or Van Cliburn’s ticker-tape parade down Broadway) provoked knowing glances of disapproval. Nevertheless, there are wondrous things in this album, notably the powerhouse virtuosity in Saint-Saëns’ Allegro Appassionata, a glittering showpiece.

To say that the Spanish repertoire was in Iturbi’s blood sounds like stereotyping, yet listening to his insinuating charm and grace in Granados’ Spanish Dance No 10 is to be reminded of  virtuosity in  a subtle and inclusive sense. He is both crisp and seductive in Albéniz’s ‘Sevillanas’ and finds all of the mystery and allure of ‘Córdoba’. The 1928 and 1954 recordings of Debussy’s two Arabesques replace other alternative curt performances with affection and a playful linger at the end of the second.

Such moments suggest all of Iturbi’s legendary charisma, helping you to forget other performances more steel-tipped and routine than warm-hearted. Iturbi’s way with Debussy’s Rêverie is a far cry from Gieseking’s iridescence; and how can his reading of Chopin’s Prelude in E major (No 9) be thought Largo? There is greater engagement in the B major Nocturne Op 32/1, its innocent Field-like progression interrupted by one of Chopin’s most menacing surprises. Iturbi has joyous and extrovert way with the B-flat Mazurka Op 7/1, but the A-flat Polonaise has a military rather than musical precision and comes with a rhythmic misreading of the principle theme. Clara Schumann could hardly have been lost in wonder at her husband’s F-sharp Romance (‘I absolutely must have this!’) if she had heard Iturbi’s very ungiving manner. Again, while there is no absence of aplomb in Liszt’s ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’, Itrubi misses an acute vein of poetry perhaps surprisingly located by both Cziffra and Lazar Berman.

High praise from William Kapell and Julius Katchen for Iturbi’s Mozart is quoted in the sleeve, yet his recordings of the A major and F major Sonatas (K331 and 332) are more technical – or rather mechanical – than musical successes.

A mixed bag then, but never less than fascinating. Even at his least stylish, Iturbi’s hypnotic command makes the spell he cast over his capacity audiences understandable. The transfers and presentation, as always in this series, are superb. Perhaps I should end by balancing Iturbi’s turbulent, flamboyant and also tragic life with his own modest disclaimer: ‘Maybe I’m not good enough. You see, there is one thing about music… You always feel there is so much more than you know. Maybe there is some wonderful secret you haven’t quite captured.’

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Piano International, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing