‘Iberia’ with Jonathan Powell

Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909)

The British pianist Jonathan Powell, who lives in Poland with his family, will be giving a London performance of the complete cycle of 12 pieces that comprise Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia. Direct, passionate, complex, haunting and original, this suite of pieces is rarely heard in its entirety. Jonathan’s concert is on Thursday 27th March at Rosslyn Hill church, Hampstead.

I asked Jonathan to explain what makes this music so interesting and challenging for the pianist, and his own particular connection with it.

When and how did you first encounter Albéniz’s Iberia?

In my late teens I was studying Granados’ Goyescas, and someone told me they would like to hear me play them and Iberia in the same concert! Up until then I had only been aware of Albéniz’ collection, so I decided to look at them for the first time then. Oh, and I’ve not yet taken up that challenge …

What is the particular appeal of this suite of pieces to you?

Well, there are really so many things about Iberia that appeal to me greatly: the brightness and vividness of the colours; the amazing sonorities Albéniz conjures from the instrument; the Mediterranean ambiance; the daring originality of the use of folksong-type materials; the sheer brilliance of writing matched with exquisite atmosphere …

What are the technical and musical challenges of learning and performing the entire suite?

Well, most of the pieces have particular technical challenges: there’s a lot of crossing of hands, big leaps, dense textures which require careful stratification, and you have to keep very cool on the metrical front; musically, you need to carry, shape and project a line while maintaining what is often a very complex texture ‘underneath’. Also, it was quite hard to memorise, especially some of the later pieces which, while still completely tonal, use lots of chords with unexpected added notes that are slightly different each time they appear.

Is this the first time you will have performed the entire suite?

Oh no! I’ve been doing it for about two years now. When I passed 40, I thought “you’re a grown up now, stop putting this off”, so I got down and learned it. To date I’ve played the pieces in Belfast, London, Oxford, Glenfinnan, Esbjerg (DenmarK), Levoča (Slovakia), Gliwice (Poland), Kiev (Ukraine), Kirovograd (Ukraine) and probably a few other places I can’t remember just now.…

Do you have any favourite recordings of this work?

Yes, Alicia Delarrocha made three, they’re all good. Other Spaniards like Rafael Orozco and Esteban Sánchez are also outstanding. I’d love to hear Yvonne Loriod’s recording, but unfortunately (and, to me, completely inexplicably) it’s out of print.

Which works by Albéniz would you recommend for someone just beginning to explore his piano music?

Well, Albéniz wrote a huge amount of piano music, completing some 200+ opus numbers – most of which are for the piano – before he even embarked on Iberia in the mid-1900s. The Chants d’Espagne might be a good starting point, as might the Recuerdos de viaje; there are also Suitas Españolas, several sonatas and hordes of miniatures. Rest assured that pretty much none of the pre-1900 pieces contains any of the challenges of Iberia!

Jonathan Powell performs Iberia at Rosslyn Hill Chapel, 3 Pilgrim’s Place, Hampstead, NW3 1NG London on Thursday 27th March 2014 at 7.30pm

Meet the Artist……Jonathan Powell