Piano Music by Lecuona and Debussy

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.


BIS has just come out with Volume 3 of what, so far, has been a superb series of the complete piano music of the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (BIS-CD-794). The set was initiated last year in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth (1895-1963), and features pianist Thomas Tirino.

Tirino is single-handedly responsible for the revival of interest in Lecuona's music, and his interpretations are full of energy, flawless technique, and passion.

Lecuona was dubbed the "Cuban Gershwin" for good reason. His music makes consistent use of Latin-American rhythms and dances. The results sound half popular/half classical --- real crossover music.

Volume 3 includes the "Rapsodia Cubana (on Cuban Airs) for Piano and Orchestra" in which Tirino is accompanied by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Bartos. If the Polish orchestra seems like an unlikely choice for Cuban beats, it is no more surprising that Tirino and Bartos are both Americans and that this is all coming out on a Swedish label made in Austria.

"Rapsodia Cubana" was written for two pianos in 1955 and received its world premiere in that version with the composer at one of the pianos. Lecuona then re-thought the work for piano and orchestra, according to the informative program notes Tirino supplied for this CD. Tirino combined the composer's original two-piano score into one part, "omitting nothing,""Tirino says, and worked out a new arrangement. He used as his base a version created by Pablo Ruiz Castellanos, adding a new percussion part and some new orchestration.

"The finale originally intended for the work was never written down," Tirino adds, "but was recorded by Lecuona as part of another work, 'Rapsodia Tropical.'" Tirino "transcribed this material from the composer's recording, and re-inserted it into the work."

The results make for a tuneful, joyful, coherent composition. I would never guess that this wasn't Lecuona's sole doing.

The rest of the 78 minutes of music on this recording is devoted to solo piano pieces, mostly collections of dances and waltzes, with two song transcriptions and, of all things, a Cuban polka. Delightful, fun, light music from one end of the disc to the other.

When Tirino and BIS are through with this six-CD series, I would love to see them tackle the complete piano music of a composer I like even better than Lecuona --- the late 19th/early 20th Century Brazilian musician, Ernesto Nazareth. Arthur Moreira Lima made incredible recordings of Nazareth's melodious tangos and waltzes for Pro Arte several years ago, but these CDs are now hard to find. The only other Nazareth recordings in a recent Schwann Opus catalog are mixed with other composers.

BIS missed the 100th anniversary of Nazareth's 1863 birth. I hope I don't have to wait for the centenary of his death for this dream CD series. That will be in 2034.


I'm not crazy about "New Age" music because what I've heard, although it sets a meditative mood and is inoffensive to the ear, doesn't seem to go anywhere and is devoid of great melodies.

The music of Claude Debussy, on the other hand --- although it also establishes reflective, "New Age"-type moods --- has clear direction, extraordinary harmonies and wonderful tunes. With music that beautiful, who needs George Winston?

London Records has just issued a double CD album of Debussy's Preludes, Books 1 and 2, as performed by the outstanding, young French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (452 022-2). In a bonus, third CD included in the jewel box, Thibaudet is interviewed four times: in English, French, German and Italian. He appears to speak all these languages fluently and has similar comments to make in each one.

This set is Volume 1 of a projected series of Debussy's complete works for solo piano. Thibaudet says that he can record a project like this with Debussy, as he did with Ravel, but could do so with few other composers. This is because, with the exception of the first piano piece Debussy ever wrote, his music is all on a masterpiece level.

I think that's an exaggeration, but this album, which also includes "Deux Arabesques," "Reverie," "Masques," "L'isle joyeuse" and many other well-known Debussy piano pieces, certainly contains a wealth of great impressionistic piano scores.

The "Preludes" themselves contain many familiar pieces which are well-known by their individual names: "Minstrels," "La Cathedrale engloutie ("The Submerged Cathedral"), and especially "La fille aux cheveux de lin" ("The Girl with the Flaxman" I mean "Flaxen Hair").

Thibaudet's performances reflect his deep feeling for the music, his tremendous knowledge of its nuances, and his extraordinary, precise technique. Sound quality, program notes by Roger Nichols, and packaging are all excellent, too, making this CD set a good candidate for your collection and an excellent gift for any classical music lover who doesn't already have these very special pieces.

My wife has long had the habit of writing down quotes she admires in spiral notebooks. Her collection includes an appropriate comment from Claude Debussy himself: "La musique n'est pas l'expression du sentiment, mais le sentiment lui-meme" ("Music isn't the expression of feeling; it is feeling itself.") Thibaudet's Debussy translates this idea into every piece he plays.

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