The Alhambra, Granada’s emblematic palace, world-renowned for its astonishing beauty and elegance, has long been a major source of inspiration for artists. Among these are several important composers, some of whom actually had the opportunity to marvel at the palace and its splendid gardens (like Joaquín Turina and Manuel de Falla), while others only visited it by way of their imagination (like Claude Debussy).
This selection by harmonia mundi invites listeners to discover diverse musical compositions stretching across centuries in a multitude of styles. The famous monument is the thread that binds them together, as all the pieces in this compilation are linked in one or more ways to the Alhambra and the rich history, culture and folklore of Andalusia.
The first disc (‘A cultural melting pot’) opens with a fine selection of Arab-Andalusian music, whose origins can be traced back to the musical legacy of al-Andalus and the tradition laid down by legendary figures such as composers Ziryab (ninth century) and Ibn Bajja (twelfth century). This is followed by an assortment of vocal pieces sang in Judeo-Spanish, reflecting the rich Jewish legacy of al-Andalus. Featuring musical accompaniment, instrumental solos and a female voice, this music was originally intended for extra-synagogal use (all these elements were forbidden inside the synagogue), however it still retains a remarkably strong spiritual dimension.
An important figure in Spanish history, Alfonso X ‘the Wise’ reigned as King of Castile from 1252 to 1284. An enlightened monarch, he assembled Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars and artists at his court, while his reign saw the compilation of the Cantigas de Santa María (often attributed to Alfonso himself), a collection consisting of more than four hundred monophonic songs in the Medieval Galician language, a sample of which is included in this compilation.
The album closes with music from eminent Spanish composers of the Renaissance, such as Alonso Mudarra (c.1510-1580), who wrote numerous pieces for the vihuela and the four-course guitar like The Fantasía del quinto tono, and Juan Vásquez (c.1500-c.1560), a composer of sacred and secular music such as sonnets and villancicos. Also featured is a piece by the Spanish guitarist and composer Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739) illustrating the character of the jácaras, Spanish songs in satirical style that used to be performed during the intervals of Baroque comedies.
Les Ballets Russes at the Alhambra, courtesy of www.manueldefalla.com
The second disc (‘Dream architectures’) centers on evocations of the Alhambra in the artistic imagination in the early twentieth century. In an article published in 1920, Spanish composer Manuel de Falla wrote:
“I should like to say loud and clear that if Claude Debussy made use of Spain as the basis of one of finest portions of his oeuvre, he so amply repaid his debt that it is now Spain that is his debtor.”
Indeed, Debussy’s fascination with Spain and Granada in particular – which he never actually visited – is evident in compositions such as La soirée dans Grenade from Estampes (1903), or La Puerta del Vino from the second book of his Préludes for piano (1912).
Falla himself was largely fascinated and inspired by Granada and the Alhambra. This is reflected in many of his compositions such as La vida breve (from where the magnificent dance heard on this disk is taken) and of course Noches en los jardines de España, one of Falla’s most significant and enduring works. Alongside the works by Debussy and Falla, this compilation also includes a set of five pieces by Spanish composer Joaquín Turina, evoking colorful dances of gypsy flamenco and Moorish origin.
Overall, this is a generous selection of highly varied music, both evocative of Alhambra’s splendor and indicative of its unique place in Spanish, as well as European, artistic imagination and musical history. Special mention should be made about the exceptional quality of the performances featured in this collection, by artists such as pianists Javier Perianes, Alain Planès, and Albert Guinovart, harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, and ensembles like Atrium Musicae de Madrid, Alia Musica, The Dufay Collective, Ensemble Clément Janequin, and the City of Granada Orchestra.
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