Review of LNT119: Lecuona: Ernesto and Ernestina
Göran Forsling, MusicWeb
Ernesto Lecuona was born in Guanabacoa, a suburb of Havana in Cuba, and had his first piano lessons with his sister Ernestina. He played in public at the age of five and by twelve he was already writing his own compositions and worked as a silent movie pianist. He made his American debut in New York at nineteen and completed his studies with Joaquin Nin and Maurice Ravel. He founded the Havana Symphony Orchestra and also a dance band, later known as The Lecuona Cuban Boys, which was a success in both Europe and the Americas. Their recordings can still be heard. Finally, and most importantly, he was a prolific composer of - mostly - popular music, but he also wrote theatre music, zarzuelas, ballets and an opera. There are also no less than thirty-seven orchestral works, among them three for piano and orchestra. He also wrote several film scores. He composed 406 songs, many of which have become evergreens, like Siboney and Siempre en mi corazón.
"Lecuona ... was probably the first successful 'crossover' musician" says the liner notes. His piano pieces, numbering 176 and the main concern of this review, belong in both the "light" and the "serious" camps. There is a basic light-hearted atmosphere about much of his work, with a gift for melodies and music that is often rhythmically attractive. "Lecuona's greatest gift is his ability to embed Afro-Cuban music in his own works, producing fabulous collections of Dances for piano", says the notes. The six Danzas Afro-Cubanas, which conclude this recital, are thrilling to listen to, varied in mood and rhythms and also colourful with inventive use of the whole keyboard. Some of the pieces remind me of the music Louis Moreau Gottschalk wrote almost a century earlier, which was well ahead of its time. Listen to track 16, for example, Danza negra. And the nightly La conga de media noche (track 15) with its bold harmonic language, not fighting shy of dissonances, is a sophisticated composition that Ravel might have nodded approvingly at. Track 19, finally, Danza Lucumi, is a real swinger.
His most famous larger-scale piano work is probably the Suite Andalucía from 1927, inspired by this region in Spain. The six movements are well differentiated, each with its distinctive character. The second movement, Andalucía, should be well-known to many readers, at least those with memories from decades gone by; even more the last of them, Malagueña, which must exist in dozens of arrangements, besides the piano original played here. In some of the pieces there are also darker streaks, more mournful music, some of it quite dissonant; try the second half of Alhambra (track 3).
In between these two larger suites there are a number of songs and dances, two of them written by Ernesto's sister, mainly belonging to the category "light music". These are melodic, even sentimental, but mostly beautifully unassuming. I got this disc the day before New Year's Eve and chose it as background music for our traditional New Year's Dinner with good and longstanding friends who are not exactly classically inclined. They liked it enormously and intend to come back next New Year. Not all my records are of the calibre that they can be appreciated both as wall-paper and for close listening.
The pianist, Brazilian-born but London-based Clélia Iruzun, has a natural feeling for this type of music. It shouldn't be over-sophisticated but it must be elegant and rhythmically alive. To me her playing sounds utterly idiomatic.
The cover photo, which can be seen above, shows the Lecuona Cuban Boys on a 1930s photo with Ernesto on the extreme left. The violinist standing to the left of the female dancer is Alberto Bolet, brother of the famous Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet, and the male dancer is an easily recognizable Buster Keaton.
All in all a disc that I have already played for pleasure several times and intend to return to every so often when in Lecuonan mood.