Ernesto and Ernestina
Release Date 2005
Catalogue No. LNT119
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Douglas Cooksey, CLASSICAL SOURCE
One of the joys of reviewing is when something totally delightful and worthwhile turns up unexpectedly from a 'small' label and features an artist, here Clélia Iruzun, who deserves to be better known. Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) is hardly a household name, either - unless one is an aficionado of Cuban music - but he was a prolific composer (over 400 songs) with a wonderful melodic gift. He was also a moving spirit in Havana's musical life in the first half of the last century, founding the Havana Symphony Orchestra as well as a dance-band called Orquesta Cubana, later renamed Lecuona Cuban Boys. After Castro's take-over in 1959 Lecuona moved to the States, dying in the Canaries in 1963 whilst on a holiday to attend a concert in his honour.
Musically, his sophisticated and technically demanding piano pieces succeed in blending Afro-Cuban rhythms with what, for want of a better description, is called Western Art music, and in that respect he could be called one of the first genuine 'crossover' composers. His elder sister, Ernestina, was also a pianist, giving recitals throughout Latin America and she too composed songs, some of which figure on this recording as arrangements.
The music on this release is a mix of Ernesto's more substantial piano works specially written - the Suite Andalucía, for example, its sixth movement being the well-known 'Malagueña' - and arrangements of songs such as Siempre en mi corazón and Ernestina's No lo dudes.
As they say in the States: 'If it ain't got that swing, it don't mean a thing'. Fortunately, in the young London-based Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun, the Lecuonas find an ideal performer. The music's hypnotic and sensuously seductive rhythms come as second nature to her - and are almost an invitation to dance - whilst the more pianistically challenging works find her fully equal to their considerable technical demands. This is by no means Iruzun's first recording, and she has received guidance from, amongst others, Nelson Freire and Stephen Kovacevich.
Produced by Odaline de la Martínez and dedicated to her mother for having inculcated a love of Cuba despite exile, this release is clearly a labour of love. Well recorded and stylishly presented (save for not mentioning session dates), this issue deserves the widest currency, and would make an ideal gift. Buy yourself one, too!
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 Joaquín 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 afrocubanas, 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 medianoche' (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 lucumí', 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.