Schwartz: Spanish music at its most enticing 

As pianist Robert Schwartz prepares to perform Isaac Albéniz’s master opus “Iberia” at Old First Concerts tonight, he does so knowing he will share the last and greatest work of a master.

The concert-length piece, which Albéniz initially considered unplayable, was his masterpiece, written soon before the he died of intestinal illness in 1909 at the age of 48.

“What I love about ‘Iberia,’” says Schwartz, “is that although it is difficult and virtuoso music, it is never overtly virtuosic. It is very difficult without sounding difficult. Whatever Albéniz wrote was purely for musical effect. It was not meant to merely show off the prowess of the performer, but rather to express the language of flamenco in original ways.”

Based on flamenco motifs, melodic patterns and harmonies, “Iberia” exemplifies Albéniz’s uncanny ability to write piano music that sounds as though it was written for guitar.

It indeed comes as a surprise to learn that, although Albéniz, who is known for guitar music that transmits the essence of the Spanish soul, never wrote for the instrument. His piano music so successfully incorporates the techniques of the guitar that others soon transcribed it for the smaller instrument.

Albéniz’s history is of a man who did not immediately fulfill his early promise. A young Spanish Mozart of sorts, he gave his first performance on piano at age 4. By the time he was 8, his father arranged for him to tour Spain and play concerts with his sister.

Inspired by his deep love of Granada and flamenco guitar music, Albéniz’s early piano music consisted mainly of simple but inspired salon pieces. They captured the fancy of musicians and public alike because of their uncanny imitations of guitar.

After moving to France becoming involved in theater music, Albéniz ended up in a 12-year binding contract with an opera librettist whose uninspired writing hampered acceptance.

Dissatisfied with his output, Albéniz eventually engaged in rigorous study of Renaissance counterpoint and composition with Vincent d’Indy. After writing his final opera “Merlin,” he devoted his energies to composing Iberia.

Schwartz, who won the 1975 Ravel Prize at the Marguerite Long International Competition in Paris, has timed the concert to celebrate Albéniz’s 150th birthday.

Uniquely equipped for his task, he will draw on his skills as piano faculty at Mills College and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to use words as well as digits to express the heart and soul of Albéniz’s beloved Spain. Prepare for a night of seduction.


Robert Schwartz

Where: Old First Concerts, 1751 Sacramento St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. today

Tickets: $14 to $17

Contact: (415) 474-1609,


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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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