Beethoven was on a roll. He'd been through a fallow patch in which he hadn't composed much, but that was behind him now. His creative juices were flowing as never before, resulting in a number of large-scale works: the Diabelli Variations, Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, the Late String Quartets, and these two grand pieces: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (aka, "the Choral symphony"), and the Missa Solemnis in D Major (Solemn Mass). Beethoven wasn't merely producing great art–in football parlance, he was spiking the ball.

Much has been written about the Choral Symphony and the Missa, and much has been written about Arturo Toscanini's account of these two great works, which are now joined together on one CD (BMG Classics #525731Z). Suffice it to say, the versions on this CD are the ones which the Maestro gave his blessing. These are the recorded accounts that the perfectionist inside Toscanini was (as he put it) "almost satisfied". It was these performances that came closest to matching his vision of how this music should be played. Mind you, he had conducted these scores many times over his long and illustrious career, some accounts of which had been recorded before. But it's these two recordings that he personally approved for commercial release. Having been digitally remastered in the late 1990s, they sound better than ever. Toscanini's Missa continues to top the list of most music critics, while this account of the Ninth is–let's face it–a classic of the gramophone. Packaged together, and bargain priced, this is not something to be lightly dismissed. If ever there was an example of one genius paying homage to another, this is it.

ALBENIZ: IBERIA – Alicia DeLarrocha

Having discovered the rich and intoxicating world of Spanish music, as composed by the likes of Ravel, de Falla, and Granados, it was only a question of time before I discovered Albeniz’s “Iberia”. Isaac Albeniz served one heck of an apprenticeship before composing this piece. A pianist who performed in public at age four, he had by age 14 given recitals all over Spain, before running off to Puerto Rico as a stowaway aboard a ship. He toured the Americas from Argentina to San Francisco, returned to Europe by way of Liverpool, studied for a year in Leipzig, and returned penniless to Spain. At the age of 30, he went to Paris to study composition with Dukas and d’Indy, then returned to London to compose. Then it was back to Paris for more study, this time with Debussy and Faure, and home again to Spain, this time to stay. And to compose music that was unmistakably Spanish. “Iberia” was composed for piano at this time, and later transcribed for orchestra; that is how I first discovered it, as an orchestral transcription.

What we have with this CD is "Iberia" in its original form, as "nine impressions for piano": about 63 minutes of gloriously pungent music evocative of Andalusia on the south coast of Spain. Pianist Alicia de Larrocha brings a great deal of intelligence and understated passion to this music, music she has lived with all her life and understands intimately. The recording is warm and ambient without a lot of reverberation, which suits the honesty of these performances perfectly. Ole’!

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