ISAAC ALBENIZ (1860-1909)
Concert Artists Guild/The Victor Elmaleh Collection #VEC 101

This impressive new recording of Albéniz's valedictory masterpiece represents a dream come true: in his touching memoir accompanying the CD, Peter Schaaf fell in love with these pieces forty-five years ago and "wished to master them all in the way other people wish to win the lottery, and with about the same chance of success."

Schaaf, a onetime pupil of Rosina Lhévinne, built the edifice of a musical career by winning the 1961 Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Prize and then the Morris Loeb Prize upon his graduation from Juilliard. His burgeoning professional experiences included collaborative work with Renata Tebaldi and Jon Vickers (an excellent Vickers/Schaaf version of Schubert's Winterreise from a 1984 Toronto performance remains in print on the VAI label). Schaaf also accompanied Yo-Yo Ma (in his New York debut), Kyung-Wha Chung and Jean-Jacques Kantorow. He also played in a piano trio.

Having staked out his credentials as a respected professional pianist (I hasten to add, as opposed to an attention-grabbing flashy virtuoso), Schaaf fell in love with photography ("much easier than piano—it takes only one finger") and discovered a talent for portraiture. The piano gradually got forgotten as he made a living photographing musicians for their publicity (www.peterschaaf.com).

Two subsequent catalysts coaxed Schaaf out of pianistic retirement. First, David Dubal stopped him in a hall at Juilliard: "Peter, somebody told me that you used to be a fine pianist. Would you like to play for my Evening Division classes sometime?" His response was "NO, it is too much work to play even the simplest piece well and I haven't played for twenty-five years!" But shortly thereafter a piano teacher, Julian Martin, introduced Schaaf to the recording of Iberia by Esteban Sánchez (1934-1997) which was so influential that he was inspired to restudy the first six pieces for Dubal's class, and with Dubal's encouragement, nearly three years later, the recording is a fait accompli. Schaaf gives his heartfelt thanks to Dubal, Martin, Sánchez, and to Victor Elmaleh for subsidizing the production of this release.

Mr. Schaaf has graciously provided me with a copy of the deeply poetic Sánchez recording and it is indeed pretty wonderful. But Schaaf, to his credit, is his own man, interpretively. He shares many of the qualities—bracing rhythms, crystalline textures, pungent harmonic details (late Albéniz is of course much more innovative and dissonant than he was in his earlier youthful writings) but his own leanings are tauter and objective in the modern style. Many of his tempi are faster the Sánchez's (the exceptions are El Polo and Málaga). These timing considerations here enabled the Concert Artists Guild to fit all twelve pieces onto a single CD running for 79:54.

Ergo, an accomplishment which Schaaf can take immense credit for.

October 5, 2011