Javier Perianes

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The Spanish pianist talks about recording Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain and the power of imagination

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As a Spanish pianist performing a Spanish composer, do you feel a natural affinity with this music?
I feel a natural affinity with this music because I’ve heard it since I was a child. But I don’t know if it’s because I’m in Spanish. Falla composed the Nights in the Garden of Spain without ever going to Granada – he was inspired by pictures of the Alhambra sent to him by the artist Santiago Rusiñol. But I think Manuel de Falla’s music is an absolutely universal language, and I know some very good performances of it by non-Spanish pianists. Arthur Rubinstein, for example.

But the sense of place comes across strongly…
It’s inspiring. I’ve been to Granada a number of times, and when you are there and see what wonderful scents and landscapes there are inside the Alhambra, you can see maybe what Falla was thinking of when he composed that masterpiece. But he composed it without being there ever. It was only after composing this piece that he lived there. When he decided to live there, he never composed anything inspired by Granada. It’s curious.

It’s very much a flight of the imagination then?
In fact it’s really French. Falla was very French in his style, music and inspiration. And yes imagination. That language of Debussy, sometimes Ravel, that sense of evocation of images, smells and landscapes.

How did living in Paris influence Falla?
He died in Argentina because of the war in Spain. But before in Granada he tried to reproduce the Parisian atmosphere he’d experienced when he lived there in the first years of the 20th century. He tried to recreate a small Paris. In the late-style pieces like the Homage to Debussy and Homage to Dukas – Paul Dukas was his teacher – he tried to evoke these composers. In these Homages you can find a more austere style, not like in the Four Spanish Pieces or the Fantasia Bética. In the Dukas Homage, the main theme of the piece can be found in Dukas’s Piano Sonata. In the Debussy Homage, one of the last melodies is exactly the same as the one Debussy used in the 'Soirée dans Grenade' from Estampes.

In preparation for this recording you went back to the original sources. What sort of things did you find?
The Manuel de Falla archives in Granada have a lot of interesting material. It’s interesting to see in the front pages of the Nights in the Garden on Spain, for example, a lot of quotes about Debussy, Ravel and even Wagner. Falla developed his own style from a lot of influences. You can see the discussions and disputes between him and his editors. For example, in the Fantasia Bética you can see them coming back to say, ‘Are you sure about this note maestro?’ And he comes back to say, ‘Of course I’m sure about this!’ Some editions after this first edition, they insist that he was mistaken. If you visit the archives you can see his intentions. Sometimes it’s just a couple of notes but it provides a strange, curious feeling to have in your hand in the original handwriting of Manuel de Falla.

Who are your inspirations?
There was a wonderful sentence from that great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. He said that inspiration gets him when he’s working. He was always working, and so when inspiration visits, he’d be working. And I’m with him. If you're working all the time, it's easier. Then you might surprise youself with how you play in the concert – it's a combination between hard work and the flexibility to find something new in performance.

And do you have any inspirations for this particular repertoire?
Not really. When I was playing this piece with Zubin Mehta, someone asked me if I thought Falla was more or less great than Debussy. It's not more but it’s not less. It’s a different language, style but he’s a universal composer. If we were talking about, I don’t know, Mompou, then I’m not sure that style of music is universal. Falla gets performed by international orchestras and conductors – for instance at this year's BBC Proms this piece was performed by Steven Osborne, a wonderful pianist, with the BBC Philharmonic. This is universal music.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

Javier Perianes's Falla CD is out now, and will be reviewed in the December issue of BBC Music Magazine