Happy Birthday, Isaac Albéniz! Watch Michael Chapdelaine Play ‘Mallorca’

May 29 is the 159th birthday of the Isaac Albéniz, the great Spanish pianist/composer whose “nationalist” works have formed so much of the bedrock of the classical guitar repertoire over the past century, from early guitar transcriptions by Tárrega, Llobet, and others, to countless players in our modern era. Albéniz always professed a great love of the guitar and its deep connection to Spanish music, so perhaps it is not surprising that his music translated so well to that instrument.

The piece we’ve chosen to highlight is a beautiful lament called Mallorca, Op. 202, written for solo piano in  London in 1890, but named for the largest of the the Balearic islands off the coast of Spain, and inspired by a style of barcarola found there. I couldn’t pin down the oldest guitar recording of Mallorca, but the earliest I could find was Segovia’s from 1968 (which appeared on The Unique Art of Andrés Segovia the following year). Sharon Isbin put out a version in 1978, John Williams in 1981, Julian Bream in 1982, and there have been many other versions since.

This fine reading is by the American virtuoso guitarist Michael Chapdelaine, who has an interesting history with the piece: In a 1986 master class with Segovia at the University of Southern California, the Maestro famously cut off and dismissed young Chapdelaine just a few bars into “Mallorca,” chastising him for changing Segovia’s fingerings as well as other apparently grievous transgressions. If you have a few minutes sometime, I strongly recommend you check out the video of that master class and listen to Chapdelaine’s thoughtful and disarmingly honest description of this soul-crushing experience. I wanted to give the guy a hug! The happy ending is that he got to play for Segovia again the next day and this time, playing a piece by Tansman, the Maestro approved! Despite this tough learning experience, Chapdelaine developed into one the U.S.’s finest classical and acoustic guitarists—indeed, he is still the only person to win both the GFA competition and the National Fingerstyle Championships at the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in Kansas. And this reading of Mallorca from a few years ago is exquisite!  —Blair Jackson

Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909)