Throughout the late 1870s and 1880s, the Berlin-based publishing house of Simrock, encouraged by the sweeping success of the first volume of Brahms' Hungarian Dances (published in 1869), expanded its catalog of ethnic truffles by issuing a second similar volume by Brahms and by commissioning further sets of salon-arranged folk dances from two composers far removed from one another in terms of style and nationality. From Czech composer Antonín Dvorák were received the two volumes of Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 and 72, which became perhaps even more popular than the Brahms pieces. Famed Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate contributed four books of Spanish Dances for violin and piano that, though today hardly as well regarded as the efforts of the other two composers, were widely influential during their heyday in the late nineteenth century and have remained a vital part of the virtuoso violin repertoire. Indeed, it isn't too far-fetched to propose that our modern conception of a distinct Spanish style of composition outside the realm of pure folk music is due in good part to Sarasate's 54 published works and to the effect that his personal violinistic mannerisms had on the many composers -- among them Bruch, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, and even Dvorák -- who wrote pieces for him to play. Sarasate was uninterested in composing large original works of deep musical substance; the craft with which he invested his arrangements and showpieces, however, is a thing to be marveled at. The second book of Spanish Dances, Op. 23 provides ample evidence of his finesse with musical miniatures. It comprises, as do all the other books, just two pieces: a melancholy Playera and the frenetic, highly-charged virtuoso Zapateado, each expertly formed out of basic folk material at hand and not at all deserving of the disrespect heaped upon them by so many musicians and critics.
The Playera is a brooding, even despondent, thing in a slow tempo (Sarasate marks it Lento), with a seemingly improvised violin melody that weaves its way around an irrepressible -- if rather grim -- ostinato rhythm in the piano. The stereotypical Spanish-style harmonic conflict is at work here, as the nearly always present A pedal point is fashioned by Sarasate to work both as the dominant of D minor and as a modal focus all its own. Things warm up a bit during the central portion of this four-and-a-half minute piece, but despite its best efforts, the violin is unable to rouse the piano past the quietest of dynamic levels or to abandon its stubborn low A pedal for very long. The reprise of the opening bars disappears into nothingness with one final diminuendo.
There could be no sharper contrast than that between the Playera and its companion piece, the Zapateado, a raunchy foot-stomper (literally, as a dancer of this traditional Spanish dance will tell you) that pits feverish running eighth notes in 6/8 time against a heavily accented tune in 3/4 time; the resulting rhythmic conflict is delightful and provides much of the Zapateado's kinetic energy. The violinist is given the chance to indulge in most of the tricks of the virtuoso trade, from false harmonics and wild up-bow staccato to left-hand pizzicato and plain old finger-busting scales.