La Escolanía del
Escorial canta Zarzuela
One of the CD surprises of 2008 was Torregrosa and ‘Quinito’ Valverde’s Los chicos de la escuela, remarkably performed (solos and all) by the trebles of El Escorial. The boys enjoyed the experience so much that another zarzuela recital was programmed, and this all-Chueca recording is the result. It’s intelligently planned to mix a liberal helping of rarities with familiar classics, and rings the vocal changes with soprano, mezzo, tenor and two trebles soloists as well as the young broken voices of the Real Capilla Escurialense – themselves, ex choristers of the boys’ choir.
Intelligent planning is one thing, execution quite another, especially in such well-worked and much-loved territory. Let me say straight away that I believe “el alma de Madrid”, Chueca himself, would have found this disc every bit as joyous as I did. The boys’ singing is unfailingly musical and in tune, as you’d expect of such seasoned professionals, and their diction has a clarity which many adult choirs would struggle to match. And how well they use those words. Whether as bullring assistants, organ-grinders or laundresses (!) they put the texts across with pointed precision; and when it comes to kids of their own age, such as the “little sailors” of La Gran Vía or – last and most stirring of all – the barquilleros (tombola-boys) of Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente, they are in a class by themselves.
Their success is due in no small measure to the inspired work of pianist-director Javier Martínez Carmena. He has not only trained his choirs impeccably, but also shows brilliant sensitivity to the varied needs of Chueca’s dance styles. Tempi and dynamics are well varied, rhythms are perfectly sprung (I’ve never noticed the marineritos’ dotted demisemiquavers brought out so clearly before, and how marvellously jaunty the effect is!) Of the less familiar numbers, the selection of four from De Madrid a París (1889) – notably the haunting waltz “Golondrinas de amor”, innocently led by solo treble Jesús M. Carnicero – stand out, as does the pulsating Guaracha from the 1895 Las zapatillas. But familiar or not, every number has been freshly thought out and presented with expertise and zest. I particularly like the way the boys have been encouraged to really open their throats, slur their consonants and “go for it” like street urchins, at least where music and text demand it!
Elisa Belmonte comes over as a properly school-matronly Eliseo, mezzo Isabel Egea leads the Guaracha with sensual abandon, and the multi-talented Carmena delivers Wamba’s satirical couplets from El bateo with sunny insouciance. The recording is not faultless: the singers are naturally placed, close by us in the Escorial’s generous acoustic, but the piano sounds oddly detached, though perfectly clear throughout. With good notes, especially informative about the Childrens’ Companies working in Madrid around the turn of the century, and the inestimable boon of full texts and idiomatic translations into English, Rolando García’s witty booklet design adds value. One look at the cover had me laughing, and I don’t think the smile left my face during the seventy-odd minutes of what turns out to be a great treat, perfectly in harmony with Chueca’s inimitable lightness of being.
Javier Martínez Carmena, by the way, turns up as tenor soloist in Dies 200918. This is devoted to a selection of the Canciones Españolas Antiguas arranged by Federico García Lorca, preceding a dozen songs in popular style by leading 20th century Spanish composers such as Rodrigo, Montsalvatge and Guridi. Carmena’s light, open tone is effortlessly produced, and much more appropriate to these songs of the people than the operatic voices we so often hear. As an interpreter he is always clear, intelligent and pleasant on the ear. The sense of airy, cultured sensibility sometimes compromises the earthy duende needed to give these songs the force they ideally need, and his low register is on the weak side, but the pleasures far outweigh any limitations. Alberto Padrón’s attentively refined pianism provides symbiotic support. Recording, texts and translations once again complement the musical excellence of the issue. Carmena even includes a short song of his own, a charming Winter Lullaby in Rutteresque, sweet modern style. Are there no limits to the talents of the Escolanía del Escorial’s extraordinary Artistic Director?
© Christopher Webber 2009
18 May 2009