Columna Música, Discmedi, Claves,
DG Archiv, Medici Arts, Glossa

2010 Review Roundup

... CDs which slipped through the net
reviewed by Christopher Webber

Ànima - Catalan Opera, El timbaler del Bruc, de Falla – Fuego Fatuo, Manuel García – Il Califfo di Bagdad, Argenta – Zarzuela and Spanish Orchestral Music, La Tirana contra Mambrú

Ànima - Catalan Opera Ànima - Catalan Opera
Arias from operas by Terradellas, Montsalvatge, Pedrell, Sor, Pahissa, Carnicer*, Gerhard, Manén, Guanyabens, Guinjoan and Morera.
Joan Martín-Royo (baritone), with Albert Casals (tenor)*, Orquestra Simfònica i Cor Gran Teatre del Liceu, Josep Vicent (c.)
Columna Música 1CM0232 [59:19]

This saunter along the little-frequented rambles of Catalan opera turns up many attractive curios, making the collector eager for example to hear Terradellas’s La Merope (1743), Montsalvatge’s Babel 46 (1967) and Guinjoan’s Gaudí(2003) complete. There’s some disappointment in the stolid (and surprisingly Italianate) arias of Pedrell, but much more to intrigue. The disc’s chronological jumble is eccentric, though I see what they were aiming to do; and by no means all the arias here are in Catalan – several are in Italian, and the attractive song from Gerhard’s zarzuela The Duenna is in its original English. Joan Martín-Royo has a clear, firm youthful baritone which is pleasant on the ear if not always secure above the stave. He’s musically sensitive, and gets good support from Josep Vicent and the Liceu orchestra. If I had to choose one standout, it would be the aria from Neró i Acté by Joan Manén (1928) beginning in harmonic mists and broadening out into inspired cantilena before a passionate climax, all gorgeously orchestrated. I can’t tell you what it’s about because there are no texts, and this particular track isn’t even mentioned in the otherwise helpful programme notes. The recording quality is vivid, and augments enthusiasm for a worthwhile project.

El timbaler del  BrucEl timbaler del Bruc (Agustí Cohí Grau) - Sarsuela in 2 acts
David Alegret (Albert), Ruth Nabal (Roser), Lluís Sintes (Marcel), Dalmau González (Tonet), Mireia Casas (Merceneta), Manel Solàs (Andreu), Coral Sant Jordi, Orquestra de l’Acadèmia del Gran Teatre del Liceu c. Salvador Brotons
Discmedi DM4648-02 [63:20]

This is a rarity – a complete recording of a Catalan sarsuela. Aside from the Majorcan Rosselló’s Foc i fum, only the two major works of Martínez Valls have been likewise graced. José María Busqué Doménech reviewed a live concert version here, and his description of the music as simple and unaffected is precisely right. Pere Gili’s libretto tells the story of a young Catalan Drummer from El Bruc and his loyal fiancée during the vicissitudes of the War of Independence and Napoleonic invasion, but the sunny tone reflects little of this drama. Grau’s music is blandly four-square almost throughout, and without the stimulus of live performance I’m afraid I found it uninspiring. Odd to hear that stalwart of 19th century óperas militaires the “Rataplan” duet still alive if not exactly kicking in mid-1960’s Barcelona.

The performers are very capable: Alegret sings freshly, Nabal less so, but the comedy numbers go well and Lluís Sintes (a sometime Joaquín in La del manojo de rosas at Teatro de la Zarzuela, alternating with Carlos Álvarez) adds character. Salvador Brotons conducts the junior Liceu band with point and a degree of polite swagger where he can. Grau is still with us at the age of 89, and this beautifully produced disc, with full notes and Catalan libretto, is if nothing else a pleasant tribute to his respected position in Barcelona’s musical life.[CW]

Fuego Fatuo Manuel de Falla
El sombrero de tres picos*; Fuego Fatuo
Marisa Martins (mezzo-soprano*), Real Filharmonía de Galicia, Antoni Ros Marbà (c.)
Claves 50-2810 [72:34]

If the title’s unfamiliar, it may come as even more of a surprise that Fuego Fatuo is an orchestral suite of music adapted for a three-act ópera cómica (yes, that’s right) to a libretto by María Martínez Sierra. De Falla worked on the score during 1918-19 whilst completing El sombrero de tres picos, with which it’s sensibly coupled for this CD debut. Note: “adapted”. The composer loved the music of Chopin, and his vocal rearrangements of a group of the Polish master’s best-known piano pieces was conceived as a theatrical tribute to his memory. Curiously, de Falla told Martínez Sierra which pieces he had selected, leaving her to concoct a plot and lyrics around them. Little wonder that the resulting hotchpotch of aristocratic intrigue in 19th century Naples failed to inspire the management of Madrid’s Teatro Eslava to produce the piece. The middle act of Fuego Fatuo (“Will o’the Wisp”) remained unorchestrated, and soon the composer moved on.

It remains frustrating not to have access to the extant operatic original, but in 1976 Antoni Ros Marbà did a good job of making a nine-movement symphonic suite from the completed orchestrations, replacing the vocal lines with instrumental solos. That’s what we have here, and the results are often strangely beautiful. De Falla did not take complete Chopin pieces as he found them, but rewrote melodies and harmonies, even blending different works together. His piquant use of pizzicato strings, stabbing brass, piano and percussion adds his own peculiar seasoning; and as with Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss, or Sorozábal’s Pepita Giménez the end product bears the personality of the adaptor as much as the adapted. Some of Chopin’s most famous waltzes, mazurkas, études and the rest emerge into the Spanish light with enhanced charm. No accident perhaps that the Tarantelle(IV) comes off specially well, but the whole suite is a box of delights.

Capably though they play, it’s possible to imagine more delicate execution than the Galician strings under Ros Marbà can sustain. There’s a lack of emotional variety and dynamic contrast in the performance which I don’t think is de Falla’s fault, and this Will o’the Wisp is less fire-and-air than earthbound. The lusty performance of the El sombrero suites (with Marisa Martins an authentic-sounding soloist) comes across as solid too. But Claves’s 2007 recording has colour and body, tempi are sensitively moulded by the veteran conductor-arranger, and the musical rewards are great enough to give Fuego Fatuo more than rarity value.[CW]

Manuel García - Il Califfo di Bagdad Manuel García
Il Califfo di Bagdad
Milena Storti - Lemède, Emiliano González Toro - Jelmaden, Manuela Kuster - Kesia, Anna Chierchetti - Zetulbè, José Manuel Zapata - Isauun, Mario Cassi - Cadè, David Rubiera - Giudice. Coro de la Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset (c.)
Archiv DG-0028947662754 [106:06]

One of the most remarkable all-rounders in Spanish music, García (1775–1832) was a great tenor, fine actor and energetic impresario, father of a brood which included both Pauline Viardot and the legendary María Malibrán, whose careers would make good operas in themselves. His stage work is divided between Spanish works from the early Madrid years, and his later Italy-Paris-London output. This Italian opera buffa, to the same libretto as Boieldieu’s earlier ópera comique, was written for soprano Isabella Colbran and became the hit of the Neapolitan 1813 season. It did equally well in Paris – two years before Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia swept the board in the new style which, to be fair, García had pioneered.

The best drives out the good: and though this opera has its points of musical interest (and is certainly a much more elegant and well-paced star vehicle than García’s tiresome Don Chisciotte covered in an earlier roundup) it pales besides the best, or even second-best Rossini. This is the same cast and conductor as Enrique Mejías García reviewed on stage in Madrid, and there’s little need to add more to his acute critique of the enterprise and praise for the quality of the performance. Recording, design and documentation are superb. How scandalous that Caja Madrid’s funding wasn’t invested on an unrecorded first-rate zarzuela, rather than the exhumation of yet another third-rate Italian opera by a second-rate Spanish composer.[CW]

Argenta - Zarzuela and Spanish Orchestral Music Argenta - Zarzuela and Spanish Orchestral Music
Chapí - Preludio La revoltosa; Soutullo y Vert - Preludio La leyenda del beso; Chueca - Introduccíon La Gran Vía; Luna - Preludio El niño judío; Bretón - En la Alhambra, Bolero de concierto; Guridi - Diez melodías vascas; Granados - Intermedio Goyescas; Albéniz - Navarra; Turina - La procesión del Rocio, La oración del torero. Gran Orquesta Sinfónica, Orquesta Nacional de España, Ataúlfo Argenta (c.)
Medici Masters MM034-2 [78:43]

There can be little left to say about Ataúlfo Argenta’s importance to the dissemination of the Spanish orchestral repertoire. For nearly two decades after World War 2 he practically was Spanish music, and many people around the world owe their interest in zarzuela also to his tireless studio activity during so many sweltering Madrid summers during the early 1950’s. This is a well-filled British reissue from some of the best of those classic orchestral LPs, and sourpuss that I am I do wish the programme had been extended to two discs. This would have made room for Bretón’s complete Escenas andaluzas, a magical recording only partially available on official CD, plus perhaps the Jota from his La Dolores and a longer selection of zarzuela preludios and intermedios. Goodness knows Argenta left us plenty to choose from! The Introduccíon to La Gran Vía, by the way, turns out to include orchestral versions of several other numbers from the show to make up into a neat Suite. No pain, great gain.

Paul Baily’s transfers for Medici Arts are admirable. The original LP sound was good for 1953 or thereabouts, and Baily’s not fallen prey to the temptation to reduce tape hiss to a level which leaves the strings sounding as if they were recorded in a flower pot (Dutton, pay heed). He’s also realised that too heavy a hand on the equaliser knob only spoils the balance Decca’s engineers strove so hard to get right. Listening to the prelude to La revoltosa which kick-starts the disc into a white-heat, or Guridi’s Diez melodías, poetic and ardent by turns, is to be once again drawn into music making of legendary quality. Anyone who doesn’t know these Argenta performances has a great joy in store. [CW]

La Tirana contra Mambrú La Tirana contra Mambrú - the tonadilla and popular musical comedies in Spain c.1800
Blas de Laserna - La Tirana del Trípili, El desengañado, No aparece la Tirana, La Tirana se despide; Pablo Esteve - Los payos del Malbrú; Jacinto Valledor - La cantada vida y muerte del General Malbrú. Raquel Andueza (sop.), Marta Infante (m-sop.), Juan Sancho (ten.), Jordi Ricart (bar.), El Concierto Español, Emilio Moreno (solo vln. & d.)
Glossa GCD-920309

Last, not least, my disc of the year. A handful of enjoyable tonadilla discs have appeared over the last few years. With brevity, small forces and political point to commend their best work, little wonder that Blas de Laserna (1751–1816) and Pablo Esteve (c.1730–c.1801) are becoming almost as familiar as some later Spanish stage composers. The pair are joined here by the lesser-known Jacinto Valledor (1744–1809) whose La cantada vida y muerte del General Malbrú is the centrepiece of this absolutely first class programme from Emilio Moreno and El Concierto Español.

The comic military monster of the Mambrú or Malbrú (emerging from the French song “Marlborough s’en va-t-en guerre”) appears in all three tonadillas. He stands for arrogant French domination, and is symbolically pitted against la tirana, a ternary dance form rivalling the seguidillas, which represents Madrid’s popular cultural resistance. The slim plots involving a handful of popular characters are just a pretext for socio-political satire put over in unfailingly catchy, clever music. Yet the genre is capable of considerable sophistication too: Valledor’s opening scene, where General Malbrú takes leave of his mistress and hands her over to his page “for consolation” breathes the same air as “Non piu andrai” in Mozart’s nearly contemporary Figaro.

El Concierto Español play with wonderful freshness, castanets and all, and are led with stylish point by Moreno. The singers, led by witty soprano Raquel Andueza, sing sweetly but never forget that these are not just pretty tunes but genuine miniature dramas. The performances are projected with just the right degree of intimacy, and are well recorded in an warm but clear acoustic. Moreno’s notes are as excellent. The gatefold presentation and booklet, which has full Spanish texts with English, French and German translations and/or synopses, are almost as pleasing as the disc itself. As a bonus to the main meat, three strophic songs by Laserna about la tirana provide perfect foils to the tonadillas, and are most seductively put across by the peerless Andueza and co. Altogether it’s hard to imagine a more perfect introduction to the genre. Viva la tonadilla!

© Christopher Webber 2011

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18 February 2011