Sofía Esparza (soprano) and Rinaldo Zhok (piano), with Alicia Griffiths Turrillas (harp).
Odradek ODRCD421 [2-CD, 155:02 minutes] Also digital streaming and download, featuring two bonus tracks.
To call this album a labour of love hardly does it justice. The deep research and musicological skill with which Rinaldo Zhok has documented, edited and promoted a forgotten aspect of Emilio Arrieta’s work is truly impressive. Given that solo songs appeared regularly throughout the composer’s creative life, Zhok’s booklet essay, revealing both context and content for 34 tracks – 36 if we add two, bonus alternative versions – is an education in itself, outlining Spain’s broader musical and socio-political history of the time, in words and pictures. The question of Arrieta’s divided life as a composer of Italian operas and Spanish zarzuelas, as well as the probable secret lover of a queen ousted by the republican movement, is addressed here in all its complexities.
It is hard to imagine a more rewarding frame in which to present Arrieta’s surviving songs for solo voice and piano. Divided between Italian and Spanish, they cover an extended range, from lyrical love songs and melodramatic ballads, through a heroic tribute to a visiting violinist, to light-textured, ‘zarzueloid’ character pieces. To Zhok’s further credit he presents their complete texts, along with English, German and (where necessary) Spanish translations, in the extended online PDF of his booklet notes.
Is the music worth the effort? Undoubtedly so. Even the teenage songs from his early Italian student days are more than mere juvenilia, showcasing a precocious technique and ability to weave a gracious vocal line in bel canto fashion. If the gestures are conventional, the melodies are often memorable. More impressive still is the young theatre composer’s ability to establish mood – whether through the lapping, lakeside barcarolle of ‘Voga!’, the cradled intensity of ‘In morte di una bambina’ or (most memorably) the tolling bells of ‘Il colera morbus’, a complex emotional journey through a city in time in plague and one of his most potent visions. Later, he risked stretching conventions, as in his setting of Felice Romani’s ‘Il desiderio’, which plays against the text’s romantic desperation with blithe irony, suggesting that the poet’s Werther-like desire for oblivion is not to be taken too seriously.
Many of the early Italian songs were reworked in Spanish adaptations, which – given Arrieta’s care for pianistic details of harmony and rhythm – rarely feel like warmed-up soup. At centre stage are the songs written during his years as Isabella II’s singing teacher, when their possible intimacy was the talk of Madrid. One of the most ear-catching is ‘La mestizia’, uniquely written for voice and harp, reflecting Romani’s evocation of the instrument favoured by the Queen herself. Of the later songs, the Rusalka-like narrative ‘La sombra’, with its magical, moonlit opening, memorable melodic material and simple yet inevitable word-setting, is an outstanding example of Arrieta’s powers. So is the ‘Serenata morisca’ (1852), which found a famous home, as the tenor aria ‘Cuando tus ojos lánguidos’ in El domino azul the following year.
Not everything is at this level. A complex tribute to the visiting Norwegian violinist-composer Ole Bull, ‘El genio’ sounds stiffly dutiful, cobbling material from earlier songs: perhaps Juan Federico Muntadas’s self-satisfied ode deserved little better. Another failure, for me, is ‘Cervantes en Lepanto’, which addresses the author’s famous description of his wounding in the crucial sea-battle against the Ottoman Empire. Arrieta’s ambitious setting fails to plot an effective musical course through Cervantes’ graphic yet courtly prose. It might have taken a Mussorgsky (or a Barbieri!) to crack such a tough nut.
Another question hangs in the air, as to whether Arrieta’s Italianate facility allowed him to develop an individual voice. Though his technical skills deepen with experience, there is little difference in aesthetic between the first and last songs, and little sense of artistic development. Perhaps the question is academic, given the pleasing sophistication of his output. Whether or not these songs stretch the boundaries of art, from the Italianate melodrama of ‘Il colera morbus’ to the bright, Spanish seguidillas of ‘Los ojos de las niñas’ and the conversational banter of ‘La niña sola’, a zarzuela-chica colloquy to a Eusebio Blanco text, they consistently succeed within their self-imposed limits.
Not surprisingly, given his absorption in Arrieta’s musical world, Rinaldo Zhok proves an ideal pianist, outstanding in his precise attention to harmonic and rhythmic details, exquisitely attentive to rubato in the exoticisms of ‘L’Oasi’, while knowing exactly how to support his singer in the less picturesque songs. Sofía Esparza’s pure lyric soprano makes an impressive impact throughout the set, with her clarion delivery and smooth legato. Her vocal beauty moves us in the sensuous melody of ‘La rosa sin espinas’ and the intense melancholy of ‘La sera’ and its Spanish rewrite, while capturing the chamber-music subtleties of ‘La niña abandonada’ – the first of two songs given that title, and among the most personal in Arrieta’s output.
Though Esparza’s style and projection are a good match for the operatic, declamatory nature of most of these songs, I felt that a handful might have been better served by a male voice. The religious meditation ‘¡Oh, celeste dulzura!’ is a case in point, written as it was for the great Spanish tenor Julián Gayarre. It is easy to imagine a baritone making more of Cervantes’s Lepanto letter; while the dark pianistic sonorities and sepulchral setting of Philip II’s stern self-flagellation remind us that ‘Monólogo’ was originally written for a deep bass, not a soprano.
Yet if ringing the vocal changes might have benefited the odd song or two, it is a pleasure to hear one, accomplished singer taking us through an entire set with generosity of tone and timbre. Together, Esparza and Zhok (neatly substituted by Alicia Griffiths Turrillas for the royal harp song) take us on a journey as rewarding as it is unexpected. Ultimately, the pianist’s brave claim that Arrieta deserves a place alongside the established masters of romantic song – and also, I’d want to add, in the ‘Great Spanish Songbook’ from which his Italianate accent has excluded him – seems justified, in the light of this absorbing and important release.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2022