Espana! (CD review)

Music of Albeniz, Falla, Mompou, Ravel, and Rodrigo. Various artists and orchestras. Harmonia Mundi 2908530.34 (5-disc set).

The one thing you won’t find in this five-disc set of Spanish and Spanish-inspired music is Chabrier’s Espana. What you will find are recordings selected from the past twenty-odd years of Harmonia Mundi’s back catalogue, and a whole lot of really well-performed and well-recorded music. The price is right, too, with HM marking down the set at much less than the individual discs would cost. Of course, if it’s only one or two items that interest you, you can still find the HM albums available separately.

Disc one contains a suite of twelve selections from the opera Pepita Jimenez (1896) by Spanish composer and pianist Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909). Here, we find performances by Susan Chilcott, soprano, and Francesc Garrogosa, tenor, with the Choeur d’enfants de la maitrise de Badalona directed by Montserrat Pi and the Orquestra de Cambra Teatre Lliure conducted by Josep Pons. I’m not sure why Harmonia Mundi chose to start the set with this particular music except that they arranged the composers alphabetically; the opera never became a hit for Albeniz, and there are only a few moments in it that seem very interesting. In fact, if the tracks HM include here are any indication, it’s no surprise why audiences never warmed to it. The orchestral introduction is the best part of the show.

Certainly, one cannot fault Ms. Chilcott or tenor Garrogosa, however, who give it their best; nor HM’s engineering team who recorded it in 1994. The sound is warm and expansive, with good detailing and dynamics. Voices are nicely round and natural, too, never bright or forward, and they are well integrated into the sound field.

With disc two we’re on more stable ground. It contains two pieces by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946): El amor brujo (“Love the Magician,” the 1915 stage version, sung and spoken) and El retablo de Maese Pedro (1919, adapted from an episode in Cervantes’s Don Quixote). In the first piece, we find cantaora (flamenco singer) Ginesa Ortega, joined by soprano Joan Martin, baritone Inaki Fresan, and tenor Joan Cabero, supported again by Maestro Josep Pons and the Orquestra de Cambra Teatre Lliure.

The singing and performances in both Falla works sound committed and passionate, with a most-sympathetic orchestral support from Pons and his players. HM recorded the music in 1990, and while it is not as vivid as some other recordings I’ve heard, it is quite realistic. The playback level is slightly higher than on the first disc, the upper midrange is a tad brighter, and voices are a bit more recessed. Otherwise, we again get a warm, natural-sounding acoustic.

The Harmonia Mundi producers devote disc three to violin and piano works by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The soloists are Regis Pasquier, violin, and Brigitte Engerer, piano. The two primary works on the disc are the Sonate posthume pour violon et piano (1897) and the Sonate pour violon et piano (1927). Also on the program we find Kaddish, Tzigane, Habanera, and Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Faure.

Needless to say, the Ravel music is not really Spanish but Spanish-inflected. Close enough, I guess. The soloists play all of it beautifully, but their way with the sonatas is especially haunting, occasionally jazzy in a bluesy sort of way, and a touch melancholy. The sound, recorded in 1990, balances the two instruments quite well and adds a lifelike resonance to the proceedings.

On disc four we find two pieces for solo piano by Spanish composer and pianist Frederic Mompou (1893-1987). The most important of the two pieces is Musica callada (“Silent Music” or “Voices of Silence”), a series of twenty-eight movements Mompou wrote between 1959-1967 and played by pianist Javier Perianes. Debussy and Satie probably influenced the composer most, yet Mompou’s work is highly original on its own. It’s mostly quiet, contemplative music, with certain mystic overtones about it.

The Mompou music is, as I say, very quiet, sometimes almost silent, and always fascinating. Perianes plays the pieces with great sensitivity, making them appear ethereal, gossamer, otherworldly. While the piano sound, which Harmonia Mundi recorded in 2006, can be a mite soft and distant, it always seems appropriate to the gentle nature of the material.

Finally, on disc five we get what for me is the best music in the set, four guitar works by Spanish composer and pianist Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999), performed by guitarist Marco Socias, Maestro Josep Pons, and the Orquesta Ciudad de Granada.

Among my favorites is the popular Concierto de Aranjuez, and even though there are tons of good recordings of it, this one should rank high on anyone’s list. Socias’s playing sounds relaxed, unhurried, unforced, and purely entertaining. He communicates a vibrant tone and a gentle heart in all the music. Other works include the Fantasia para un gentilhombre, Musica para un jardin, and Tre viejos aires de danza.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the Rodrigo disc in 2001, with somewhat mixed results. The Concierto displays good orchestral depth, realistic imaging, a balanced frequency response, an extended high and low end, and a pleasant ambient glow. The guitar appears well integrated within the orchestral context. The other tracks, though, seem louder and brighter, not always to their benefit.

HM package the set in a sturdy slipcase, with each disc afforded its own cardboard sleeve. An accompanying booklet in both French and English complements the box.

To hear a brief excerpt from this set, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa