These three CDs offer a fascinating glimpse of the musical range of three composers best known for their work within the zarzuela tradition. Many zarzuelistas felt that their creativity was overshadowed - or even shackled - by popular theatrical success. Tomás Bretón in particular resolutely refused to admit that any of his stage pieces - even La Verbena de la Paloma - were zarzuelas, such was his fear of being pigeon-holed as a composer. So how do the works on these disks stand up?
Bretón's chamber music has never been much exposed, but nobody who knows La Verbena will be much surprised at the quality of his Piano Trio and String Quartet (1891 and 1910), which make up the Marco Polo programme. As ever with 19th Century Spain, the music is conservative in form and content - we are closer to Schumann here than Strauss or Debussy. This is music completely without a Spanish accent, indeed without much of a personal accent at all. Having said which, both works are absorbing in musical quality, subtle and refined in harmonic palette and instrumental resource. Good performances and recording.
Bretón's orchestral music is better known. His 2nd Symphony and Escenas andaluzas get occasional airings in Spanish concert programmes, whilst his serenade En la Alhambra is the best work to emerge from the Alhambrismo - the 19th Century Spanish movement which sought to transmute the romantic allure of Moorish architecture and culture into a truly national musical style. En la Alhambra, which lends its name to this attractive and representative Almaviva CD, is a miniature of great beauty which quite transcends its eight-minute timespan, a nocturne both delicate and timeless.
Much of the Alhambrista work was simply picturesque, as two pleasant vignettes by Monasterio and Carreras demonstrate - both, incidentally, popular light music classics in England for many years. Of much more interest are the two substantial works by Ruperto Chapí which take up the lions' share of the disk. The enjoyable four-movement Fantasía Morisca dates from 1876, some ten years before his most fruitful theatrical period. It has abundant melodic inventiveness, and a surprisingly Berlioz-like orchestral brilliance to season its arabic harmonic twists.
The three-part Symphonic Poem Los Gnomos de la Alhambra (1890), based on a chiaroscuro poem by Zorilla dealing in gnomes, familiar spirits and fairies, is more ambitious. The first movement, La Ronda de los Gnomos, is an extraordinary essay in dramatic tension, beginning with a series of deep rhythmic growls in the orchestra which gradually build to an imposing near-Mussorgskian climax. If the other two movements don't quite sustain that level of imaginative invention, that seems typical of Chapí - even his masterpiece La Bruja doesn't quite last home. Bretón was undoubtedly the finer composer, but Chapí's two scores here are as enjoyable and lively as they are broad in canvas. The City of Granada Orchestra is on inspired form throughout under Udaeta, and the recorded sound is outstandingly full and natural. Excellent booklet notes and documentation make this a most desirable release. (Note: In case of difficulty, it is obtainable online from Qualiton)
In El caserío, Jesus Guridi wrote one of the most beloved of all zarzuelas, but - unlike Bretòn and Chapí - his musical reputation goes far beyond his success as a stage composer. Indeed, he has sometimes been hailed as the Basque national composer. This new issue from the adventurous Swiss company Claves, recorded last year by the Basque National Orchestra under Martinez, reveals Guridi as far more than a minor, peripheral figure. Apart from the 1916 tone poem Una aventura de Don Quijote, a lively essay marrying modal coloration and Straussian inflation, all the music here is written in an assured and personal idiom, melodically generous and harmonically distinctive. Guridi's work is often spare, occasionally ascerbic, never saccharine, closer in spirit to Roberto Gerhard than to Falla - hardly surprising as Guridi would hardly have considered himself a Spanish composer.
Best known work here is the Ten Basque Melodies (1941). The material is not unlike Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances, though Guridi's pieces are more substantial, more varied, and orchestrated with an imaginative flair that fully matches his Italian contemporary. Their neglect is inexplicable. The elusive Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra celebrating Walt Disney dates from 1956, five years before Guridi's death. The piano writing hints at Ravel and Rachmaninov, but there are passages of bitonality and rhythmic complexity which are closer to Koechlin or even Messiaen. Formally the work is difficult to grasp, the material often elliptical, but any lingering sense of enigma is offset by the music's bounding vitality and humour. Requejo meets the spiky, quicksilver demands of the solo part with delicate point, particularly in the "Mickey Mouse" scherzo.
The 1922 Euzko Irudiak ("Basque Scenes") for Choir and Orchestra, a symphonic triptych inspired by the sea, ends the disk in straightforwardly nationalist spirit. A radiantly calm opening builds to a majestic climax, weaving a colourful tapestry of sunlit seapower before descending into the full-blown orchestral and choral storm of the central panel. The fury of the waves is finally overcome in a noble, sweeping Espatadanza, a triumphant celebration of Basque national dance in all its rhythmic sophistication - this last movement is largely written in infectious 7/4 and 5/4 metres. Euzko Irudiak is a memorable, marvellous discovery, and if any British or American orchestra cared to perform it, its popularity would be assured. It receives good advocacy from the massed Basque and Galician forces, and the recording is demonstration quality. What a pity The Gramophone magazine has not so far been able to find space to review this valuable issue - Guridi is a real discovery.
© Christopher Webber 1998
In many ways this makes an attractively programmed sampler for the Auvidis Valois/Naive series of complete recordings. They are all represented here, though four of the ten vocal extracts are from La tabernera del puerto - not surprizingly, since that is the only set in which the two stars have much to sing together. The Habanera from La verbena de la Paloma makes a truncated appearance, and there are additional solos from Luisa Fernanda (for Domingo), Doña Francisquita and Goyescas (Bayo). She features in the duets from El barberillo de Lavapiès (Paloma and the Marquesita) and Bohemios (Cossette and Pelagia). The remaining four tracks are assorted instrumental introductions and intermezzos, and only two of the items duplicate material on the earlier Auvidis compilation, ¡Viva la zarzuela!
No complaints about performance or recorded sound, of course. Bayo is in incomparable form, particularly with her brace of 'Nightingales' - from Doña Francisquita and Goyescas. Domingo sings with astonishing freshness, notably in Javier's romanza from Luisa Fernanda. The prime niggles are the full price tag and short measure - under 53'. Who is this aimed at? Absence of any notes or texts beyond track listings hardly helps newcomers to the zarzuela repertoire, and converts will already have the complete sets from which these extracts are taken, with the possible exception of Goyescas. All of which makes this issue something of a missed opportunity.
© Christopher Webber 1998