Homenaje a Pablo
Soraya Chaves (Trini); Jose
Julián Frontal (Ramon); Iñaki Fresán (Beggar); Alfredo
García (other parts); Andra Mari Abesbatza Chorus; Madrid Symphony
Orchestra, c. Luis Izquierdo. Recorded live, National Auditorium, Madrid 20th
If new zarzuela CDs are a rarity, this is partly down to the standards set by the classic versions from nearly half a century ago. All power, then, to the small San Sebastian company of Elkarlanean for their commercial issue of Madrid's centenary concert for Sorozábal, which features a performance of his ópera chica Adiós a la bohemia which courts comparison with the memorable versions conducted by the composer himself.
In two respects the new recording is superior to the opposition. First, it's a pleasure to hear Sorozábal's orchestration in good modern sound: the many flecks of harp and woodwind shading, not to mention details such as the cheeky percussion organillo imitation for the newspaper story, come across with great clarity and presence. Second, in Jose Julián Frontal it boasts a credibly youthful, well-acted Ramón which is also securely sung, qualities not combined by Ausensi on Alhambra (strong but coarse-grained) or the elegant Cesari on EMI. Frontal's portrait of the disillusioned artist is all the more affecting for his command of dynamic nuance and beauty of tone.
Soraya Chaves' strenuous and sometimes strained Trini seems afraid of being swamped by the orchestra, with the result that she does not consistently hit the conversational quality which the role and the work demand. In the Prologue Iñaki Fresán's mellifluous baritone is too youthful - and too similar to Frontal's Ramón - to make the cynical saws of the old beggar-writer tell. The part needs a mature bass voice, a Gas or Catania, to make its proper impact.
Alfredo García is another young baritone personable to a fault, as he achieves the unlikely goal of melding all the important little cameo roles into one, carefully-sung personage. As well as providing a contrast to the emotional intensity of the lovers' final parting these pungent whiffs of character are vital to Sorozábal's evocation of 1900 Madrid, yet they go for little here. If practical finance dictated the agglomeration, a singing actor should have been found to do the job.
One or two forgivable co-ordination glitches apart, Luis Izquierdo's direction is sensitively paced if lacking the nerve-end volatility the composer himself brought to his score in the studio. A more serious flaw is the complete omission of all snatches of spoken dialogue; but nevertheless this version is well worth buying for its positive virtues. It certainly advances Adiós a la bohemia's claims to be considered Sorozábal's musical masterpiece, and one of the greatest operas - chica or otherwise - in the Spanish language.
The 1927 Symphonic Variations on the song "Xoriñoa norat hoa" is Sorozábal's most substantial orchestral score. Typically quirky in harmony and instrumentation (at moments almost recalling the colourist, Latino experiments of Milhaud) the work also uses Basque rhythms and timbres to help ring the changes. It's effective enough to hold the attention without ever totally absorbing it. Some coarse playing and recording edits don't help sustain momentum, though most of it goes well enough; but with a new recording under Cristian Mandeal on the way from Claves this performance is perhaps not the main reason to acquire the set.
The two choral items benefit from the power and expertise of the large Andra Mari Abesbatza choir. Gernika, an agitprop march-protest against the civil war atrocity which inspired Picasso's famous painting, is drilled with bald anger; whilst the three Basque Scenes, strangely reminiscent of Vaughan Williams' Five Tudor Portraits, bring proceedings to a lusty and enthusiastic finish. Both performances are comparable in quality to Plasson's studio EMI versions, and the extra charge of live performance makes for thrilling listening.
This well-presented set - containing, EMI and BMG please note, a complete libretto of Adiós a la bohemia - will be self-recommending to Sorozábalians, but the high quality of performances and recording make it much more than a souvenir of a great occasion. Let's hope it helps bring the music of this most inimitable of 20th century Spanish composers to a wider audience.
© Christopher Webber 2002