Basque Music Collection Vol.VI
We've reached the 6th issue of Claves's adventurous Basque Music Collection, and I suppose potential buyers will be divided between amazement that this most prominent of native composers didn't emerge earlier in the series, and those who mutter "Pablo Who?". But then, even amongst the millions of Iberians who do know it, the name of Pablo Sorozábal continues to divide opinion. As the last in the line of great zarzuela composers, the inimitable style of his stage legacy thrills many, whilst leaving others cold.
Nothing here will be unknown to Sorozábal aficionados, and everything has been recorded before. Having said which, let me make clear at once that - quite aside from the sheer convenience of gathering seven excellent pieces together - this newcomer sweeps the board in terms of performance, conducting and recording quality. It is a match for any previous issue devoted to Sorozábal's concert output, even counting the composer's own, treasured LP versions. Yet is this highly enjoyable CD more than just an automatic choice for the converted?
What can "Pablo Who?" listeners expect? Well, for a start they won't find much of that trademark bitter-sweet lyricism which has led some critics to praise Sorozábal as a sort of Spanish Kurt Weill. Most of this generously-filled CD is devoted to early pieces from his Leipzig study years; the three, shorter choral items alone date from his maturity, and of these only Maite - a delicate tribute to his Basque homeland in a lilting, 5/8 zortzico rhythm - gives a flavour of the 'real' Sorozábal. It is sung here with a sensual melancholy which is most touching.
The funeral march written as late as 1966 in memory of the infamous Gernika atrocity during the Civil War has a stern, agit-prop austerity - old age was very far from mellowing Sorozábal's acerbity! Plasson (in EMI's disc devoted to Basque choral music) presented it as a study in ice-cold fury, but Gernika seems if anything more impressive for the Rumanian Cristian Mandeal's keeping the anger more firmly under wraps. The 1963 Euskalerria ("¡Ay, tierra vasca!") is a milder revisitation of Maite, so it's perhaps unfortunate that it is placed first on the CD. Having said which, the Bilbao renditions of both zortzicos easily eclipse the penny-plain Madrid versions under Asensio for RTVE.
The longer Suite Vasca, Op.5 (1923) will be familiar from Plasson's spirited version. Oddly reminiscent of Vaughan Williams's Five Tudor Portraits in its alternately rumbustious and tender settings of Emeterio Arrese's folkloristic verse, touches of orchestral and harmonic asperity may point the way forward to Sorozábal's stage masterpiece La del manojo de rosas, but this is a generous and spirited work on its own terms which grows in stature with every hearing. In the outer movements Plasson's tighter acoustic captures an extra degree of choral bite, but Mandeal is more attentive to dynamic and colouristic detail - most notably in the subtle, nocturnal poetry of the lullaby with its magical scoring, more poised here than on the EMI disc. On balance this is the version to have
Dos apuntes takes us on an upward curve into the first of the two best achievements of the Leipzig years - Siete Lieder (1929), seven settings of Heine for mezzo soprano and orchestra. The composer skilfully remoulds Heine's romantic sensibility into something patently Basque and fresh in feeling. This new version is preferable to the composer's own 1973 Zafiro account, which featured the warm-voiced Isabel Penagos, by then perhaps a little past her vocal prime. Mandeal's strong singer is Maite Arruabarrena, more familiar from her recordings with Jordi Savall's Hesperion XXI, but performing attractively here in her native language with ample tone and winning interpretative confidence. Conductor and orchestra prove sensitive, poetic accompanists.
The greatest impression is made by the oft-recorded seven Variations on the Basque tune "Aoriñoa, norat hoa", written two years before the Heine set. Past releases (under the composer on Zafiro, and Luis Izquierdo on Elkarlanean's valuable 2-CD issue of Sorozábal's 1997 Madrid Centenary concert) were engaging, but not wholly convincing for a variety of reasons.
Here the sum is manifestly more than the parts. Mandeal underlines the work's structural strength, pacing each variation beautifully and allowing each its own character without ever losing sight of the symphonic demands of the whole. It is a vivid journey, enlivened by some strong and characterful orchestral playing - not least in the latino opening to the 7th variation, where trumpets and woodwind adopt a mariachi-like rough vigour. In Claves' demonstration-quality recording the work's climaxes are built with compelling logic, and the impact of the triumphant 'homecoming' of the finale is warmly moving.
Cristian Mandeal's is far and away the finest interpretation on record of this most ambitious of Sorozábal's pre-zarzuela works. In the choral works, the Bilbao Choral Society at least equal the precision of their work for Plasson on EMI, almost matching the looser-limbed fervour of the Andra Mari Abesbatza group in the live Elkarlanean versions. Just for the converted? Well, although it offers only subliminal glimpses of Sorozábal's mature musical world, and despite the regrettable lack of texts for the choral works, I recommend this CD most enthusiastically to anyone with the curiosity to discover more about "Pablo Who?"
© Christopher Webber 2003
Siete Lieder (Seven Heine Songs)