BMG ALONSO REISSUES
'Maestro Alonso' still stands guard on Madrid's busy Calle Alcala - at least his bronze bust does, a testament to the warmth still felt towards this Granada-born composer by his adopted home. Spanish recording companies have been less grateful to his memory, and it is now an incredible 30 years since a new recording of any of his major zarzuelas appeared.
That was Columbia's Me llaman la presumida (1972), one of three staple recordings making their long-awaited CD debut on BMG. The others date from 1959 (La picarona) and 1960 (La linda tapada) respectively, and neither have been recorded since. Along with La calesera, La parranda and the inimitable revista Las Leandras these three represent the cream of Alonso's achievement, and so it is at least a relief to welcome such excellent performances back to the catalogue.
La linda tapada (1924) was Alonso's first, great triumph - and what a marvellous score it is! 17th century Salamanca gave José Tellaeche the setting for a romantic drama featuring a variety of situations and characters, and this diversity is reflected in Alonso's generous score, with many numbers based on aristocratic or popular Castilian dance forms. Benito Lauret's neatly pointed direction lacks nothing in theatrical largesse, and his sizeable cast perform with distinction. Manuel Ausensi as Don Inigo (doubling as a Gypsy who gets to sing the most famous song in the score, "En la carcel de villa") is in lusty form, and if Rosina Montesinos's fresh-voiced Inés rather upstages Dolores Cava's Laura - the eponymous 'veiled beauty' - that testifies to the rather better opportunities Alonso sends her way.
With singers of the calibre of Pedro Lavirgen and Gregorio Gil in minor roles, the more cause to regret BMG's unpardonably poor transfer, congested to the point of distortion, gilded with perceptible electronic reverb, and with the dynamic range of a flat pancake. At 48' this is at least the longest of these reissues. Antonio Iglesias' useful sleeve note redresses the balance slightly; but surely at medium price BMG could have offered better value by at least including a libretto?
The transfer of La Picarona (1930) fares slightly better, although levels are still glaringly high and prone to distortion. This highly attractive work, set around Segovia in the troubled mid-19th century, shows Alonso at the peak of his melodic powers. Although it may sound calculated after the freshness of La linda tapada, let alone his masterpiece La calesera, La picarona makes up in dark poetry what it lacks in spontaneity, and all three major characters are given memorable material.
Ginés has the two 'plums': the patriotic "Song to Segovia" and beautiful romanza "De una mujer, cuando llora" both come tenor Carlos Munguia's way, and with his plaintive tone he makes the most of them. Ausensi as the aristocratic Montiel is once again in sterling voice, and Conchita Balparda as the 'villainess' of the title matches them in strength if not individuality of timbre. With a fine comedy couple, notably full choral contributions and an inspired Lauret once again at the helm, there is no need to hesitate over this issue, despite the short playing time (a measly 45').
Last and not least comes Me llaman la presumida (1935), recorded by an exceptional cast under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos in 1972. The contemporary Madrid setting led Alonso to abandon the romantic technicolor of his earlier successes in favour of the more jazzy, 'modern' style complete with saxophones and drum kit developed in revistas such as Las Leandras, and though the results are less consistent, the score is full of catchy tunes.
It's hard to imagine it better done. Sadly Angeles Gulín, Gracia 'the presumptuous' of the title, died recently; so this attractively musical, vocally distinctive performance reappears as a timely tribute to her art. Opposite Gulín her real-life husband, Antonio Blancas, is in suave, open voice as her beloved Paco. If Pedro Lavirgen's big-voiced Pepe sounds clumsy beside this pair, his grainy tenor - not unlike a Spanish Mario del Monaco - is still an asset, and the supporting characters are neatly etched, too. Frühbeck's direction is exciting, theatrical and beautifully controlled, the transfer though far from perfect is much the best of the three, and only the libretto and the wider dynamic range of the original gatefold LP have gone missing. Manuel Moreno-Buendía's musical notes are excellent, but 41' playing time is parsimonious - surely to goodness BMG could have come up with a decent Alonso filler from their capacious archive?
Three classics, then, imperfectly restored. Still, there's no other CD of La linda tapada to be had, and the only alternatives to Me llaman ... and La picarona are the heavily cut pre-war sets on Blue Moon. Alonso fans will be buying all three discs, so its a pity that having made us wait so long BMG didn't take more care over transfers and presentation of their Alonso treasures.
© Christopher Webber 2003