Zarzuela en Concierto
In the days before musak and the ubiquitous video screens which animate even her metro platforms these days, salon arrangements of zarzuela music used to be as much a staple of Madrid life as "Palm Court" Light Classics here in England. With an insatiable public ever eager for a new zarzuela fix, few successful works escaped being instantly quadrilled, pot-pourried, arranged and transcribed to a point which must have driven sensitive souls as mad as the inescapable thump of pop-rock beat does today.
Not that this music is to be undervalued or patronised. To lump zarzuela in with flamenco, for example, as "traditional Spanish music" (as too many old-school Anglo-Saxon critics have done, and still do) is about as sensible as putting Gilbert and Sullivan in the same basket as the Highland Reel! Zarzuela is an urban genre, with all the cosmopolitan influences you'd expect, but with huge musical sophistication to match. Its Hispanicism is authentic, all right, but of a very different nature from the Andalusian voice we've for too long thought of as the one "true" Spanish music. As one member of the audience at La verbena de la Paloma (Edinburgh Festival 1997) put it "It's like Carmen, but the real thing!"
These wrongs are slowly being righted, and Catalan composer Ricardo Miralles' arrangements for piano trio are conservative and respectful, a mixture of medleys and concentrated reminiscences on single favourites. He takes no musical risks, following the original melodies and harmonies in so far as that's practical within chamber constraints, and though the results lack the piquancy and force of the originals, it all makes pleasant enough background listening. The programme notes (by pianist Sarmiento, in Spanish and English) are exemplary, good on context and detailed in description of the particular pieces we are hearing.
If joins between tunes are hardly seamless in the potted versions of El barberillo de Lavapiés, Luisa Fernanda and La verbena de la Paloma, the more extended suite of highlights from Doña Francisquita works much better, with Miralles making space to flex his own creative muscles. His arrangement of the tenor-soprano dúo "Siempre es el amor" is delicate and touching. Last and not least is the "encore" number, a perky saunter through the Coro de barquilleros (wafer sellers) from Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente.
The Trío Mompou have been held in high esteem since they came together in 1982, particularly for their championship of contemporary Spanish chamber music. Twenty years on, Sarmiento and Furnadjiev are unimpeachable; but though violinist Joan Lluis Jordá's musical sensitivity is never in doubt the fallibility of his intonation might lead to a queasy moment or two over the tortilla. This, added to the prevailing gentleness of the musical fare, precludes a recommendation for the general listener. On its own terms, though, the CD makes for enjoyable enough tafelsmusik to bring pleasure to aficionados keen to play "spot that tune" in the midst of the teatime chat.
© Christopher Webber, 2003