"On a Night Like This"
Christopher Webber and Juliet Hill
review two albums of
Lecuona Songs

BIS CD 1374 (Cover)

On a Night Like This
En una noche así
Ernesto Lecuona Love Songs

Carole Farley
John Constable (piano)

BIS CD 1374
(rec. 19-22 August 2002, Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm, Sweden)


Siempre en mi corazón; Como presiento; Allá en la sierra (after Córdoba); Tu no tienes corazón; Mi corazón se fué; Dame de tus rosas; ¡No es por ti!; ¡Mira! (from La habanera); Dame el amor; Que risa me da; La comparsa; Al fin; Se abrieron las flores; Conga Cuba; Amor tardio; En una noche así (from the film Carnival in Costa Rica); Devuélveme el corazón; Primavera de ilusión; Un amor vendrá (from the film Carnival in Costa Rica); Me has dejado; No me engañarás; Rumba majoral; No me mires ni me hables; Mi amor fue una flor; Canción del amor triste.


" ... easily the best all-Lecuona song album on CD"

Considering that the Cuban Ernesto Lecuona’s fame is squarely based on the twin pillars of his piano and vocal pieces, surprisingly few records have been wholly devoted to the songs. Anthologised versions of the most popular—“Siboney”, “Malaguena” a.k.a. “The Breeze and I”—crop up in more or less glutinous orchestral garb, too often served up in flyblown, operatic style. Following the composer's own practice, many come rehashed as piano transcriptions, with Spanish or English titles which may or may not tally with the originals.

In the face of these starvation rations, all the more reason to be grateful to BIS for providing us with such a good helping of Cuban canción lírica. Following on from Thomas Tirino’s definitive 5-CD set of piano music —which itself included some transcriptions—the Swedish label gives us an album of 25 songs, artfully turned by American soprano Carole Farley with pianist John Constable. Lecuona’s range will come as a pleasant surprise to anyone who expects a surplus of languorous habaneras and the tristeza del amor found in many of his most popular numbers, such as “Siempre en mi corazón.” Farley quarried the publisher’s archives to seek out rarities, many from stage shows, some previously unrecorded, to vary the mood. There’s teasing wit (“¡No es por ti!”), a truculent complaint about the impossibility of “translating” Rumba abroad (“Que risa me da”), and a valedictory Conga (“Cuba mía, dime adiós”) to add Afro-Cuban spice to the mix. Some, notably the broodingly sensual “Canción del amor triste” are of a depth to move us to tears. Few composers have portrayed the pain of frustrated passion more intensely.

Time was when Carole Farley was famed for her serpentine Lulu in Berg’s opera. Initially an unsteady, overly vampish “Siempre en mi corazón” provokes doubts that she might be coming on too hard. But though passing years may have reduced the once sinuous soprano to vocal glints and shadows, once Farley settles she focuses her resources to fine effect. Every song brings fresh evidence of high-level artistry in a contemporary style, and as one track tempts us into the next the pleasure deepens. If she does not sing the powerful “Dame de tus rosas” quite in the manner born to a Rita Montaner or Esther Borja she can simulate it seamlessly, and Constable sounds equally at home. His flexible accompaniments catch that improvisatory air which Lecuona himself brought to his work with Montaner, Borja or Maruja González, another of his famous “Cuban muses.”

BIS provide full texts and translations, though José Serebrier’s notes are not so helpful as they might be. Lecuona was not “born into a humble musical family.” His father was a highly esteemed newspaper editor and leader of Havana’s white intelligentsia. His “main musical influence” was not the Spanish-born composer Joaquín Nin, but the danzas cubanas of his 19th century Cuban avatar Ignacio Cervantes. We could do with more information about the provenance and dates of the songs themselves. Some, such as “Allá en la sierra”, are clearly arrangements of piano originals; and why, for example, has Serebrier himself had to provide new words for two of them? We should be told. Minor cavils aside, this is easily the best all-Lecuona song album on CD, sung in a modern mode which will bring much pleasure to old and young devotees of Lecuona’s subtle art.

© Christopher Webber 2004

Piccolo Lecuona cover

Ernesto Lecuona:
Canción Cubana

Emelina Lopez (soprano)
Alberto Joya (piano)

Piccolo PCES008
((rec. Madrid, 1995)


Recordar; Ya tu lo sabes; Te he visto pasar; No es por ti; No hay perdón; Dame de sus rosas; Canto Siboney; Bajo las palmeras; Canción del amor triste; Quiero ser hombre; Señor jardinero; La señora luna; Balada de amor; Madrigal; Soy razonable; Funeral; Devuélveme el corazón; Tengo un nuevo amor; Mi vida eres tu; El jardinero y la rosa


" an excellent introduction ... to Cuban canción lírica"

Ernesto Lecuona could easily be described as the Leonard Bernstein of Latin America, not just in his successful combination of careers as composer, conductor and concert pianist, but in the ease of movement between classical and popular genres. Cuban song in the first half of the twentieth century had a number of competing influences, from the nineteenth century European lieder of Brahms and Schubert to North American jazz. Cuban theatre music—sainetes, zarzuelas and musical revues—given their more local subject matter, were more open to Afro-Cuban and popular musical traditions. The songs of Lecuona encompassed all of these forms and represent a considerable part of his output. Lyricists ranged from the Independence fighter, writer and national hero José Martí, through well-known Cuban poets to Lecuona himself.

This selection presents works with texts by Juana de Ibarbourou, Gustavo Sánchez Galarraga (his most important collaborator), Alvaro Suárez, the Álvarez Quintero brothers and eight songs with Lecuona’s own lyrics. These include one of his most famous songs—“Siboney” from the revista La Tierra de Venus—later recorded by such diverse figures as Rita Montaner, Sexteto Nacional and Bing Crosby. The settings of his own texts have a more popular style than those of the other lyricists but many Cuban features persist in the more classical sounding songs, such as the strong habanera rhythm of “Devuélveme el corazon”, with text by Alvaro Suárez.

For an audience familiar with more popular versions of Lecuona’s songs, the singing style of Emelina López might appear over-operatic—though it is closer to original performers such as Montaner than many later versions—and lacking in directness. The virtuoso piano playing of Alberto Joya, likewise, while accurately reflecting Lecuona’s own abilities as a pianist, lacks some of the spontaneity of other Cuban performers. However it is an excellent introduction, both to Lecuona’s output and Cuban canción lírica.

© Juliet Hill 2004


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