Zarzuela! (Brilliant Classics)

José Carreras / Teresa Berganza
English Chamber Orchestra
Enrique García Asensio
Antoni Ros Marbà

Brilliant Classics 92380 (3-CD, 2hrs 55min)

Romanzas and orchestral numbers from zarzuelas by Vives, Soutullo & Vert, Serrano, Chapí, Guerrero, Torroba, Luna, Guridi, Bretón, Giménez, Chueca, Barbieri.

Reviewed by Christopher Webber


Brilliant Classics, a tightly-run Dutch company, has established a name for quality boxed set reissues at ultra-super-bargain prices. They can be quarried online, and from such unlikely mines as chain pharmacies. Some of their issues are astounding value. The present reviewer once picked up a highly respectable Ring cycle complete on 14 CDs, from Superdrug of all places, and still had change from £5.

Amongst several recent issues covering the Spanish repertoire, this 3-CD set of zarzuela romanzas sung by José Carreras and Teresa Berganza, with Antoni Ros Marbà and Enrique García Asensio conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, is a stand-out. At 5.99 Euros (from, for example, nobody could feel short-changed, but given superior quality performances from two world-famous Spanish singers this has to be amongst the best introductions to zarzuela available at any price.

José Carreras was caught at his prime in 10 classic romanzas. If compared against his more recent collection for Philips there's rarely a smile (or a true pianissimo) in the voice, his tone is much fuller and more golden here. His diction is clear, his delivery forthright. Subtle variation in character was not high up his agenda in 1975, but he is most winning in the big romantic sings: the romanzas from Doña Francisquita and Los de Aragón stand out as excellent amongst much which is good. Ros Marbà contributes some neat interpretative points, bringing out unexpected subtleties in the Luisa Fernanda scoring and expected ones in the Vives and Luna tracks. The recording is clear and well-balanced, the transfer miles better than in previous CD incarnations.

About the same time Ensayo issued the two, beautifully planned LPs featuring Teresa Berganza which make up the lion’s share of this set, varied programmes of solos alternating with popular and lesser known orchestral preludios and intermedios, all wonderfully done. Especially given some unusually involved singing from Berganza, whose rich, even mezzo is taken at the flood, they make for just about the most satisfying straight-through listening experiences of all "zarzuela gala" albums on record. Highlights of CD 2 are Berganza's spectacular second version of the Carceleras from Las hijas del Zebedeo; the sumptuous string playing in Giménez's Soleares intermedio; and a witty, poised and imperious Canción española from Luna's El niño judio. CD3 is centred more or less on gypsy scenes, opening with the atmospheric song-and-dance sequence from Serrano's Alma de Dios, and ending the singer's contribution with a notably sensual guajiras from La revoltosa.

Note: "the singer's contribution", for Brilliant have thrown in a hidden bonus of orchestral items to fill out the 3 CDs. Taken from a fourth Ensayo LP, these 13 (of 16) preludios and intermedios are no mere padding. Like the Berganza recitals, they sit very near the top of the class, nearly equalling the celebrated Alhambra collections from Argenta and Frühbeck de Burgos. Under García Asensio's fiery direction, the English Chamber Orchestra - at the time amongst the world's best smaller ensembles - play this vibrant music with flexible style, almost as if they hailed from Lavapiés rather than London. The molten Danza del fuego from Luna's Persian operetta Benamor is specially winning, but high standards rule throughout.

With good transfers as well as informed, literate liner notes and reminiscences from Enrique Franco - though alas no texts for the songs - this Brilliant box easily lives up to its name. At the giveaway price, nobody should hesitate for a moment.

© Christopher Webber 2004

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