Rodolfo Halffter (1900-87) is less familiar to Spanish audiences than his brother Ernesto, Manuel de Falla's favourite disciple, or their Darmstadt-inspired nephew Cristóbal. Like his relatives he was attracted to the progressive minds of his time, initially Debussy, then Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and - inevitably - de Falla himself. He also worked with extra-musical radicals including Lorca and Dali, and it was no surprise that Rodolfo chose exile after the Civil War. From 1939 he lived and worked in Mexico City, where the Central American aesthetic of Carlos Chávez and his contemporaries provided another rich source of stimulation; but with the passing years his reputation in Spain declined, and this Madrid CD represents a welcome homage to an overlooked talent.
Such a long list of influences might lead us to suspect the worst, and attractive though this anthology is it can hardly be said to make the case for Rodolfo as a neglected, major voice. The ballet suites and overtures which make up the lion's share inhabit a sunlit, Stravinskian world, striped by the Andalusian shadows of de Falla's late Harpsichord Concerto. It's easy to like such buoyant music but difficult to be drawn in. Why? Well, despite a watertight orchestral and compositional technique, on this evidence Rodolfo couldn't conjure up really convincing tunes. The sequence of danzas in the two balletic collaborations with the folklorist José Bergamín are tastefully varied in tone and tempo, but their melodic content is constructed rather than natural.
As a result Halffter's elegant fino style too often tastes not so much dry as parched - a distinction exemplified in the short, late, Mexican-inspired piece for seven percussionists which opens the disc. Paquiliztli, Op.46 (1983) is a dazzling display which matches Chávez's earlier and comparable Tambuco for virtuosity but falls short on thematic energy or conviction. Encinar directs neat, focussed readings which together with the clean-cut Naxos sound do Halffter's appealing music good service. Individual movements such as the Bridal Ceremony in Don Lindo de Almería (track 15) are very far from neo-classical note-spinning; and after all this is just Volume 1 in Naxos's orchestral survey, so maybe Rodolfo Halffter's more extended Violin Concerto - written like Stravinsky's for Samuel Dushkin - will show a substance lacking in these sophisticated, intelligent but lightweight pieces. I'm certainly still curious enough to find out.
© Christopher Webber, 2004