Ah, first impressions. After a single hearing the Sinfonía pirenaica seemed very far from living up to its advance billing. Rambling, short-winded, disconcertingly shapeless, perhaps we were faced with yet another of those reputations better honoured in the breach than the observance. Perhaps after all Guridis best work lay behind him by 1945, when he composed this ambitiously extended musical evocation of his beloved Pyrenean mountains. Coming in at just under 50 minutes, perhaps its three movements sat uncomfortably on the knife edge between abstract symphony and descriptive tone poem, lacking the formal cogency of the former or the narrative flow of the latter.
When Mark Twain was a boy of 14, his father was so ignorant that he could hardly stand to have the old man around; yet when he got to be 21, he was astonished at how much the old man had learned. Seven hearings on, Im astonished at how much the Sinfonía pirenaica has improved. The sonics alone, running the gamut from ruminant contrabassoon to cascading harp and celesta, are breathtaking. Imbued with the modal melodies and distinctive rhythmic cut of Basque folk songs, Guridis magnum opus is held together not so much by sonata form as by those orchestral textures, its dazzling progressions of light and shadow, sun and storm yoked into submission by compelling compositional energy.
Oddly enough, the approachability of Guridis conservative style is apt to fool us into expecting the obvious and being baffled when we dont get it. Sure, he can sound like Richard Strauss, dIndy or even an Elgar wildly out of time and place. But here, as in the enigmatic piano concerto Homenaje a Walt Disney (1956) Guridi treads an unexpectedly radical path, building a large-scale work on an improvisational basis, ringing the changes on tight, motivic fragments very much as he did as a famed organ virtuoso. Though the language could hardly be more different, as with Messiaen the effect is of inspired spontaneity, a living in the moment which requires an off-centre response from the listener.
The stumbling block is Sinfonía pirenaicas sheer range of mood. By conventional symphonic standards such negligible differentiation between three movements is a fault; but the net effect is like contemplating the same peak from different angles, and Guridis material only runs the risk of seeming over-extended in the last of the three. That aside, his symphony grows in stature with every hearing. Contemplation not progress is the name of the game; and once thats accepted, the rewards of the Sinfonía pirenaica as a meditation on nature and mans place within it are great.
The Bilbao Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere under Jesús Arambarri, a long association which tells at every stage from foothills to peaks. Their playing blends power and subtlety, whilst Juan José Mena balances textures and moulds moods with confidence throughout. The Naxos team harness the orchestras impressive dynamic range in what is one of the very best recordings from this Spanish series. Personally I could have done without the token filler, a three-minute gobbet of Amaya acting as a trailer for the complete Marco Polo set. Surely a brand new Homenaje a Walt Disney from these excellent forces would have made a much better bedfellow for this elusive but imaginative symphony.
© Christopher Webber 2005