Helpings of Classical have long aided the digestion of afternoon tea and coffee drinkers, across the civilised world from Bath to Barcelona. Ensamble de Madrid's zarzuela selections for piano sextet provide the right amount of prandial stimulus, deftly alternating romance and wit, not least in José Francisco Pacheco's neat new arrangements. Although the studio recording for the Guerrero selections is better balanced, there's greater variety of mood on the shorter Pequeño CD, recorded live at Granada'a Alhambra Palace Hotel. Performances are nicely turned on both discs, once again with a mite more edge in RTVE's live concert. Recommended for light listening over the darjeeling, and for quizzing fellow aficionados.
For María Bayo, the best 18th century zarzuela music can arouse an emotion equal to that found in Gluck, Handel or Mozart. Her focussed intelligence and technical brilliance certainly provide sterling advocacy in this varied collection of arias and overtures, several of which - notably those from de Hita's fabled La Briseida, to a text by Ramón de la Cruz - have not previously been recorded. Note: "arias". Despite the Spanish texts, much of the music here is operatic Italian in conception, with little hint of the local colour with which de Nebra, for example, touched up his stage scores. The flashing brilliance of Les Talens Lyriques under their vigorous director prove ideal partners in an enterprise which gives pleasure and enlightenment in equal measure.
I have two reservations. Is there now the faintest suspicion of base metal beneath Bayo's lyric gold? Certainly those gleaming upper vocal reaches are more veiled in mists than of yore. More of a worry is the programming itself. Although all these works were first staged within a sixty year period, the sheer variety of styles on offer don't always hang well together. Perhaps inevitably, the rococo elegance of Boccherini and the young Soler - his brief but taking Seguidilla is the most self-consciously Spanish sketch here - upstages the baroque formality of de Nebra and de Hita, who come over as stiff by comparison. Unfairly, because a full dress aria as richly impressive as Horacio's "Ay! amor! Clelia mía" stands as a Velasquez to the colourful early Goya of the Clementina overture. Boccherini's quicksilver brush strokes make de Nebra's sombre oils seem heavier going than they deserve. In the end, though, this remains an attractive gallery, albeit one to be sampled in discrete doses.
Barcelona-born Terradellas enjoyed a lucrative if stormy career in Italy and London, where he was caught up in rivalry with Handel. Moving to Paris, he found his name and music used as a stick by Rousseau to belabour the formal complexities of Rameau and the French court composers. He died sensationally in Rome shortly after the premiere of his last opera Sesostri, represented here by two arresting extracts. The accepted story is that he was stabbed by assassins hired by jealous rival composer Niccolo Jommelli and his body thrown into the Tiber. The mystery has long been more famous than the music, so full credit to Concerto Brandenburg for reviving some scores of great merit. The style may be standard Handel/Scarlatti opera seria, but there is a natural brio and grace about these pieces which is distinctive, personal and highly seductive.
Most individual are the dramatic, fiery Sesostri numbers. Most extended is the Latin motet Nocturna Procella, its double aria and recitative recalling Handel's Silete Venti. Its limpid flow covers an equally wide range of emotions, from prayerful plea in the face of tempest, through serenity to rejoicing in the final, brief Alleluya. Of the two sopranos, Laurie Reviol sings with more purity, Carme Cusidó more character. José Romero's shrill countertenor in the final, brief cantata is several notches down from either. The well-recorded disc ends with a symphony by the minor Barcelona violinist-composer Josep Fàbrega, which shows off Concerto Brandenburg's solid musicianship in a bland postre to the highly enjoyable main dish. This whets the appetite for revival of Sesostri or one of Terradellas' other mature operas - maybe the 1743 Merope, an aria from which is the stand-out in Ruth Rosique and Capella de Ministrers' CD Il barbaro dolore (CDM 3806,) an intriguing collection of 18th century operatic work by Spanish composers, beautifully executed.
© Christopher Webber 2006