Another batch of valuable zarzuela issues



While we should continue to be grateful that La Zarzuela’s recorded legacy is being perpetuated by Novoson, the hit-and-miss transfer sound quality issue really should have been addressed. How many Wagner lovers would cheerfully tolerate a Ring Cycle that constantly distorted whenever Brunnhilde let rip? Who would condone a Turandot of glass-shattering harshness which would ensure that “Nessun” indeed did “dorma”? Not many, I would imagine. But for some reason zarzueleros have to accept what they are given and be grateful.

It would seem though that Novoson has had a whip-round in the office and, in spite of the recession, has sent its sound engineer on a much-needed training course. What a pity that he/she had a prior engagement and missed the session entitled “How to Press the Treble Distortion Filter Button”. Perhaps they’ll attend next time and keep any printed hand-outs for reference. That said, the sound quality of many titles from the most recent rounds of releases presents a noticeable improvement on the lamentable El ano pasado por agua. Perhaps the technicians have taken note of their previous end-of-term report, and the phrase “Can do better”. We shall see whether the comment results in further improvements, although there can’t be too many titles left which might be eligible for future reissue.

Because there’s been no stopping Novoson in recent months. At the last count, including the latest 2010 batch which unexpectedly features the Spanish language version of Lehar’s Eva starring Alfredo Kraus [ed. previously available on Zacosa CD]. Sixty two budget-priced titles are currently cited in their catalogue. And all this within the last ten or so months. Quite an achievement.  One feature continues to be the welcome appearance of recordings that have hitherto only been available on LP, cassette, or in some cases via download sites such as classicsonline. Those which have never before made it onto CD (shame on you BMG!)  have been of particular interest to me, as valuable missing pieces in the recording jigsaw. Generous tracking is another feature of these reissues (Los sobrinos del Capitan Grant and El último romántico are two prime examples) which is a great help when trying to find specific moments not easily located on some of the older BMG CDs.

Of the Serrano double bills…

Alma de Dios/Los claveles (CDNS 549)
La reina mora/Moros y cristianos (CDNS 550)
El amigo Melquiades/La alegría del batallón (CDNS 557)

…only Moros (coupled on BMG with El chaleco blanco ) and Melquiades(formerly with El bateo) performances have had previous CD outings. Here the coupling of Moroswith La reina mora is musically more appropriate, with moorish motifs and rhythms in plentiful supply throughout its 48:57 duration. The cover sports an alluring photo of a veiled female, full of morisco promise, in keeping with the music of both one-acters if not their plots. The cast features the dream team of Lorengar, Berganza and Ausensi, with Ana María Iriarte thrown in for good measure. La reina mora has never been one of my favourites: its ponderous, slow numbers never seem to get out of first gear. I had never heard Argenta’s recording before, and some dodgy orchestral moments plus shall I say … idiosyncratic … singing from supporting cast members made me occasionally laugh out loud, alas for the wrong reasons. This is no match for the Frühbeck de Burgos version on BMG and is not one to which I shall often return. I have loved Moros y Cristianos since I heard the Blue Moon archive recording. This current recording is naturally superior with some stirring alhambrismo moments, particularly in the march and ballet. Although I’m not a great fan of either Carlos Munguia’s vocal tones or Iriarte’s paint-stripper voice, their Daniel/Amparo duet passes without too many toe-curling moments.

Alma de Dios gets an energised reading from Argenta. An already short score is inexplicably shorn of its opening Choir Practice scene. Iriarte has mercifully little to do and her Farruca is not a patch on either Carmen Sinovas (BMG) or the glorious Dolores Pérez (Orfeon/Montilla). Perecito sounds suitably decrepit as Matías and his bellows seguidillas goes with a swing: although with such feeble puffs its a wonder his chestnut brazier didn’t give up the ghost. Ausensi’s account of the Canción Hungara is somewhat colourless and pedestrian compared to Blancas on BMG. Los Claveles is an altogether pretty insipid performance, with strangulated high notes from Iriarte’s Rosa which prompted me to tighten my grip on the arm of the sofa on more than one occasion. Although of interest to Argenta completists, this is no competition for the BMG Berganza/Domingo version.

El amigo Melquiades has thin, clear sound with distortion under control though with some bass reverberations [ed. which were also present in the original BMG transfer]. A pleasant account of a happy little work features Joaquín Portillo in his usual endearing, gravelly form, regardless of the age of the character portrayed. Martial rhythms set La alegría del batallón off with a sense of purpose. The sound is fuller than its coupling, but listen out for the regular clicks in track 10 which sound like LP remnants – Novoson have certainly made this transfer at least direct from vinyl. This is an attractive score which survives the salvoes of Iriarte’s vocal arsenal virtually unscathed.

Of the other recordings, many also new to CD, the following are well worth investigating – with of course the usual “curates egg” warning as to performances and sound.

El barquillero (Chapí) / La Fiesta de San Antón (Torregrosa) (CDNS 548)
Las bravías (Chapi) / El Santo de la Isidra (Torregrosa) (CDNS 561)
El cantar del arriero (Díaz Giles) (CDNS 564)
La patria chica (Chapí) / La chula de Pontevedra (Luna/Bru) (CDNS 559)
Música clásica (Chapí) / El puñao de rosas (Chapí) (CDNS 556)
La dolorosa (Serrano) / Las Leandras (Alonso) (CDNS 556)
El pobre Valbuena (Valverde/Torregrosa) / La gatita blanca (Giménez/Vives) (CDNS 576)
La viejecita (Caballero) (CDNS 552)
María Manuela (Torroba) (CDNS 498)
La tempestad (Chapí) (CDNS 578 - 2 CD)

[ed. This last-named is from a musical and historical perspective perhaps the most important zarzuela reissue of the decade. This near-complete, red-blooded performance of one of Chapí’s most important three-act zarzuelas grandes is one of the cornerstones of the zarzuela recording industry’s heritage, and one of Ataulfo Argenta's most enduring triumphs. See recommended performances.]

Finally, for me one of the new Novoson gems is the reissue of El maestro Campanone (CDNS 558), a reworking by Vicente Lleó of Giuseppe Mazza’s 1845 piece La prova d'un'opera Seria. Here we have ten tracks of sparkling music which could easily have flowed from the pen of Rossini. With a cast of Pilar Lorengar, Manuel Ausensi, Carlos Munguia, Juan de Andia and Jose Maria Maiza, and orchestra and chorus conducted by Argenta, every moment of this score is a delight. Moreover the sound quality isn’t bad either.

© Ian Brown 2010

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27 April 2010