Leonardo Balada, born 1933 in Barcelona but naturalised USA citizen since 1981, is one of the most personable of established Hispanic-American composers. Early modernist experiments yielded in the mid-sixties to hard-textured rhythmic structures influenced by geometric art, and his later music is mellowed by reminiscences of Catalan songs and ballads.
He collaborated with Dali in the surrealistic film Chaos and Creation (1960), and in his opera Zapata surrealist elements show the influence of the painter's work. Zapata: Images for Orchestra, put together in 1988, is a protean piece veering between nightmare phantasmagoria and angry parody, leavened by sardonic humour - not least in the Revueltas-like Mexican Hat tub-thumpings of the Wedding sequence. This is energised, engaging music, nothing if not alive. Balada comes across as a sort of musical Gabriel García Marques, and the twenty minute suite makes one eager to hear the whole opera.
Naxos 21st Century Classics have done Balada proud. This is their 5th issue devoted to his work, and very well recorded, played and conducted it is too. Zapata: Images is the longest, most immediately appealing work, but all of them including the bleak, intensely focussed Guernica (1966) show Balada's collage-like style in an attractive light. The Homage to Casals uses the great Cellist's own Song of the Birds (originally taken from a Catalan folksong) as a starting point, whilst the one to Sarasate deftly uses triple-time zapateado rhythms and snatches of the violinist's own compositions to vigorous effect.
Only the Symphony No.4, written for the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra and dedicated to its Spanish conductor Jesús López-Cobos, threatens to outstay its welcome. Despite some attractive chamber-textures with solo strings and percussion, poetically moulded here, the thrust of its slow-fast single movement is not clearly enough motivated by the scraps of Swiss folksong thrown out along the way, and the moto perpetuo (zapateado rhythm again) which carries them along seems long on garrulity and short on charm. The rest of the disc - not least the taster for Zapata - more than makes up the deficit.
© Christopher Webber 2003