, July 2005
"Its a time-honoured subject: is music from a certain country so typically nationalistic that it needs native interpreters who, so to speak, have the idiom in their genes. Maybe this was once the case, but today, when international musicians travel widely, when recorded performances of core repertoire are available en masse and when interpretations tend to be cast in the same mould, there is probably no truth in this at least when we talk about the central European tradition. Perhaps there is something in it when it comes to the periphery: Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Spain and Britain. British music tends to be best performed by British musicians, mainly because it is mostly played in Britain, and the same could be said about the Nordic music. Mravinskys recordings with the then Leningrad Philharmonic of the Tchaikovsky symphonies are regarded as the most authentic on the other hand the Austrian von Karajan with his German BPO or the Italian Sinopoli with the (British) Philharmonia Orchestra have made benchmark recordings of the Pathétique. Finally, coming to the heart of the matter, my benchmark recording of de Fallas El Amor Brujo, is an RCA disc more than forty years old with Hungarian-born Fritz Reiner at the helm of the Chicago Symphony, This catches all the authentic atmosphere of Spain: the brilliance, the jealousy, the mystery, the heat, the colours. I made the mistake of putting on that old record again, to refresh my memory before I started review-listening to this new disc. I intended dipping into a few places but had to listen from beginning to end, completely enthralled. When the old wizard Reiner grabs you by the throat, which he does from the first bar, he never lets go. All through the 25 minutes of this short ballet the tension is of the kind that has you sitting on the edge of the chair, hardly daring to breathe. This is one of the most intense orchestral recordings I know, down to Leontyne vocals, raw, primitive, sometimes over-the-top, animal and hardly Spanish – but so intense.
"Excuse me", I can hear some reader muttering, "but aren’t you reviewing the wrong disc?" Well, reviewing often includes making comparisons and anyone who also loves the old Reiner disc must by now have suspected that Maximiano Valdés’ version is not in the same league. But that is not the whole truth, for this new disc, recorded more than three years ago, has much to commend it. Technically it is up to the current high standards we have come to expect from Naxos with the timpani rolls impressively caught and the solo instruments standing out well without undue highlighting. Valdés also finds the right blend and balance to make the felicities of de Falla’s masterly instrumentation heard in all their glory. The Asturias Symphony Orchestra is obviously a fine band, as can be heard right from the short Introduction (track 1), marked Allegro furioso ma non troppo vivo. It is indeed fast and furious with that threatening timpani roll. Then the night music, marked Tranquillo e misterioso (track 2) is mysteriously atmospheric with its Andalusian melody played by the oboe. In the Song of a Broken Heart (track 3), a kind of flamenco, Alicia Nafé is more recessed than Price on the Reiner recording, giving an improved natural impression. Stylistically this is far more authentic than Price’s larger-than-life singing. Nafé has the right chesty notes and she sounds just as well in the other three vocal contributions (tracks 10, 12, 13). The Danza del terror (track 5) is suitably agitated and the famous Ritual Fire Dance (track 8) is relentlessly forward-moving, Valdés sculpturing the ebb and flow of the music.
Even finer is, to my mind, Valdés’ handling of the longer ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. It is a light-hearted piece about everyday life in a little Andalusian town, full of comic elements, graphically depicted by the orchestra. My comparison recording is a Philips disc from the 1980s with Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony, but I must say that Valdés is just as good. Both make the most of the lively introduction (track 14) with drums and trumpets, clattering castanets, clapping hands and a rhythmically incisive "male chorus" (the members of the orchestra, no doubt). Previn is a few seconds quicker here but otherwise they very often choose the same tempos, give or take a second or two; overall both are very valid performances. The picturesque descriptions of The Corregidor’s antics are well taken care of in this new recording. Although born in Santiago, Chile, Maximiano Valdés is of Asturian ancestry and has championed Spanish music and served as conductor for several leading Spanish orchestras. No wonder then, that the dances are given the right rhythmic lilt. The Dance of the Miller’s Wife (track 16), a fandango, is irresistible, and so is the Final dance (track 21), a jota. There are two short vocal contributions in this ballet also, first in the Introduction and then in the Miller’s dance (track 19), sung here by María José Martos, who is a bright lyric soprano, although the back-cover calls her a mezzo-soprano. She sounds perfectly authentic, less sophisticated than Frederica von Stade on the Previn disc.
I would think that these two ballets are among the most-played Spanish orchestral works and anyone who has not yet found his/her way to these marvellous scores should not hesitate to buy them in these excellent performances. The booklet has very good synopses by Graham Wade, which make it easy to follow the action, and the sung texts, with English translations, are printed. Naxos are exemplary in this respect. For good measure we also get a bonus track, the Danza from the opera La vida breve. It might have been culled from the complete recording of the opera with these same artists.