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Fanfare, April 2008

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Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, October 2004

"It was only this year that the choral and orchestral music of this little known Basque composer was first being reviewed with much enthusiasm in these pages and in the pages of music magazines. Naxos recorded these works over four years ago and have been sitting on them all that time before releasing them in their ongoing ‘Spanish Classics’ series. Well, arguably Donostia is not Spanish and ‘Classics’? Well, hardly although the music does have the potential for that epithet, given time and exposure.

Padre Donostia (born Jose Gonzalo de Zulaica) was, to quote the useful booklet essay by Santiago Gorostiza "not only one of the greatest Basque composers of sacred, symphonic and stage music, but also a highly influential collector and expert in his native region’s folk music". In addition, he had been ordained and at the age of fifteen, having been sent to the Capuchin College in Lekaroz in Navarre, joined the Order. On his ordination as a priest he took the name you see above. He nevertheless made a prosperous career in music starting with studies in Paris from 1920. Later his music was played all over the world but especially in South America which he regularly visited. From this period there are three stage works on religious or spiritual subjects, but his greatest achievement, to quote again, "was to bring prestige to traditional Basque music ...... and a perfect balance between the assimilation of tradition and the huge influence of impressionistic contemporaries, Debussy and Ravel".

On this CD you can hear, folk-inspired pieces with simple melodies as in the Basque Preludes No. 1 ‘Improvisation’ (a tune not unlike ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’). Impressionist landscapes also feature, as in Number 18 ‘Landscape of La Soule’. There are also neo-classical pieces as in the ‘Andante para una sonata’ and the Homage to Arriaga, the early 19th Century Spanish composer.

The Twenty-One Basque Preludes are melodious and varied pieces which could become classics - several of them being within the reach of the good amateur. They fall into four books and took four years to complete. The traditional melodies are allowed to shine through. Donostia adds interesting rhythmic patterns, impressionist recitatives, like a muezzin-melisma from a mosque and children’s melodies found in their games. The whole is imbued with a nostalgic lyricism. Some are short and amusing like ‘Grandfather’s Tale’ and some are dances like the witty ‘Dance of the Blackbird’. As we listen through the Preludes it becomes apparent that the composer’s classical roots are being slowly abandoned in favour of impressionist ones.

I am not clear when the eight shorter pieces on this CD were composed but the booklet seems to imply that they are of the same period. Of especial interest for my taste is the intriguing ‘Nostalgia’. Who would nowadays dare call a piece ‘Nostalgia’? It opens with a series of arpeggiated seventh chords over a repeated pedal figure. After almost two minutes it is suddenly interrupted by a dance-like rhythm broken up by almost randomly placed interjected chords before gradually ambling into the first idea again. There is something hypnotic here and quite original and very personal going on - a quality lacking in some of the other pieces.

The recording is excellent and conveys the warmth of the music. The performances by Jordi Maso, a Catalan musician with an eclectic discography already to his name, seems to have a clear understanding of its aims and is totally in character.

To sum up, this is attractive if undemanding music here given every chance to shine."

Jed Distler

"10 Artistic Quality / 8 Sound Quality

The conservative idiom characterizing the piano music of Padre José Antonio Donostia (1886-1956) draws upon the more whimsical side of his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel, as well as Chabrier's effervescent keyboard writing, Grieg's rustic lyricism, and Fauré's linear refinement. Traditional Basque folk songs provide the basis for the 21 Basque Preludes plus the six shorter works that fill out this disc. While Donostia reproduces the songs in straightforward, unadulterated fashion, he decorates them with imaginative harmonic progressions and vibrant, resourceful pianism. I imagine that these works must be as grateful to perform as they are delightful to hear, if we go by Jordi Masó's masterful, fluid performances. His melodic shaping and rhythmic fluency over the course of the 21 Preludes, for example, easily surpasses Ricardo Requejo's slower and choppier readings on Claves. If you missed this attractive release on Marco Polo in 2000, grab it now on Naxos for half the price.

onathan Woolf

A few words about Donostia, about whom I was completely ignorant. He was born José Gonzalo de Zulaica y Arregui in San Sebastian in 1886. After being ordained he took the Basque name for his place of birth, Donostia, and spent much time researching Basque music and Gregorian Chant. His first early intensive period of composition was in the decade from 1910-20 after which he went to Paris to study, met Ravel, and wrote an increasing number of works in more confident, public mediums – stage works and orchestral pieces, many reflective of his absorption in Basque music. Exiled by the Spanish Civil War, he moved to France and concentrated on sacred music; Passion Poem and the Requiem being the two most significant. He returned to Spain at the end of the war and lived on until 1956.

Collector and disseminator he was a kind of conduit and codifier of Basque music, doing analogous work to Grainger, Vaughan Williams, Bartók and Janá?ek in taking down native folk music. Of course there are few parallels musically with any of these composers. Donostia’s was a more intimate and deliberate quest, engaged as he was in textual illumination and not particularly great originality or extrapolation. The notes put it well in stressing his "expressing the harmonic backgrounds, rhythmic patterns ... distant music from religious processions ... and children’s games."

The effect of listening to the twenty-one Basque preludes is sometimes bizarre. They fuse folk melodies with generous amplitude and explication of the harmonic shifts that give the tunes their memorable quality. The very first is an improvisation on Twinkle twinkle little star – at least that’s what it sounds like – and the second opens with impressionist gauze but veers away towards sturdy harmony, rising to a peak of vigour. The mood throughout the Preludes is buoyant and good-natured, a glissando introducing a fantastic tale and bass extensions hinting at lost-in-the-woodsness Sometimes one is brought up short; the first chord of the Lullaby No.9 is the Franck Violin Sonata’s famous opening, and aren’t there hints of Albéniz’s Iberia in No.13 as elsewhere there are infusions of Granados and Debussy. The most explicitly impressionist setting is No.18, Landscape of La Soule, with its grandeur of depiction.

The Andante for a Basque Sonata contains amidst its discursive pages, bizarrely, a rousing rendition of Abide with Me – is it known in the Basque country under a different name? The rolled chords are "honestly old fashioned" and the whole movement resembles Haydn more than, say, any contemporary or indeed Romantic composer. The evocations such as On the Banks of the Terfuse gaudy pounding with impressionist glint and in Tiento and Song he evokes the chordal and strummed simplicities of the guitar with generosity and good humour.

Jordi Masó manages to convey the moods and impressions with crisp rhythm and no little power. Donostia’s muse was one of song and simplicity and we have both here in full measure.

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