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Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, September 2009

Ah, Asturias. North-West Spain before you get to Galicia. The name conjures up magic and history and exoticism. Musically one may think of Albeniz. Well, back in the 1980s the regional government decided that they needed to promote themselves more, their area and their culture. So what did they do? They commissioned some music from an Asturian composer. If only British regional boards would do such things and the work that was turned out was a set of songs for voice and orchestra ‘Catorce canciones asturianas’ by Garcia Abril. It was inspired also and promoted by Joaquin Pixán a bright, perhaps at times over-robust but typically romantic Spanish tenor. He is accompanied here with much sensitivity and understanding throughout by Rosa Torres-Pardo.

A few years later Garcia Abril ‘revisited’ to quote the booklet essay by Ramón Avello ‘the originals’ and produced the songs recorded here. The melodies however come from several much earlier published sources. These are listed by Avello and include ‘Forty Asturian Songs of 1914 by Baldomero Fernandez. From even earlier—1890—the ‘Cantos Populares’ form a further source. The piano parts and the orchestral parts of the 1984 work I presume to be pure Abril.

Naxos tells us that ‘for copyright reasons’ they cannot include the song texts in the booklet or on the website; however a résumé of each song’s history and story is clearly given.

I will pin-point a few of my favourites. Let’s take the fourth song ‘Tengo desbir al puerto’ (I have to climb the pass). This begins with a beautiful piano introduction, as do most, ‘recreating the melismatic ornament of the voice’ before the voice enters. After the first verse the piano takes another solo turn as it does between lines later on; very much an equal partner. This popular song comes from the Fernandez Songbook mentioned above. This collection was also the source of the next song: the lively dance-like ‘Yo no soy marinero’ (I am not a sailor). The middle section is a new layer of words by José León Delestal. The music is not only lively but there are lyrical, romantic sections to add variety. Delestal, born in 1921 and who died in 1989, supplies the texts or part of the texts for about ten other songs. Otherwise they are entirely traditional.

Another song I like is ‘Adiós, xana’ (Goodbye Water nymph) which has a subtext about the ravages of mining which destroys the landscape. It is in binary form and its melancholy melody is, as the booklet remarks, ‘inspired’. The opening piano prelude is quite impassioned and the melody is always at a high emotional pitch. The last song ‘Madre Asturias’ sums up a love and nostalgia for the area as captured in texts especially written, to round off the cycle, by Delestal.

The Naxos Spanish Classics series has thrown up all sorts of fascinating and wonderful music by unknown Iberians. I count myself an Hispanophile but this one is more for Spanish-speaking peoples or aficionados of Spanish music. This is in part down to the lack of texts but also because it taps into a traditional source of words. It is partially in the Asturian dialect, draws on musical sources which are not at all known to non-Spanish speakers and with which one may have a limited sympathy.

On the other hand you may feel that this fits the bill perfectly. Certainly at Naxos price there isn’t much to be lost.

Ian Bailey
MusicWeb International, August 2009

The Spanish composer Anton Garcia Abril certainly boasts an interesting and varied academic background. He studied initially at the Madrid Royal Conservatory and subsequently at the Academia Chigiana in Sienna, where his teachers included the conductor Paul van Kempen. This was in the early/mid-fifties. Later, in 1964, he returned to Italy and the Academia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, as a scholarship student, which included classes with Goffredo Petrassi.

Whilst writing in a number of genres including opera, the musical folklore of the Asturias region has been an abiding thread through his career. Having composed “Three Asturian Songs” for a capella chorus in 1982 he followed these up two years later with a series of “Fourteen Asturian Songs”, written as part of a major project “Lirica Asturiana” (Asturian Lyricism). Originally written for the tenor Joaquin Pixan (the soloist on the present disc) and orchestra, the songs were recorded by CBS with Lopez-Cobos and the London Philharmonic Orchestra soon afterward.

In 2004 however the process was taken a step further. Whilst the new “Coleccion de canciones asturianas” (Collection of Asturian Songs) is drawn directly from the previous work, the accompaniment is now for piano. The result is more than simply a reduction. Instead it is, in the words of the sleeve-note writer Ramon Avello, “a sort of re-examination”; a dialogue of “…imaginary folklore, in the pianistic conception, and direct data, or real folklore, in the vocal line…” In other words the vocal line essentially follows the original folk melody whilst the accompaniment exhibits a more interventionist approach: “The piano not only takes up the melody, but also re-creates it, evokes it, frames it and projects it with lyricism, fantasy and freedom.” The results I found spellbinding.

Whether it’s the seductive lilt of “Una Estrella se perdido” (A star was lost), with its gentle introduction of subtle “wrong note” figures in the treble of the piano part; or the descending right hand figuration in the opening measures of the succeeding lullaby (Duermente, nenu—Go to sleep my boy)…which for all the world sounded like little falling stars—I was completely hooked.

Full marks to the performers. Señor Pixan, clearly somewhat more “mature” now than in the earlier CBS issue, nevertheless still possesses a very attractive lyric tenor, with few worn edges and plenty of warmth throughout the register. Rosa Torres-Pardo meanwhile is an admirable partner.

Indeed the only possible drawback I can point to is the lack of texts, which would have been a bonus, but at least their omission is for a genuine reason, and Ramon Avello does give a brief synopsis of each song.

Gentle reader, I have been a MusicWeb reviewer for a couple of years now, and whilst not among its most prolific contributors, I have nevertheless covered a significant number of recordings in that time. Not only has this issue been a considerable discovery—an increasing rarity in itself considering the onward march of Father Time—but it’s also the most sheerly enjoyable CD I have considered so far.

To this end it has returned to the tray of my CD player more frequently than any other review copy I can recall. Indeed…it is there now as I write, with the sounds of Pixan’s plaintive tenor bidding farewell to his beloved water nymph (Adios, xana)…and it sounds…marvellous! To paraphrase a famous quote: “Hats off Gentlemen, a winner!”

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Antón García Abril’s association with the folklore of Spain’s Asturias region in the north-west of the country has provided the inspiration for his song cycle, Madre Asturias. Having read the disc’s booklet I am left baffled and pondering on the work I am reviewing. So let me settle for the fact that we have fourteen songs, most of which are García Abril’s cultivated recreation of Asturias folksongs, linked with some new songs that he has added and deal which deal with subjects related to our time. They were written for a 1980s project, Lirica Asturiana, which was promoted by the soloist on this disc, Joaquín Pixán, and resulted in a song cycle for tenor and orchestra, Madre Asturias. That has then transcribed for voice and piano, and that is the version now recorded. I hope this is basically correct, as I think something may have been lost in the English translation of the notes. The result is tonal, traditional, light and easily likable music, one of the prerequisites in the music’s composition was to internationalise Asturias culture. Pixan has an inherent Spanish singing quality, obviously well suited to the music, and his relationship with the composer would give the disc benchmark status. Rosa Torres-Padro is the highly commendable pianist, and the sound quality provides a realistic singer-piano relationship.

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