Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

David W Moore
American Record Guide, July 2011

Naxos has done well by his music, and this latest collection is him in the new century. This is a highly attractive release, fun to listen and dance to. Get it! You’ll like it.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, April 2011

Years from now Leonardo Balada may well be remembered as one of the most interesting composers of our time. That will be in part because of his significant recorded legacy on Naxos, but mostly due to the simple fact that he is one of the first composers of our age to emerge from the corridors of theory and write naturally. At least, that’s Balada’s own explanation for his style, in the combative and clear booklet note, where he draws a contrast between a time when theorists and musicologists derived their ideas from pre-existing music, and the dawn of Schoenberg, who (Balada says) was the first composer to draw his style from the theory, rather than the other way around.

Balada himself was once a member of the avant-garde, with such works as Guernica, but in recent decades has chosen to let musicologists try to label his music for themselves. He rejects the dichotomy between “abstract” and “folk-influenced” music, and asserts that every composer ought to simply have an individual style, which either works, or doesn’t. Listeners who know his concertos and symphonies from earlier Naxos releases will know that Leonardo Balada’s style does.

These Caprichos, or works for chamber orchestra, are as close as Balada gets to “folk-influenced” music. No 2 is a trio of sharply-cut takes on Latin dance rhythms, although these are often hard to recognize underneath the sarcastic film of what Balada calls “a free modernistic manner.” In some ways this is the driest of the three works, and Balada himself seems to think so, describing it only briefly in the booklet. The starring roles are for violinist Andrés Cárdenes and harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen, who gets some of the juiciest material in the outer movements. Is there a hint of the “Mexican Hat Dance” in the finale?

Capricho No 4, “Quasi Jazz,” is built around a virtuosic, tuneful double bass solo part straight out of classic jazz albums. The piano, clarinet and string accompanists are very skillfully deployed around the soloist, avoiding the problems inherent in choosing such a low-key instrument for the lead part. Listen, especially, to the spiritual second movement, with the double bass singing a sad number over motoric pizzicatos; that the third movement continues the same mood at greater length is a bit of a pity. Jeffrey Turner is the confident soloist with a deep affinity for this music.

Capricho No 3 is presented last on the disc and that makes sense, as it is—to me, at least—the most compelling work. Like the other two works, the influences of Balada’s avant-garde days and his gift for “spiking” tunes with emotional ambivalence are always evident, but without the claims to folk styles which do not always ring true. Moreover, the second movement (“In memoriam”) features a gorgeous, lyrical violin solo that really is quite moving. It might be the most simply-scored movement on the disc, and benefits from that. The last two movements are excellent, too, if very old-fashioned: a lament in the form of a softly eloquent Irish folk song sung by violin against a sophisticated—that is, “modern”—accompaniment and then a really rousing jota in which Balada really frees himself of his inhibitions.

The “Pittsburgh Sinfonietta” was explicitly formed to make this recording, out of members of the Pittsburgh Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, and Naxos has quite generously chosen to provide photos and biographies of every soloist performer—all players but the string orchestra. Andrés Cárdenes, the Pittsburgh Symphony’s fantastic concertmaster—you can hear his violin solo work in the Janowski/PentaTone Brahms Symphony No 1—supplies confident, glittering violin playing and, in two of the Caprichos, the sure conducting of someone who knows and cares about the music. Lawrence Loh takes up the baton in the Third Capricho with no less satisfying results.

This might not be the best introduction to Balada’s music, since many of the symphonies are more serious and quite a few of the concertos are both highly accessible and dazzlingly written. My favorite Balada disc is probably still the concerto album conducted by José Serebrier, and my preference overall will still run toward Balada’s full-orchestra music, though I suspect he’d be a winner at string quartets. But those who know the composer well and appreciate his output will definitely enjoy this addition to Naxos’ continuing Balada series.

With every new disc, Leonardo Balada looks more and more like one of our most outstanding composers. Or is it that he looks more and more like one of my favorites? Either way, these Caprichos show that even his “folk” side is well worth hearing.

MusicWeb International, March 2011

Regular readers of MusicWeb International's review pages will probably recognise Leonardo Balada's name—reviews of his orchestral music can be found here, here and here, and of his vocal music here, here, here, here and most recently here! All these CDs are from Naxos, who, according to the Spanish-language notes in this latest release—curiously omitted from the English—are recording the complete works of Balada. Some of the previous reviewers have had misgivings, but on the evidence of the works on this disc, Naxos have once again done music-lovers a good turn by giving them access to fine, memorable music by a gifted composer.

Balada is Catalan by birth, but has been living and working in the USA for the last fifty years; he has been Professor of Composition at the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh since 1975, and it is there that the Caprichos were recorded. Various aspects of sound quality have been an issue in some of these previous reviews, but most of those discs were recorded in Spain, where technical quality has traditionally been variable. The sound on this disc is immaculate.

Balada’s earlier works belonged to the avant-garde, but from 1975 he turned to a more listener-friendly melodic style, often of a nationalistic (Spanish/Catalan more than American) colour, and the Caprichos continue in this vein. The booklet notes include an interesting short essay by Balada himself on both the Caprichos and his compositions in general. In the notes, he says that a “symbiosis of the avant-garde with the folk-traditional” has “become my stamp”, but anyone anxious with regard to the extent of any expressionist element in the Caprichos need not fret—these are very accessible works, with plenty of melody and sonorities not that far removed from, say, Prokofiev.

Each work on this release is properly entitled Caprichos, not Capricho: the title refers in each case to a suite-like collection of ‘capricious’ movements. The Caprichos no.2 is—or are—written for solo violin, string quintet and harp. This is a set of three Latin-American dances—a samba, tango and jarabe—given a persuasive 20th century make-over. The playing is excellent, as it is throughout the disc—hardly surprising, given the experience and credentials of the soloists, many of whom are leading members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

As is evident from its subtitle, Caprichos no.3 ‘Homage to the International Brigades’ is a more sober, serious work. Dedicated to the memory of the volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War, the plaintive second movement, ‘In Memoriam’, and the fourth, a haunting ‘Lament’, are particularly moving. If ‘Lament’ sounds rather Gaelic, that is because it comes from an old Irish folksong—in fact, all five movements are based on folk material, a reference to the songs the multinational Brigades sang to keep up morale. The work is written for chamber orchestra and solo violin, ably performed by the Cuban-born Andrés Cárdenes—who, as dedicatee, gave its première under Lawrence Loh in 2005.

The subtitle of Caprichos no.4, ‘Quasi Jazz’, is apt. It’s splendidly written for double-bass and strings, with a further prominent role for clarinet and a minor one for piano. This work is an amazingly imaginative, almost uproarious, twenty-four minutes of pumped-up, jazz-dunked fun and games. That holds good even in the third movement, ‘Entierro’ (‘Burial’)! According to Balada, “aleatoric devices ” and “avant-garde harmonies” are employed in this work, but wherever they lurk, they are generally well disguised among the deep, pulsing rhythms of the double-bass and the extrovert bursts of high-pitched melody from the clarinet. Stravinsky certainly comes to mind, particularly in the finale, but this is no pale imitation. As with the 3rd Caprichos, the superb soloist, Jeffrey Turner, is the dedicatee and gave the première performance under Andrés Cárdenes in 2008 in Pittsburgh.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2011

If Leonardo Balada belongs to that group of composers who moved through so many different styles, it does allow you the luxury of discovering hidden gems. Born in Spain in 1933, and moving to the United States in 1936 to study composition with Persichetti and Dello Joio, we sometimes find readily approachable music, while at other times he moves to an abrasive atonality. This disc is Balada in his most engaging mode. It comes in the shape of works called Caprichos, each one a gathering of shorter works to form a ‘suite’. The Second from 2004 brings together a group of three dances, composed  much in the style of Astor Piazzolla, and written for solo violin, strings and harp, the present performance using a string quintet. The Third, composed the following year, was in tribute to those who joined the International Brigades to fight for democracy in the Spanish Civil War. They brought with them national songs that form the basis of what is, by any other name, a rhapsody for violin and orchestra. Moving from the punchy opening movement, we arrive, via a touching lament on an Irish folk song, at a joyous Jota that simply fades away. The Fourth is subtitled, Quasi Jazz, and is scored for solo double bass and chamber orchestra. In many guises we associate with the jazz era, its third movement pictures the procession of a Negro funeral, before the work ends on a vibrant Swing and Swing. The long-time leader of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Andres Cardenes—to whom the third of the Caprichos is dedicated—is the superb violin soloist, the equally fine double bass of Jeffrey Turner coming from the same orchestra. Soloists are well to the fore, but the sound overall is pleasing., January 2011

The Caprichos (Latin American dance suites) by Leonardo Balada (born 1933) are moving in a different way: they are bouncy, often jazz-inflected, using thoroughly modern techniques (including aleatory) to develop an underlying idiom that is foundationally tonal and participatory. The mixture of styles and sounds is sometimes an uneasy one but is more often fascinating—and it is worth remembering that Bach’s and Telemann’s suites often took the straightforward dance music of their time and deepened, enlarged and reharmonized it. Capricho No. 2 (2004) contains three freely interpreted dances and is the most straightforward of the three works played with strong commitment by the Pittsburgh Sinfonietta and soloists (conductor Andrés Cárdenes on violin; Jeffrey Turner on double bass). Capricho No. 3 (2005) is a more serious work, subtitled “Homage to the International Brigades” and devoted to the volunteers who fought during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. There are five short pieces within this work, loosely portraying different groups of volunteers. Capricho No. 4 (2007) is subtitled “Quasi Jazz” and is perhaps the most complex of these three works, including traditional jazz elements (harmonically and rhythmically) and mixing them with much more intense harmonic sections and a certain amount of “chance” music. Yet all three of Balada’s Caprichos recorded here retain their roots in dance forms, and all three preserve the rhythmic vitality of Latin American dance music in general: buried the original dances may be, but they keep peeking through to the surface from time to time. The result is an aural experience that engages the audience both through the underlying simplicity of the material and through the complexity with which it is developed—a very interesting combination indeed.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group