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Jack Sullivan
American Record Guide, November 2010

Contemporary Spanish composer Benet Casablancas writes densely expressive music in a mode he calls “contemporary classicism”. It’s a personal style based on classical modernist masters like Berg, Stravinsky, and Boulez with no selling out to what he sees as a compromised eclecticism. This recording is thus for modernists only. The third Epigram and Postlude, to cite the most uncompromising samples, are sharply dissonant. This is an international style, and other than an homage to Salvador Dali at the end, there is nothing particularly Spanish about these pieces.

Recently, Casablancas’s music has become more refined, poetic, and inviting. The Dark Backward of Time, from 2005, is a darkly colorful depiction of an enigmatic line from The Tempest. All through its 17 minutes, clouds of sound swirl in a mysterious vortex that moves toward a powerful, sustained final chord. A study in contrasts, it combines explosiveness with periods of serenity, tiny cells of transparently scored ideas with large orchestral effects. The swooping brass glissandos and powerful string writing give the Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra a vigorous workout.

The Three Epigrams are more concise explorations of similar terrain but parceled out between different short pieces: an aggressive first and third epigram and a somber nocturne. An earlier period is recalled in a 1981 Love Poem, a haunting piece of non-tonal lyricism eloquently sung by soprano Ofelia Sala. The performances are vivid and obviously well prepared; the recording, made in Barcelona, is resonant and powerful.

Gapplegate Music Review, August 2010

Spanish composer Benet Casablancas (b. 1956) is a new one for me. He is a modernist with an inventive flair and a sure hand at orchestra color and orchestration. A serious listen to his new CD The Dark Backward of Time shows a composer in a mature phase, a master of orchestral gesture. The title piece is a whirlwind of orchestral excitement, building layers of sound density that nevertheless have appealing transparency and dramatic impact.

Four other compositions are included on this set, covering a span from 1981 to 2006. All show a style that stands apart from his contemporaries and an increasing mastery of the palette that a full orchestra can provide the imaginative crafter of sounds. Salvador Mas-Conde conducts the Barcelona Symphony and the Catalonia National Orchestra with assurance and sympathy to the composer’s aims.

This is a fine disk and a welcome addition to recordings of modern Spanish orchestral music. Recommended.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2010

In my last month’s review of music by Benet Casablancas I commented that he ‘is composing in the world of atonality and is seeking out new sounds, often created by unconventional methods’. It is best to enter the present release with the Love Poem of 1981, the earliest work represented. Its is in a post-Schoenberg style and tells us where he has come from to reach the 2005 score for large orchestra, The Dark Backward of Time, a work so densely scored it is, apart from a central section, almost opaque. It takes as its inspiration words in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but from therein it is an abstract work. Born in 1956, and trained in Barcelona and Vienna, the word Epigrams has played a part in his musical development, having already appeared as the title in several works. The present score offers three differing movements, generally busy in tempo as he experiments with different sound colours, offering a brilliant display of orchestral virtuosity in the finale. The extended Postlude is a precursor of The Dark Backward of Time, full of intensity and proactive scoring, the disc ending with the 2006 commission to compose a piece on the name ‘Dali’ in memory of Salvadore Dali. The result comes as close to tonality as Casablancas will allow himself. With the exception of the Epigrams, these 2007 recordings are world premieres. It is music that would tax any orchestra, and one must complement the Barcelona musicians on their commitment in, what must have been, much detailed preparation from the conductor, Salvador Mas-Conde. The soloist, who gets around some difficult writing in Love Poem, is the admirable soprano, Ofelia Sala. Faced with such dense scoring the engineers are to be congratulated.

Paul Griffiths
Paul Griffiths, July 2010

Record of the week (July 2010)

Big music, boldly driving, expertly composed, seeming to come straight out of 1930s modernism (Schoenberg in the Barcelona sun): such is the art of Benet Casablancas as represented on a disc of orchestral pieces from the last three decades, delivered with appropriate energy by the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya under Salvador Mas-Conde (Naxos 8.579002). The main work is The Dark Backward of Time, from 2005, which owes its title to Prospero’s description of memory as ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’, and much of which fits the source in being tempestuous, though the composer’s unquellable imagination keeps the storm going—a few breathing spaces apart—for close on twenty minutes. An earlier piece of similar length, Postlude (1991), intimates a stage of reliance on imitative counterpoint before the vigorous style of constantly onward urging took over.

Curiously for a composer with such a command of abstract symphonic poetry at expansive length, Casablancas has written a lot of what he calls ‘epigrams’—not as epigrammatic as many of Webern’s pieces, but all done in two or three minutes, or perhaps a little longer in the case of slow movements. This collection includes a set of three from 2001: a soaring opener and a mostly bright and festive finale around a nocturne (another favourite genre) that has some echoes of Mahler and Bartók.

The catalogue on Casablancas’s website indicates a composer excited principally by instruments, so this programme is true to his output in offering just one vocal item, a dreamy love song that is also considerably the earliest piece here, dating back to 1981. From the nearer end of his career, Intrada sobre el nom de DALÍ (2006) is another epigram, quicksilver in tone but characteristically sure all through.

A companion album (Naxos 8.579004) adds scores for smaller forces done by another fine Catalan ensemble, the Sinfonietta/Modern/Inter-Contemporain-scale BCN 216. Shakespeare again features, in the Siete escenas de Hamlet for a narrator (Paul Jutsum) setting the scene for colourful musical illustrations, and there are more epigrams and nocturnes.

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