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Leonardo BALADA (b.1933)
No-res (Nothing) (1974) [40.02]
Ebony Fantasies – Cantata (2003) [25.36]
Dennis Rafter (narrator)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Comunidad de Madrid/José Ramón Encinar
Recorded in the Teatro Isabel Clara Eugenia, Madrid, July 2003
NAXOS 8.557343 [65.38]


I’ve reviewed a couple of previous Balada discs in Naxos’s series but they were recent works (see links below). They certainly didn’t prepare me for the avalanche of avant-gardism explored in the main work here.

No-res dates from 1974 and is subtitled A Symphonic Tragedy in Two Parts written for narrator, chorus, orchestra and tape. Its genesis is owed to the death of Balada’s mother, and similarly that of the librettist, the French writer Jean Paris. The resultant work, which lasts forty minutes, is a protest of avant-garde extremity and one that bears kinship with absurdist drama of the time, though its means are unremittingly trenchant. The text is fused of a number of different languages, indeed one of Paris’ own making slips in as well; Catalan, French, German, English, Latin, with words or phrases in other languages; there’s a phrase in Czech, maybe Japanese, an African language or two – more, probably.

It opens with a taped wolf howl which the chorus picks up in imitation; Balada includes tape of breaking glass, a tree felling, his narrator’s lines are interspersed with vicious percussive “full stops” and we also hear the sound of car horns. Aleatoric features abound, as well as dramatic fanfares (some vaguely reminiscent of Copland, though the resemblance is fleeting) and so do vestiges of Latin Renaissance chant, though they are subsumed into a torrent of vicious sounding writing. Much of the text here reads rather like snook-cocking adolescent swathes from The Waste Land before Ezra Pound got hold of it and immeasurably refined it into cohesive form (look at the Faber edition of the embryonic text). The second part is in English though Balada wishes it to be sung in the language of the country in which the work is performed. There’s a defiant cry of “Never” as earlier Balada and Paris had pursued the multi-lingual implications of the word “shit” and a powerful, more concise theatrical interplay. I understand that Balada was investigating the idea of “hopeless fatality” and a militant defiance of death but as the Scottish jazz clarinettist Sandy Brown once wisely observed; “Whilst I appreciate the desire of young musicians to push the boundaries of the music, I reserve the right not to listen.” He couched it rather more strongly.

Balada has also written a cantata called Ebony Fantasies, a rather lurid title for four well-known spirituals that he has completely re-worked - so forget Tippett and Mahalia Jackson. Naturally the composer can call it what he likes but cantata is a pompous name for it, not least when the original melodies are submerged, substituted or only peripherally recognisable. Nobody knows the trouble I seen has a pizzicato kick and a certain ebullience, I got a crown features the choir singing short stabby repeated notes apart from the held note of “Glory”, a reasonable touch to be sure. Were you there? has shimmer and the melody emerges at the end.

I can only say that the recording quality is first class and captures the massive sonorities and taped sounds with fidelity. I’ve no idea if the performances are accurate but they sound formidable and kudos to Naxos for their investment. Clearly I found most of this a miserable experience and can’t pretend otherwise. If that was the intention then the composer has succeeded admirably.

Jonathan Woolf 


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