Naxos have already devoted several releases
to works by Leonardo Balada. Their latest instalment couples
older and recent works spanning some twenty years of his composing
life. Balada’s earlier works were in a rather modernist vein,
but much of his later output – from about 1975 on – is characterised
by a more eclectic approach.
The earliest work, Quasi un Pasodoble,
composed in 1981, is quite similar to Homage to
Casals and Homage to Sarasate -
both from 1975 and available on Naxos 8.557342 reviewed here
some time ago. After a slow introduction played by the strings
and punctuated by cluster-like textures, the pasodoble
rhythm takes on and keeps coming in and out of the picture,
often with strongly contrasting distortions. The work, as a
whole, is in no way comparable to, say, Ravel’s ubiquitous Bolero;
for the music often side-steps in unexpected directions, a bit
à la Charles Ives, and often has darker undertones belying
the popular lightheartedness that might be associated with the
pasodoble. In this, as in many other works of his, Balada
never entirely forgets that he once collaborated with Dalí.
His music quite often acquires a surreal character. This very
work is a clear example of Balada’s tendency to weave traditional
elements into an unusual environment.
In striking contrast, Divertimentos
for strings may well be the most stylistically consistent work
here. Each of its three movements calls for a particular style
of string playing: the first movement is entirely pizzicato,
whereas the second is mostly played in harmonics. The third
is played with normal bowing. All three movements rely heavily
on ostinatos, somewhat less so in the eerie slow dance of the
second movement. As far as I am concerned, Divertimentos
might well be the finest work here.
The most recent pieces, both composed in
2003, are actually quite dissimilar, in form and content, although
they inevitably display some common features. The Prague
Sinfonietta is a compact work in a single movement.
The title refers to the fact that the first performance was
to be by the Czech Sinfonietta, which also prompted the composer
to think of Mozart’s Prague symphony. The music, however,
has Mozart rubbing shoulders with the Catalan Vicenç Bou, the
latter being the composer of some well-known Sardanas.
The most remarkable thing about it all is that the music never
sounds as mere pastiche or parody.
On the other hand, the Symphony No.5
“American” is an altogether more ambitious proposition,
and – again – a strongly contrasted piece of music. The composer
describes it as “a kaleidoscope of emotions and a trip from
the abstract to the ethnic”, quite appropriately I would say
since the three movements’ music and intent could not be more
divergent. The first movement 9/11: In Memoriam harks
back to earlier works such as No-Res and Guernica.
The second movement Reflection alludes to negro spirituals
and gospel songs. The third Square Dance is an
Ivesian riot of tunes and phrases referring to the traditional
square-dance, albeit in an overtly surreal way; light years
away from, say, Copland’s Rodeo or Billy
Balada’s music may sound a bit too eclectic
for some tastes, but never to the same extent as some so-called
post-modern works. In fact, Balada often has disparate elements
clashing in order to create tension and even unease. As already
mentioned, his personal and idiosyncratic approach results from
his earlier collaboration with Dalí and – probably – his own
liking for surreal art.
As far as I can judge, these performances
are very fine and are nicely recorded. In short, an attractive
and thought-provoking release well worth investigating.