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Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)

Quatre Chansons de Don Quichotte (1932) [11:11]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
El retablo de Maese Pedro
(1923) [26:09]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1932/3) [7:12]

Jesus GURIDI (1886-1961)
Una aventura de Don Quijote
(1915) [11:06]

Carlos Alvarez (baritone)
Eduardo Santamaria (tenor)
Xavier Olaz Moratinos (boy soprano)
Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid/Jose Ramon Encinar
rec. Teatro Isabel Clara Eugenia, Madrid, 27 June–1 July 2005, DDD

Here is excellent news from one of the major record companies. For those who suspected that the likes of DG were on the slippery slope to domination by the cult of personality, here is a firm rebuttal. This is a disc which has clearly been planned and thought out with care; one of considerable repertoire interest …. and best of all, a project which has been superbly undertaken by artists of quality.

It presents a fascinating mix; two native composers and two from the country which - apart from Russia - has been most musically obsessed with the Iberian Peninsula …. France. Moreover the music is centred on Spain’s most endearing literary character, all the works being written within the comparatively short timescale of two decades.

The disc opens with the Four Songs of Ibert. Consisting of settings by Pierre de Ronsart and Alexandre Arnoux they form part of a 1932 score for a film, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, in which Fyodor Chaliapin, no less, played Quixote and sang the songs for the soundtrack. Although I have not heard the original I suspect that Carlos Alvarez is a worthy successor. He boasts an excellent voice throughout the range, the small amount of vibrato being just enough to warm the tone without any excessive wobble. Furthermore he is always alert to matters of characterisation – attributes which are present in all his contributions to the recording. Alvarez is, I believe, something of an under-appreciated singer, at least in this country, and possibly will only be familiar to readers through his occasional Saturday matinee broadcasts from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. If so this disc should help to improve his profile.

The second work is de Falla’s “Master Peter’s Puppet Show”. Not ignored on disc it is true, but hardly over-represented either, it is quite splendidly performed here. Throughout, the composer achieves his effects with a real economy of means. As soon as the work opens, for example, the woodwind vividly conjure up skirling pipes and the excitement of the puppet show’s arrival in a small rural community. Falla’s chamber orchestra includes a harpsichord, a difficult instrument to balance against a modern ensemble, but here perfectly captured thanks to the skill of the engineers. Indeed the recorded sound throughout the disc is exemplary with just the right balance of warmth and clarity from, what appears from the photographs included in the booklet, to be a modern auditorium.

Interestingly in the opera the Don, rather than being the centre of attention as he is in the other works on the disc, is here one of the on-stage characters observing and ultimately interacting with the show itself. The plot centres upon the capture and imprisonment of Emperor Charlemagne’s daughter Melisandra. Following her abduction by the Moors, she is eventually rescued by her husband, the reluctant knight Don Gayferos. He however is rather lazy and only spurred into action when publicly chided by his father-in-law!

After the Don has determined to save his lady love the scene changes to Melisandra incarcerated in a desolate tower, longing for her homeland of France. However she is suddenly accosted by an “enamoured Moor”, who has crept up behind her, and is kissed. Unfortunately for him he is observed by his King and sentenced to swift and severe punishment; we see him dragged off by guards, paraded through the streets, and publicly beaten for his pains.

The scene then swiftly cuts again back to the tower, and the arrival of Don Gayferos on his trusty steed. He rescues his wife - who neatly jumps from her tower directly on to his horse …. ouch! - before making their escape on his trusty steed.

Pursued by the Moorish King’s men Don Quixote, observing the show, now decides it’s time for some outside intervention. Outraged that the escape of such a Christian couple should be impeded by heathens, he attacks the Moorish puppet characters in a delusional state ….. all this despite vehement protestations from the puppet master. The work ends with Quixote reflecting on chivalry and the actions of knights-errant, whilst the disconsolate Master Peter is left to muse over his battered characters.

The opera is short and can seem on first acquaintance somewhat odd, even disjointed. With its brief scenes, as well as its tendency to cut swiftly backwards and forwards between plot lines it seems, like the Ibert, to have been influenced by the still infant world of cinema. The somewhat “un-operatic” quality is further enhanced by the use of a boy soprano as the narrator; a device which may assist in establishing the mood of a puppet tale, but may not be necessarily to everyone’s taste. Xavier Olaz Moratinos does well with the role, but is not immune from the odd pitching problems.

The remaining vocal item on the CD is a rendering of Ravel’s “Don Quichotte a Dulcinee”, a set of three songs …… and a little gem. In the first the conductor Jose Ramon Encinar brings out the wonderfully lolloping rhythm of the accompaniment, with gorgeous woodwind braying, presumably the Don’s illustrious steed! In the second “Epic Song” the Don muses over the protection given to chivalrous knights by the saints, Michael and George, ending with a beautifully floated “amen” from Alvarez. The concluding “Drinking Song” has echoes of the Rapsodie Espagnole, ending with a delicious slide on the cellos and double-basses.

If these were not riches enough, the disc still has one further ace up its sleeve. An orchestral work this time, DG gives us the rare opportunity to hear “An adventure of Don Quixote” by the Spaniard Jesus Guridi. Guridi decided in his tone poem to illustrate the story of Quixote’s attack on two Benedictine friars, whom the Don mistakes for necromancers, as they accompany a young woman in a coach. In his delusion Quixote is convinced the passenger is a princess being abducted by two blackguards. Alas so energetic is his attack he manages to strike one of the friars to the ground.

The resultant work is a delight … it had for me reminiscences of a 1930s film score, Errol Flynnish at times, but certainly none the worse for that! I think many listeners would find it a very agreeable surprise.

In sum then, a distinguished and enjoyable disc. It’s great to see that enterprise, imagination - as well as the ability to put it all into action - isn’t just restricted to the independents as some might have you think. Indeed the next time you inwardly cringe at adverts by a major company for the “new tenor sensation”, “wunderkind pianist” or worse still a “wet tee-shirted violinist” … think of this disc.

Ian Bailey




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