Catalan composer Leonardo Balada has catapulted over a course
of development only partially revealed by the two works on this
new Naxos disc. María Sabina, arguably Balada’s most well-known
work, comes from fairly early in his career, in 1969. It is full
of social activism and the white-hot intensity of a composer forging
a new and personal style in the face of the academic forces which
smothered so many other composers, as it were, in the cradle.
Balada’s approach was to combine something of the abstraction
of mid-century gestural music with visceral rhythms, memorably
folkloric motifs, and a vivid sense of color. In the much later
Dionisio: In Memoriam, from 2001, we find a mature composer
with assured hand, still broadcasting his anger and independence,
but also with a noble air of valediction.
Sabina uses narration, song and orchestral expressionism to tell the story
of a Mexican mushroom cult leader persecuted for revealing ancient
secrets and put to death. Though inspired by real events, librettist
Camilo José Cela sharpened them for dramatic purposes. Cela
and Balada weren’t so much interested in the literal truth of
what happened to the real María Sabina - who wasn’t put to death
- as they were in the metaphoric death of the title character’s
independence and individuality in the face of societal pressures.
Balada himself, having grown up in Franco’s Spain, was all too
aware of the dangers of social repression, and he musically
lashes out against it with zeal.
its first few minutes, the work demonstrates Balada’s avant-garde
arsenal. Fierce, Stravinskian rhythms give way to eerie, soft
tone clusters which melt away into uneasy silence. This music
is vividly gestural, like much cutting-edge music of its period.
The difference with Balada is that all the sound and fury actually
has substance and meaning. This work has done far better than
most such pieces because Balada used expressionism not as an
everyday vocabulary to replace traditional writing, but as music
for the expression of high drama and terror. Indeed, just a
minute into the second part, a twisted chorale in the strings
almost succeeds in straightening out into a richly tonal chorale,
only to be subsumed by an onslaught of tone clusters which are
themselves battered to silence by an attack of percussion. Some
gestural music can be off-putting, but this music is emotionally
compelling. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, it grabs you,
refusing to let go until its story is told.
far more folkloric touches were to show up in Balada’s music
later, hints of native rhythm and melody are even here somewhere
in this music’s DNA. This removes it from the abstract and makes
it stunningly real. In one place, I could swear I was hearing
the violent crowd in a small Mexican town, in another spot I
felt like I was hearing the humid seethe of a tropical night.
Fanciful and personal reactions, to be sure, but such is the
vividness of Balada’s writing that it provokes personal response.
Balada’s own description of the work as a “tragifonia” (tragic
symphony) is apt, for it has a symphonic scope and a stark impact.
devotion of the performers is visceral and intense. José Ramón
Encinar leads the Orchestra of the Comunidad de Madrid with
fearless abandon. The orchestra doesn’t merely navigate the
thickets of notes, they play them with frightening commitment.
The chorus is likewise unafraid to push things to the brink.
When orchestra and chorus join for a slow glissando from low
to high and back down again (around 9:30 in Part II), it is
primordial, like a force of nature suddenly encountered for
the first time. The ensuing enchanted, sinuous melody that rises
up to radiant heights, only to be attacked by the return of
brutal tone-clusters can only be described as a moment of pure
genius, both in composition and in performance.
three narrators who also assume roles in María Sabina
are equally committed. For non-Spanish speakers, English translations
of the texts are included in the booklet, though the general
mood of what is transpiring is conveyed by tone and music.
Balada developed his style over the years, he came to use more
tonal, folk-music elements in his works, but dramatic flurries
of tone clusters and primal rhythms still appear. In his own
program note in the booklet, Balada notes that he intentionally
wrote the cantata Dionisio: In Memoriam in a manner echoing
the fiery music of María Sabina. But, though it shares
some stylistic fingerprints with the earlier work, it is less
driven by white-hot anger than it is by richly complex mixed-emotions.
The almost innocent fanaticism of the earlier work is replaced
by the musings of one looking back over a life full of both
passionate commitment and the inevitable human compromises.
work is both an elegy for and based upon writings by the Spanish
poet and politician Dionisio Ridruejo, whose words are narrated.
Additional text reflecting upon Ridruejo’s text surrounds it
and is sung by the chorus. This commentary text was provided
to Balada by Emilio Ruiz. The closely overlapping threads explore
both dramatic tension and lyrical beauty. The first part is
more visceral, while the second and longer part of the cantata
slowly rises over strife into an uneasy peace that mixes affectionate
evocations of Spain, particularly of the Soria region, with
stark, sparse moments of bleakness.
performers respond to the subtleties of Dionisio with
a wide range of touch and dynamics. Though the piece doesn’t
fling itself as immediately at the listener, it has depths which
yield slowly to repeat listening, and the performers grasp that
least effective element of these recordings is the sound. Recorded
in the orchestra’s rehearsal hall, they are very close up, which
seems appropriate for Balada’s confrontational stance, particularly
in María Sabina. But as the rehearsal hall is small, it
basically functions like a recording studio. The clarity of sound
would also be extremely dry under such conditions, but the engineers
attempt to counter that by adding reverberation. Over main speakers,
it passes reasonably well. Over headphones, it is more glaringly
obvious, as all sounds, no matter where they come from on the
sound-stage, decay in the center of the sonic image, something
that real reverberating sounds don’t do. But having this sort
of sound is far preferable to not having these recordings at all,
particularly at the Naxos price. This music is too good, too important
to be missed. Thanks to Naxos for recording several discs of Balada’s
music and giving him the international profile he deserves.
Mark Sebastian Jordan