The world has become used to sets of CDs and LPs offering collections of
historic (and merely historical) recordings of music by composers who lived
in the 20th century. CBS/Sony have celebrated Stravinsky in impressive style.
Elgar has had numerous EMI and Pearl sets devoted to his own and others
performances of his works. Bartok enjoyed a massive LP set of historic recordings
collecting together every scrap of his own performances on several massive
Hungaroton boxes. Now it is the turn of Manuel de Falla.
I say 'now'. In fact this box came out in 1996 presumably to mark the fiftieth
anniversary of the death of Spain's most famous composer of the century.
I do not recall seeing the set reviewed anywhere though it may well have
been picked up by Fanfare. I was alerted to its existence when I noticed
an advert in Gramophone.
Sound quality is what you would expect from a collection spanning so many
years. Oddly enough some of the older recordings come over very well while
one or two live performance tapes are of disappointing quality. There are
no obvious signs of artificial enhancement of the disc sound. Some 'cleaning
up' has been done but nothing objectionable. I cannot however claim familiarity
with the original 78s!
I suspect that many of these recordings are quite rare - certainly in the
USA and UK. CDs 1 and 2 are all from 78s (1923-40). CDs 3 and 4 are from
Spanish Radio archive tapes (1975-76).
SERENATA ANDALUZA (1898-9) was written for violin and piano. This 1931 recording
has the work arranged (not by de Falla) as a 'concerto for castanets and
orchestra'. It is a light music novelty and in this recording the castanets
(properly 'castanuelas') are startlingly in the foreground with the orchestra
balanced very distantly. From 1900 comes a charming song TUS OJILLOS NEGROS
in a 1926 recording by Elvira de Hidalgo. The crumbly and occasionally distorted
sound of Leopoldo Querols CUATRO PIEZAS ESPANOLAS (1936) and the 1923
FANTASIA BAETICA at the hands of Mark Hambourg yield little pleasure to me.
However the SIETE CANCIONES POPULARES ESPANOLAS with the composer at the
piano and Maria Barrientos (soprano) are a very special experience: bright-eyed,
eager, it is as if the two artists inspiring each other. This was recorded
in 1928 and the two artists returned two years later to record Soneto a Cordoba
and Cancion del Fuego Fatuo. There is a raw purity in Barrientos voice
which I find very appealing by contrast with the more operatic voice of Conchita
Supervia whose set of the seven songs appears on disc 2.
The HARPSICHORD CONCERTO (rec 1930) is a wispy piece which can appear quite
episodic. The composer is at the keyboard partnered by French celebrity soloists
including Marcel Moyse (flute). The concerto comes over as a very intense
piece particularly during the ominous hammer-blows of the central
Lento. Neo-classicism with ripeness and exoticism; not at all the desiccated
product it was to become in some compositional hands. PSYCHE (rec 1942)
ravishingly sung by soprano Leyla Ben Sedyra is an extension of the exotic
world of the concerto. Ninon Vallins brief account of Danza del Juego
del Amor from the end of El Amor Brujo makes you wish the recording (1927)
did not stop just before the climactic bell-haunted climactic delirium of
Two major orchestral works here plus the Seven Spanish Songs (Supervia rec
1928-30). Interestingly the complete Supervia set (marred for me by her wide
vibrato) is interrupted by other singers performances of
one of the set: Jota. The other singers are Juan Garcia (rather unfeeling
and plummy-voiced), Conchita Badia (tender), Miguel Fleta (dark-hued) and
Lucrecia Bori (nasal, commandingly intense, vividly accompanied). EL AMOR
BRUJO is given a magical performance by Orquesta Betica de Camara de Sevilla
directed by Ernesto Halffter (rec 1930). The gusty-voiced soprano Conchita
Velazquez lends the performance a wild elation in the celebrated Danza del
Juego del Amor and Final. Pantomima (probably Fallas most inspired
melody and unaccountably recalled during Gosta Nystroems Sinfonia del
Mare) is played with great sweetness although the boozy-toned violin solo
is a blemish which the taste of the time probably saw as a strength. The
early recording techniques could not accommodate the full clamour of bells
which should dominate the closing pages. Although we catch the ringing of
cow-bells a la Mahler they are quite muted. NIGHTS IN THE GARDENS OF SPAIN
is one of de Fallas most enchanted and enchanting works. A sinfonia
concertante for piano and orchestra, it is taken by the same forces as the
El Amor recording and was taken down in the same year. The pianist is Manuel
Navarro. The performance is a good one with many poetic moments but it is
not more striking than many modern ones. Particular favourites of mine include
Soriano, Rubinstein and (brace yourself) Alexander Iokheles. Iokheles is
on an old Melodiya LP reissued on Classics for Pleasure with an equally inspired
El Amor Brujo. Recording quality of the Melodiya was very raw but what a
performance! The piano sound on the 1930s 78s is papery, robbing the music
of much of its essential richness.
Radio Tapes 1956-66 EL RETABLO DE MAESE PEDRO (1923 rec 1966 RTVESO/Ernesto
Halffter) is quite a striking work and deserves to be much better known.
The 30 minute opera is a counterpart of Holst's Wandering Scholar. The work
blends the Moorish exotic (Muezzin calls rather like those in Deliuss
pagan Requiem) and a Pulcinella-like neo-classicism. The singing and performance
are vivid and here the recording is very clear and bright.
THE THREE CORNERED HAT (Tricorn) is de Falla's world-famous hit: his Enigma,
his Planets. The model and some of the musical language is Petrushka but
this element is completely overwhelmed by the devastatingly original and
coruscating Hispanic brilliance, languor and romance. This performance of
suites 1 and 2 (21'20") is by the Orquesta Nacional de Espana conducted by
Ataulfo Argenta. While compromised by one of the most distant recordings
I have ever strained to hear, the performance is astounding. Argenta captures
the subtle changes of pulse, the convulsive power of the wild march, the
delicacy and the unbridled Iberian romance of this music. This must have
been an extraordinary event with Argenta delivering the music in the style
of Mravinsky - incandescent. A pity about the distanced sound - poor microphone
placing presumably - however if you turn up the volume you will quickly adjust.
It is also a pity that we get only 21'20" of music and that there is distortion
on the massive drums at the end of the suite. As it is this is an event (a
miracle) we are privileged to listen in to down the years. Just imagine if
Argenta had tackled the whole ballet at this concert. The explosion of applause
at the end of the suite comes as no surprise. The HOMENAJES (15'30") is four
tribute movements in the form of a suite. The tributes are to the musicians
Enrique Arbos, Debussy, Paul Dukas and Felipe Pedrell. The suite was assembled
and orchestrated from compositions written between 1920 and 1939. The composer's
last years were occupied by the massive cantata Atlantida (recorded by EMI
in the late 70s). Homenajes seems to have been de Falla's only musical respite
from the obsessive work on Atlantida which seems to have become as much of
a burden as the eighth symphony became to Sibelius. In any event the muaic
of Homenajes is subdued although the first movement has an Elgarian grandeur.
This tape comes from the same 1956 concert as the Three Cornered Hat suites.
The concert marked the 10th anniversary of the composer's death and was clearly
a major event although the fire does not seem to have been in the bones so
far as Homenajes is concerned.
Radio Tapes 1953-76
Segovia and guitar aficionados will be delighted to have a radio performance
of the Master performing de Falla's only work (LE TOMBEAU DE CLAUDE DEBUSSY)
written for guitar and later orchestrated and included in the Homenajes suite.
The radio tape is of muffled quality but Segovia's delicate and rough artistry
shines through. LA VIDA BREVE (1905, rec 1972) is an opera. Here we have
a suite for orchestra but with songs from the opera vibrantly sung by Pilar
Lorengar. Lorengar's reputation was international and she sang in celebrity
operatic productions and in lieder recitals worldwide. Her vibrato is prominent
but the raw passion in her voice is patent. The suite is satisfying musically.
The choir of RTVE produce a black sound comparable with Finnish choirs in
Sibelius Kullervo and Klami's Psalmus. Lastly comes FUEGO FATUO (circa 1916)
- a suite of charming though bland dance movements for full orchestra. The
suite has no connection with El Amor Brujo despite sharing the title of one
of its songs. In fact this is a collection of Chopin piano pieces arranged
by De Falla and completed by the conductor Antoni Ros-Marba. The suite is
rather conventional. Though charming this not another El Amor Brujo or Tricorn.
One for the de Falla completist!
There is an excellent trilingual (Spanish-English-French) booklet running
to 50 stylish pages. The English section covers 11 pages. The booklet is
made all the more appealing by 22 pictures many from the Archivo Manuel de
Falla (Granada) and the Fundacion Manuel de Falla (Madrid). There are pictures
of the composer and of the many artists recorded here. Congratulations to
author Andres Ruiz Tarazona for a densely informative and readable essay.
The set was produced with sponsorship from the Department of Culture of the
Andalucian Government. It is part of a series called The Musical Heritage
of Andalucia. I hope someone can find out what else is on offer in this series.
This valuable anthology using performers (almost all of Spanish birth) belongs
in the collection of all de Falla enthusiasts, students of Iberian music
and libraries/sound archives. There are some remarkable musical experiences
here (the Argenta Tricorn for one) but anyone buying must be prepared for
sound that is often elderly and at best only respectably good. Playing these
recordings reminds us of the privilege we have of hearing the composer as
performer and of performances which must have shaped and influenced the
composers attitude to later works. This is an important
Dokumente and a source which incidentally yields pungent musical
pleasures and plunges us deep into de Fallas world. Track after track
offer riches and contrast. De Falla is terribly underestimated and under-known.
It may ring false for me (as a non-Hispanic) to say this but when listening
to de Fallas music you feel in touch with the country of his and other
times. This is not thank heavens a composer concerned with presenting folk
melodies (songs and dances) in their original shape and form. De Falla melds
the community music of Spain (particularly Andalucia) into the universal
language of Stravinsky and what emerges is new and fresh and in turn has,
across the world, fixed a new image of what Spain and Spanish music is all
about. If it has also helped consolidate a hackneyed picture (see Chabrier,
Ravel et etc) the blazing vigour and honesty of this music shows that the
fault lies not with de Falla.
This set educates and enriches but it is not for the hi-fi enthusiast. For
those with open minds and a musical inner ear the artistic high fidelity
of most of the performances compensates for the occasional surface noise
and audio-technical shortcomings. Recommended.
Notes (1) De Fallas music is one important window onto the Peninsula
(and I do not forget Portugal as a separate distinctive entity) nor the
regional/separate state character of the Basques. There are many other
windows including Halffter, Rodrigo, Gerhard, Toldra, Guridi
(a particular favourite) and Sorozabal.
(2) My thanks to the generous contributors to the newsgroup who provided
so many comparative insights into the world of classic de Falla recordings.