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DE FALLA (1876-1946)
Songs and Piano Music
Nocturno for solo piano (1896)
Serenata andaluza for solo piano (1900)
Preludios (1900)
Olas gigantes (1900)
Dios mio, que solos se quedan los muertos! (1900)
Vals-Capricho for solo piano (1900)
Cantares de Nochebuena (1900-4)
Cortejo de gnomos for solo piano (1901)
Tus ojillos negro (1902-3)
Oracion de las madres que tienen a sus hijos en brazos (1914)
Siete canciones populares españolas (1914)
El pan de Ronda que sabe a verdad (1915)
Canto de los remeros del Volga for solo piano (1922)
Pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas for solo piano (1935)

Merlyn Quaife (soprano); Len Vorster (Piano); Anthony Field (Guitar); Ben Dickinson (percussion).[Rec. November 1998]
NAXOS 8.554498 [53.57]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

The programme on this excellent CD needs a little sorting out. It is no doubt presented in a way that leads to a satisfying musical sequence. However, it is quite difficult to consider the place of each work within the composer's oeuvre unless they are in chronological order. I have done this in the list above.

Manuel de Falla suffers from the common problem many composers have of being extremely famous for very few popular works. Everyone knows the ballet suites El Amor Brujo and The Three Cornered Hat. And perhaps we can include the beautiful Nights in the Gardens of Spain in this well-known category. There are other works that are given an occasional airing, however most of the composer's relatively small catalogue is unknown to all except aficionados of Spanish music.

In order to understand the music on this disc it is essential to explore a little of the composer's background. Manuel de Falla was the first Spanish composer of any importance since the days of Victoria, Morales and Cabezon. Falla was caught up in the revival of interest in these composers and also the study and appropriation of indigenous tunes - folk music. There was a now long forgotten composer called Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922) who was the driving force in encouraging pupils to explore the traditional folk music of Spain. He published collections of national music. Amongst his pupils were Falla, Granados, Turina and Albeniz.

There were a number of creative periods in Falla's life. First his study with Pedrell, up to the time of his success with the prize-winning opera La Vida Breve. This period resulted in a number of works for solo piano and solo voice with accompaniment. It is from this first period that most of the works on this disc are derived.

In 1907 Falla decide that his future lay in the musical circles in Paris. There he met Debussy, Ravel and most importantly for him, Paul Dukas. There is no doubt that these composers enriched Falla's musical language. The Siete Canciones date from this French period.

The start of the First World War led to the third period of the composer's creative life. He moved back to Madrid. It was during this time that most of his pre-eminently popular works were written. El Amor Brujo was first heard in 1915. This was followed by the Nights in the Gardens of Spain and the ballet score The Three-Cornered Hat.

In his next creative period he became more neo-classical in his output. It was here that he wrote the Retablo de Maese Pedro and the Concerto for Harpsichord, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin and 'cello (1926). By this time the Spanish idiom has been totally absorbed by Falla and has, to a large extent, become stylised.

After this period he composed little else. He left Spain during the Spanish Civil War and emigrated to the Argentine where he died in 1947. There is only one important work from this period - the cantata Atlantida. However this piece was left uncompleted on the composer's death.

Chronologically the first pieces on this CD are the Nocturno for piano and the Serenata andaluza. The composer performed these pieces in public. It is easy to write them off as 'mere' salon music. It is true that it is difficult to divine from these just how the composer would develop. They lack any strong sense of Spanish-ness. However they are well written and are attractive 'encores' which could well survive the occasional airing.

The Preludios for soprano and piano are amongst the earliest surviving vocal music. It is a setting of a poem describing 'first love'. There are strong religious overtones - 'turn to the Blessed Mother…confide in her your sadness and joy…'

The next song, 'Olas gigantes' (Giant Waves) once again owes more to the German hegemony than to Spanish folk themes. Yet it is a fine piece of vocal writing. 'Dios mio, que solos se quedan los muertos! (My God! How lonely are the dead.) is a song that explores the poet's response to witnessing death for the very first time. It is written in a somewhat economical style.

The Vals-Capricho for piano of 1900 is very much in the French style. There is little of the Andalusian nights here. The programme notes refer to Saint-Saëns and Chabrier as models.

Perhaps the two key works on this recording are the Siete canciones populares españolas and the Cantares de Nochebuena. The latter were written over a four-year period from 1900 to 1904. They are scored for soloist with guitar and percussion. They are amongst the very few genuine folk song setting that Falla actually wrote. They represent an essay produced at the time when he was studying with Pedrell. The songs are largely concerned with Christmas although the last two are a love song and a drinking song. The settings are extremely short - the longest extending to just over a minute. The shortest is a mere 31 seconds. There is an interesting effect where the recording engineer has allowed Merlyn Quaife to sing a second part with herself. The whole cycle is extremely beautiful.

The last two works from the first period of Falla's career are the Cortejo de gnomos (March of the Dwarves) from 1901 and the song Tus ojillos negros (Your black eyes). This song made a big success in the United States. We are conscious of the Spanish influence here. There is constant change of pace and mood in this song that describes love and desires. A truly miniature masterpiece.

The second key work on this disc is the Siete canciones populares españolas. (Seven Spanish Folk Songs) 1914-15. The songs that make up this song cycle are extremely short. However much variety is incorporated into this limited time frame. The cycle makes much use of popular song and dance idioms from a number of regions in Spain. It is true that they are all based on 'collected' songs however the composer made a number of alterations to the tunes and devised his own accompaniments. These pieces were composed in Paris just before the outbreak of the Great War. They are finely given on this recording. Merlyn Quaife is well able to reproduce the stylised 'Spanish' singing styles.

The depressing song 'Oracion de las madres que tienen a sus hijos en brazos' (Prayers for mothers who carry their sons in their arms) was written on Falla's return to Madrid in 1914. It is tightly controlled piece with a myriad of interpretative details provided by the composer.

The ubiquitous Canto de los remeros del Volga (Song of the Volga Boatmen) was composed in 1922. It is a transcription of the well-known song first published in 1866. It was composed under the auspices of the League of Nations. We are far from the 'folk and flamenco' idiom in this piece. It is Falla at his neo-classical best. The harmonies are actually quite harsh although somehow it remains quite an attractive piece.

The song 'El pan de Ronda que sabe a verdad' ('Bread from the Ronda which tastes as it should') 1915. This is an eating song as opposed to a drinking song. 'Though all the world were false/This bread still remains to us/Brown, toasted and smelling of the flowers of the mountains/That tastes as it should!' Eat whilst ye may!

The last piece on this CD chronologically is the piece written 'Pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas'. Dukas had been a great influence on Falla when he had arrived in Paris. He introduced him to a variety of eminent musicians. The piece given here was one of many submitted to the Revue Musicale upon Dukas's death. Other composers included Rodrigo and Messiaen. It is a dark work. Once again we are in the neo-classical period of Falla's composition. Yet even here there are references back to the Spanish idioms of his younger days. It is a slow meditative piece that certainly deserves to be well established in the pianists' repertoire.

Merlyn Quaife is a fine soprano from Australia. Her repertoire is vast - ranging from Baroque to contemporary and from lieder to operatic roles. Her interpretation of these Falla songs is near perfect. She manages to give a fine account of the sultry, gypsy-like 'cante hondo' and 'cante flamenco'. She is well supported by the pianist Len Vorster who hails from South Africa and now lives and works in Australia. The works for solo piano are excellent. He manages to capture the Spanish idiom to perfection and does not patronise the lighter salon pieces. The guitarist Anthony Field and the percussionist Ben Dickinson both add a tremendous vitality to this important CD.

The quality of the sound is excellent. My only crib is the fact that there is only 53 minutes worth of music. Surely Naxos could have found a few more gems to include. They are normally very generous in their programmes. The sleeve notes are comprehensive. However, as mentioned above, I would have liked Michael J. Easton to have integrated into his essay the relevance of the periods of the composer's creative life. Perhaps I am just being pedantic.

I am very lucky to have known some of these songs from my school days. We had a music teacher who had Spanish ancestry. She used to sing some of these songs to the 'A' Level music class. These folk songs are really 'art' songs. They are composed to the highest musical standards. They need to be integrated into the standard repertoire of recitalists. This CD is an excellent attempt at doing just this.

John France

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