With its first dozen releases in the 'Great Conductors
of the 20th Century' series EMI Classics ally themselves with the
same gold standard as the Philips 'Great Pianists' series. I wonder
how many more are to come after the first barrage. The classical newsgroups
will be rocking with the usual debates about why one conductor was included
and another waits disconsolately in the steppe. Why was this or that
version chosen over another? I do not want to be left out. More of that
Argenta was born on the Northern Atlantic coast of
Spain at the small fishing town of Castro Urdiales (about the same size
as Brixham in Devon, UK). It is not far from Santander. He studied in
Belgium and Germany after beginning his conservatoire studies at the
age of thirteen in Madrid. His wartime prentice years in Germany were
possible because of Spain's and Franco's special relationship with the
Dritte Reich. Argenta promptly left Germany and returned to Spain when
allied bombs fell too close for comfort. In 1946 he became chief conductor
of the Spanish National Orchestra. His interpretations of Spanish
and French music were well regarded.
His recordings include a Symphonie Fantastique with
the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, a reputedly exhilarating Tchaikovsky
4 (LSO), he conducts the LSO in the famously OTT Campoli Tchaikovsky
violin concerto (reissued on Beulah 3PD10- how we miss that label) and
serves similar duty, this time with the LPO, for Katchen's Liszt piano
He recorded a great deal of Spanish music. All the
usual suspects are there. Turina, Rodrigo, Guridi, Usandizaga, de Falla,
Halffter and Granados all get a look in. His Ravel also includes Pavane,
Rapsodie Espagnole and Ma Mère l'Oye. I am sure
I recall these appearing on Decca Ace of Diamonds LPs with the ADD prefix
(how those prefixes resonate: SRCS, VIC, ACL, ADD, SXL, ASD etc!). Maurice
Ohana's early Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter was also
recorded. There are upwards of twenty Argenta LPs of zarzuela by Vives,
Jimenez, Serrano, Breton and Chapi.
I am not sure what has been done in Spain but so far
as the wider European and world market is concerned, Argenta has not
received the sort of methodical adulation and 'reissuitis' accorded
to the likes of Kubelik, Silvestri and Markevich let alone Stokowski
and Walter. This set is a major step forward for his reputation.
The Argenta Faust Symphony is furiously virtuosic,
oozing fiery conviction and bringing you up short with artistic parallels
that would never have occurred to you without Argenta's attack. I defy
you not to think about Tchaikovsky's Fifth and Manfred when you
hear this. This is the original version without the chorus in the Mephistopheles
finale and Argenta gave it its first recording.
The slowness of Argenta's Great C Major is the
first thing that hits you and I can't say I like it. This does however
accentuate the quick tumbling Brucknerian climax at 4.19 and the quicker
tempi chosen for the later movements. In the andante the precisely
limned steadily ticking beat works well. The scherzo is roughened and
tartly brusque. This is not in my view an extraordinary Great C Major
nor for that matter was the last Ninth I reviewed - that of Boult
and the BBCSO on the now sunken Beulah label.
It is rather a shame that Argenta's El Amor Brujo
follows just after the Schubert. The Schubert symphony is the only
thing here to be in stereo and its sound is pretty good as is that for
the Liszt. The de Falla is the oldest recording in the set and its string
tone is a mite splintery. Odd, too, that it was recorded by the Paris
Conservatoire Orchestra when Argenta's own orchestra the Orquesta Nacional
de España would have been a more natural choice. However the
invitation came from French Columbia and he had to dance to their tune.
As it turns out the orchestra are on good mettle. This is a superbly
spick and span interpretation of a work which I have long adored. By
this I do not imply that it is too regimented. It finds time to stretch
and wonder, for example in the Pantomima in which de Falla wrote
an angel's gift of a tune. Here the massed violin tone takes off some
of the sheen. As for the mezzo, Ana Maria Iriarte, she is perfect, with
guttural hues to catch the smoke-roughened gypsy throatiness. There
is hardly a trace of vibrato. She is a cut or two above the flawed Ines
Rivandeneyra recently heard by me in Markevich's 1966 recording on Eloquence.
She also takes great care with the shaping of the words (printed in
full in Spanish and trilingual translation) and their meaning. When
the suite finished I immediately played it again - such was the effect
of this recording on me. In time it might even displace my perverse
and aberrant preference for the Russian CFP licensed performance on
CFP 40234 with Arvid Jansons conducting the Moscow Radio SO. The mezzo
is Irina Arkhipova. But before you go looking for it bear in mind that
it is an LP and that the sound is surprisingly scrawny in places.
[This is not the first time I have encountered Argenta
in de Falla. In 1998 I reviewed Grabaciones Históricas on Almaviva
DS0121 (4CDs). This included a 1965/66 radio tape of an astounding Tricorn
with the Orquesta Nacional de España. This must have been
an extraordinary event with Argenta delivering the music in the style
of Mravinsky - incandescent. The explosion of applause comes as no surprise.
This all de Falla set is still available from Diverdi Classics in Madrid.
Diverdi, Eloy Gonzalo, 27, 28010 Madrid - España Tel. +34-1-447.7724
or 447.8471, Fax +34-1-447.85.79, firstname.lastname@example.org]
Both the Faust and the Alborada are recorded
in the present set in close-up vivid sound with more hiss evident in
the Faust than the Alborada. The Alborada has some
of its brashness and brilliance bled away by the 1950s engineer's decision
to pull back on the recording levels for climaxes.
The notes are informative and thorough as you would
expect from Alan Sanders. I owe it to Mr Sanders that I can tell you
that the Cento Soli was a contractual pseudonym used at different times
for the Lamoureux, the Paris Conservatoire or for a pick-up orchestra.
The trilingual notes are contrasted with five wonderfully grainy and
articulate photographs courtesy of Toni Argenta. The recordings are
licensed to EMI by Decca, Musidisc and EMI France.
Lisztians need to hear Argenta's Faust. His
El Amor Brujo is perhaps the best ever. This set has attractions
transcending fogeydom and 1950s nostalgia.