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Jesús ARÁMBARRI (1902-60)
Preludio Gabon-zar sorgiñak (Witches on New Year's Eve)
Cuatro impromptus para orquestra (Four impromptus…)
Ocho canciones vascas para soprano y orquestra (Eight Basque songs…) *
In Memoriam - Elegía para orquestra
Viento Sur (Intermedio)
Fantasía española para orquestra (Spanish fantasy)
Itxaro Mentxaka, soprano *
Bilbao Symphony Orchestra/Juan José Mena
Recorded at the Euskalduna Concert Hall, Bilbao, 17th-21st October 2000.
NAXOS 8.557275 [57.40]

Arámbarri is best known as a conductor but this disc of his own compositions is an absolute peach. Following on from the Naxos Guridi disc, this confirms what a great and rich musical heritage the peoples of the Basque lands, straddling France and Spain, have to bring to us. Much of the music here reminds me more of the former than the latter, with the lighter Milhaud a particularly significant comparator for the folk-based suites. This whole disc is absolutely compulsive as far as this listener is concerned, a superbly chosen cross-section of the composer's output. The elegiac tributes to Falla (Offrenda) and de Gortázar (In Memoriam) are truly heartfelt and, in the latter, the quote from one of Guridi's best pieces (Asi canatan los chicos) is both highly touching and very appropriate.

The opening Preludio is a wonderfully infectious piece, rooted in the composer's native folk music (itself displaying a close kinship with Breton and other Celtic musics), and very similar, in spirit, to Milhaud's musical tribute to his own folk memory (that of Provence). It's galloping finale exhibits a real joie de vie, somewhat at odds with the subtitle Witches on New Year's Eve! The following Four Impromptus are in much the same vein and in the slower central pieces, particularly the first, the modal character of the music brings it very close to the "English pastoral tradition", whatever positive or negative feelings that phrase might bring to mind. The excellent booklet notes quite rightly refer to Arámbarri's "elegance and restrained Romanticism" and nowhere is this more the case than in the Eight Basque Songs. If you can imagine a more ambivalent, sparer Chants d'Auvergne then you are not far wide of the mark, and Itxaro Mentxaka sings them beautifully and with an obvious love of the material. As mentioned above, the two elegies can stand comparison with the best of that genre, with In Memoriam especially innovative, particularly in its use of underpinning percussion. The discs penultimate piece is the interlude/intermezzo from Arambarri's zarzuela Viento Sur (South Wind) which again exhibits a masterful orchestrative touch and a which belies the operetta associations of the genre from which it is drawn. In fact, the short plot synopsis, as stated here, sounds more like Riders to the Sea than the Pirates of Penzance! The concluding Spanish Fantasy finds the composer, not surprisingly, at his most Spanish and yet, even here, it isn't full blown, resembling Rodrigo's lighter, neo-classical moments rather than, say, Turina or Granados. It is perhaps more instructive to compare it with something like Ravel's Spanish pieces (e.g. Alborada del Gracioso), with the familial Basque link of the latter composer making it particularly appropriate.

So, this is a brilliant introduction to a very worthwhile and accessible voice, but one that is clearly, from listening to the music, Basque first and Spanish second, yet none the worse for that. I can only exhort you to follow this disc up buy investigating further the Basque musical heritage - there is not only the Naxos Guridi but a whole series on the Swiss based Claves label (many of these have previously been reviewed on Musicweb) and even a Toulouse/Plasson disc on EMI. The latter may want you to investigate further the choral side of the tradition, in which case Oldarra on Erato/Detour is an exemplary collection. Highly recommended.

Neil Horner

see also review by Hubert Culot



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