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Jesús ARÁMBARRI (1902 – 1960)
Preludio Gabon-zar sorgiñak (1930s)
Cuatro impromptus para orquesta (1930s)
Ocho canciones vascas (1932)a
Im memoriam (1939)
Ofrenda (1946)
Viento sur – Intermedio (1952)
Fantasía española
Itxaro Mentxaka (soprano)a
Bilbao Symphony Orchestra/Juan José Mena
Recorded: Euskalduna Concert Hall, Bilbao, October 2000
NAXOS 8.557275 [57:40]
Though he may be better known as a conductor, Arámbarri was also a distinguished composer of no mean achievement. The present collection certainly bears that out. The works are recorded here by the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra which the composer conducted for several years. Incidentally, this orchestra, founded in 1922, gave its first concert under the baton of the Belgian composer Armand Marsick.

Arámbarri began his musical studies in his home town before travelling to Paris. There he studied composition with Paul Dukas, who had also been Rodrigo’s teacher, and conducting with Vladimir Golschmann who was also conductor of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra. Later still, he studied further with Felix Weingartner in Basle. Most of the pieces here date from the 1930s. After his return to Spain, he devoted most of his time to conducting though he nevertheless managed to compose some further pieces such as Ofrenda in 1946 and the zarzuela Viento sur in 1952. Most pieces make lavish use of Basque folksongs such as the colourful prelude Gabon-zar sorgiñak ("Witches on New Year’s Eve") that opens this disc. This short work falls into three inter-linked sections (three tracks are indexed, but we are not told what they are), a rather serious introduction followed by a slower section and a lively Finale. Cuatro impromptus is a set of four short orchestral studies, with some folk-like inflections, superbly crafted and quite attractive. Ocho canciones vascas ("Eight Basque songs") is the real gem in this worthwhile selection of Arámbarri’s music. These simple arrangements are superbly done, clothed with a remarkably subtle orchestration, full of lovely instrumental touches. By turns dreamy, sad, gentle, tender and humorous (the final song is particularly funny), these settings often recall de Falla and Canteloube, whose beautiful Chants d’Auvergne often come to mind. Canteloube has also composed a set of Chants basques. Actually, one of the Basque songs bears some marked melodic resemblance to one of Canteloube’s songs. (They are sung in Basque but neither text nor translation is included.) In memoriam, subtitled Elegy for orchestra, was composed in 1939 in memory of the Basque writer Juan Carlos de Gortázar and includes quotes from Guridi’s beautiful choral work for treble voices and orchestra Así cantan los chicos (now available on a recent Naxos disc [8.557110]) setting works by Gortázar and from the Dies Irae. This moving and deeply-felt elegy opens on the basses’ softly tolling gesture supporting a sad descending theme (this is a really marvellous moment). The music builds towards an impassioned, though rather conventional climax before dying away peacefully. The coda of In memoriam is another magical moment. As a whole, this beautiful piece is not unlike Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead. Ofrenda ("Offering"), a deeply-felt tribute to Manuel de Falla, was written in one day and performed the next day. This utterly simple but sincere homage is entirely based on a slowed-down version of the farruca from de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat that functions as a ground bass supporting a sorrowful lament played by the cor anglais. This is quite simple but extraordinarily affecting, for all its brevity. Another precious little gem.

The zarzuela is a highly popular musical genre in Spain; and many composers, among others Pedrell, de Falla and Rodrigo have compositions in the genre. Often compared with operetta, the zarzuela may also deal with some more serious matters. This is the case of Arámbarri’s Viento sur ("South Wind") dramatising a true story from 1890 when bets on a boat race between fishers of San Sebastian and Ondárroa caused the ruin of the small fishing village. The Interlude heard here is a small-scale tone poem in all but the name, superbly, though rather more conventionally scored.

We are not told when the equally fine Fantasía española was composed (most likely in the 1930s too), for it has much in common with most other pieces on this disc and with similar pieces by, say, Albeniz, Turina or Rodrigo. It is again superbly scored, but it is much simpler than Ravel’s magnificent orchestral fireworks Rhapsodie espagnole. All the same, this is a very fine, colourful, tuneful work.

What is quite clear from the present release is the composer’s remarkable orchestral mastery gained, no doubt, from his conducting activities. Excellent performances and fine recorded sound. This is one of the loveliest and most enjoyable discs I have heard recently. No great masterpieces here though Ofrenda and the delightful Ocho canciones vascas might qualify. This release, particularly at bargain price, would be worth having for these two pieces only, but there is much more to enjoy here. Warmly recommended.

Hubert Culot

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