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Joaquín RODRIGO (1901 - 1999)
Retablo de Navidad, for soprano, bass, chorus and orchestra (1952) 15
Himnos de los neófitos de Qumrán, for three sopranos, male chorus and chamber orchestra (1965-74) 234
Música para un códice salmantino, for bass solo, mixed chorus and orchestra (1953) 5
Cántico de San Francisco de Asis, for chorus and orchestra (1982)
Raquel Lojendio (Sop) 1
María Jesús Prieto (Sop) 2
Victoria Marchante (Sop) 3
Ada Allende (Sop) 4
David Rubiera (bar) 5
Chorus of the Comunidad de Madrid
Orchestra of the Comunidad de Madrid/José Ramún Encinar
rec. Sede de la Orquesta y Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid, Hortaleza, Madrid, 9-12 July 2002
NAXOS 8.557223 [71'48]


The recording industry is led by the "majors", isnít it? Itís implicit that all the other companies are "small fry", a cloud of relatively insignificant cottage industries. But who decides which companies are the members of this exclusive "majors" club? No, I donít know - I was rather hoping that you could tell me! Then I could ask the gentleman, or lady, or committee or whatever, "Could you please tell us why Naxos isnít a Ďmajorí?" Letís face it, Naxos isnít known as a "major", but it jolly well ought to be.

Iím not about to dredge through the story yet again, except to point out that that while the rest of the recording industry was gloomily sliding down its own entropy gradient, Naxos was gaily sliding up the same. Itís now getting to the point where the only advantage the "majors" have is their brace of contracts with "big names". However, the way that the "majors" are now dropping big-name contracts like hot bricks, it can be only a matter of time - and not much time, either - before even this angle is reversed.

Of course, one of the great joys of Naxos - other than the price! - is the now utterly gob-smacking, multi-dimensional breadth of its repertoire of music, 99% of which seems to be at the very least passably presented, performed and recorded. For the foreseeable future, the companyís only risk seems to be that of collapsing under the sheer weight of it all. In the meantime, Naxos diversifies into the parts that other companies just donít seem to reach. Take the present issue, which represents not one but two aspects of that diversification: "national" series and "single composer surveys", both of which are surely of inestimable value to students and "serious" music-lovers, and also to the incurably curious and compulsive "completists".

Right, as if to prove a point, hands up all those who know Rodrigo only through his Concierto de Aranjuez. My, but thatís a lot of hands, even if we disqualify those who know only the second movement! If we toss in the Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, considerably fewer hands will go up, I shouldnít wonder. Almost half of Rodrigoís entry in the record catalogue consists of recordings of those two works. That may be a better spread than that enjoyed by Rodrigoís teacher, Dukas, but then only a dozen or so of his works survive, whereas there is a river of Rodrigo in which to swim.

Naxos have produced a series of eight CDs covering Rodrigoís complete orchestral works. Alright, it doesnít exactly challenge Gargantua-like complete Mozart or Bach editions. However, whereas the latter editions merely cement the well-worn flagstones of broad highways, this relatively modest effort more or less lays a whole new path. For me this seventh volume, featuring Rodrigoís works for voices and orchestra, is exactly that: a whole new path. Perhaps I should have mentioned that one of the hands that went up was mine, albeit at the second time of asking?

The booklet is exemplary. The notes by Enrique Martínez Miura, in Spanish, are reproduced in an English translation by Susannah Howe. If I dare make a bet on it, Iíd say English is her first language! There is also a German translation, apparently not of the original Spanish but of the English translation. A bit round the houses, but never mind - if the German reads as well in German as the English does in English, then thereís probably no harm done. Far from it: the notes are pithy and packed with information. On top of that, there are notes on all the participants and full texts with translations by Raymond Calcraft. For some unknown reason the benefits of these last are not extended to German-speakers.

With my lack of foreknowledge, I was glad of the notes because, truth to tell, these pieces struck me - as I imagine they will anyone else who knows only those famous, glowing neo-romantic guitar concertante works - like a faceful of freezing water. Well, apart from the Retablo de Navidad that is, but then youíd hardly expect to be tied in knots by a "Christmas Tableau" (of carols and songs), would you? Not "knotted" maybe - but you will be captivated, from the moment you hear the tapping of a drum at the start right through to the mouth-watering, "lemon drop" dissonances of the final song.

The third, fifth and eighth numbers, with their intoxicating rhythms, are perhaps the most characteristic of Rodrigo as we know and love him. However, the tender lullaby of the second and the liquid pastoralism of the fourth gently lead us just a bit off that beaten track. At opposite ends of this relatively unfamiliar territory are the sixth and seventh songs. The sixth, for a capella choir, is a comical, tongue-twisting patter-song. Quite how the choir get their tonsils round torrents of "a la chirichiribirivuela, chiribirivuela, maricuela" beats me - but they do, and do it to breathtakingly exhilarating effect! The seventh is a song about Maryís confusion between the joy of her mission and the apparently contradictory need for covert flight. Whilst preserving the simple beauty of "lullaby" and "pastoralism", Rodrigo forges from them something on the lines of "profundity by stealth".

Raquel Lojendio has a light and attractive voice, which she uses affect in these songs a girlish quality, disarming and charming in its simplicity of utterance. By maintaining this quality in the rather more serious seventh song, far from missing the mark she hits the bullseye dead centre. David Rubieraís part is a small one, but his light baritone is nicely complementary in the layered duet of the track 2 lullaby.

After this, things definitely do get distinctly knottier! The austere Hymnos ("Hymns of the Neophytes of Qumram"), based on texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, is about as far removed as you can get from the preceding cosy carol-world. Still and chill, the three soprano voices twist and coil around one another over a sparse accompaniment of percussion motifs and abysmal tollings, alternating with a monotonally chanting male chorus. At first virtually atonal, the music seems to call from some remote corner of time and space. Gradually, some degree of diatonically melodic warmth creeps in, slowly closing the chasm. It is riveting! I take my hat off to the three sopranos, Prieto, Marchante and Allende: to a woman, they somehow manage to hold to their allotted notes - under what feel like the most trying circumstances - to produce some extraordinary sounds.

After Hymnos, the Music for a Salamancan Codex strikes like a faceful of warm water. Regardless of the contrast with the preceding Hymnos, I would take issue with the booklet note. which refers to its "pared-down expressiveness". Written to a commission from the University of Salamanca to celebrate its seventh centenary, Rodrigo pulls out a considerable number of stops to deliver what sounds to these ears like "the goods". The gracefully lilting instrumental introduction gradually evolves into a fulsome, ecstatic outpouring of baritone soloist and full choir, with powerful support from the orchestra of a mere eleven instruments, though I must admit that it sounds like a lot more. Taking the spotlight after his earlier supporting rôle, David Rubiera here proves his mettle, singing with bags of fire and passion.

Iíve just had a "senior moment" (itís nothing to worry about, Iíve been having them since I was about six years old!). For the life of me I cannot recall the proper name for the holy men who sing from the tops of minarets. Anyway, the Canticle starts off with a solo flute giving a very passable, and atmospheric, impression of one of these men. Saint Francis praises the Lord by working his way through more or less the whole of "Creation": sun, moon, stars, air, water, fire, earth, plants and animals - all leading up to "Sister Death", not as an end to life, but as the gateway to God, naturally.

That exotic Eastern melody remains in the instrumental domain, a tangy counterpoint to the rather more standard "ecclesiastical" stuff Rodrigo gives to the choir. Coupled with the opportunities for colourful tone-painting offered by the text, it is a heady brew indeed, culminating in a grandiose processional set over boldly booming drums. For the second time on this CD, the choir comes to the fore. Here they take the red meat Rodrigo serves them and, by, donít they give it a right good chew!

I have but one carp. Sometimes, this orchestra is too quiet - it is making interesting sounds that seem to fade into virtual inaudibility. The fault I donít think is theirs, but a minor misjudgement on the part of the recording engineers, whose balance generally tends to favour the singers over the orchestra in the grand old "opera" manner. By way of compensation, the soloists are particularly cleanly caught, and the overall sound-picture is very satisfying, with scarcely a trace of strain or congestion. Eminently listenable!

The Madrid orchestra plays wonderfully, ever alive to Rodrigoís extensive sonic palette. It is a real treat to listen to their performance. The only performer that, thankfully, we donít hear is conductor José Ramún Encinar, to whom I extend my gratitude for his spirited advocacy of Rodrigoís music. I donít know if anyone can do it better, but heís won me over, and most importantly heís whetted my appetite for Rodrigo. This is the sort of musical experience I really love: like all the best books itís hard to get into, but once youíre in itís a lot harder to get back out. Anyway, whoíd want to?

Paul Serotsky

see also review by Neil Horner



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