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Padre Jose Antonio DONOSTIA (1886-1956)
Piano Works: Twenty-One Basque Preludes (1912-16); Andante for a Basque Sonata; Nostalgia; Heartfelt prayer to our Lady of Socorri; Basque Minuet; On the Banks of the Ter; Tiento and Song; Hommage to Juan Crisostomo de Arriaga
Jordi Maso (piano)
Rec: July 2000, Théâtre Ponent de Granollers, Barcelona, Spain. DDD
NAXOS 8.557228 [78.35]

It was only this year that the choral and orchestral music of this little known Basque composer was first being reviewed with much enthusiasm in these pages and in the pages of music magazines. Naxos recorded these works over four years ago and have been sitting on them all that time before releasing them in their ongoing ‘Spanish Classics’ series. Well, arguably Donostia is not Spanish and ‘Classics’? Well, hardly although the music does have the potential for that epithet, given time and exposure.

Padre Donostia (born Jose Gonzalo de Zulaica) was, to quote the useful booklet essay by Santiago Gorostiza "not only one of the greatest Basque composers of sacred, symphonic and stage music, but also a highly influential collector and expert in his native region’s folk music". In addition, he had been ordained and at the age of fifteen, having been sent to the Capuchin College in Lekaroz in Navarre, joined the Order. On his ordination as a priest he took the name you see above. He nevertheless made a prosperous career in music starting with studies in Paris from 1920. Later his music was played all over the world but especially in South America which he regularly visited. From this period there are three stage works on religious or spiritual subjects, but his greatest achievement, to quote again, "was to bring prestige to traditional Basque music ...... and a perfect balance between the assimilation of tradition and the huge influence of impressionistic contemporaries, Debussy and Ravel".

On this CD you can hear, folk-inspired pieces with simple melodies as in the Basque Preludes No. 1 ‘Improvisation’ (a tune not unlike ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’). Impressionist landscapes also feature, as in Number 18 ‘Landscape of La Soule’. There are also neo-classical pieces as in the ‘Andante para una sonata’ and the Homage to Arriaga, the early 19th Century Spanish composer.

The Twenty-One Basque Preludes are melodious and varied pieces which could become classics - several of them being within the reach of the good amateur. They fall into four books and took four years to complete. The traditional melodies are allowed to shine through. Donostia adds interesting rhythmic patterns, impressionist recitatives, like a muezzin-melisma from a mosque and children’s melodies found in their games. The whole is imbued with a nostalgic lyricism. Some are short and amusing like ‘Grandfather’s Tale’ and some are dances like the witty ‘Dance of the Blackbird’. As we listen through the Preludes it becomes apparent that the composer’s classical roots are being slowly abandoned in favour of impressionist ones.

I am not clear when the eight shorter pieces on this CD were composed but the booklet seems to imply that they are of the same period. Of especial interest for my taste is the intriguing ‘Nostalgia’. Who would nowadays dare call a piece ‘Nostalgia’? It opens with a series of arpeggiated seventh chords over a repeated pedal figure. After almost two minutes it is suddenly interrupted by a dance-like rhythm broken up by almost randomly placed interjected chords before gradually ambling into the first idea again. There is something hypnotic here and quite original and very personal going on - a quality lacking in some of the other pieces.

The recording is excellent and conveys the warmth of the music. The performances by Jordi Maso, a Catalan musician with an eclectic discography already to his name, seems to have a clear understanding of its aims and is totally in character.

To sum up, this is attractive if undemanding music here given every chance to shine.

Gary Higginson

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