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Leonardo BALADA (b. 1933)
Guernica (1966)
Homage to Sarasate (1975)
Homage to Casals (1975)
Symphony No.4 Lausanne (1992)
Zapata: Images for Orchestra (1988)
Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra/Salvador Mas Conde
Recorded: Teatre-Auditori Sant Cugat, Barcelona, April-May 2003
NAXOS 8.557342 [69:25]

Balada’s Guernica, completed in 1966, is inspired by Picasso’s large-scale mural of 1937. It was written as a reaction to the pitiless bombing of that small Spanish town during the Civil War and a protest piece against wars; when it was composed the Vietnam War was still raging. So, the piece, that also signalled an important re-orientation of Balada’s musical thinking, from well-behaved neo-classicism to a more violent and radical form of Expressionism, has all one may expect of a work inspired by one of the most brutal and futile slaughters in Spanish history. That said, it may sound fairly tame when compared to, say, Penderecki’s Thrène pour les victimes d’Hiroshima. This reaction of mine may have to do either with the recording or the somewhat reticent playing, or both. The music, however, is tense, dissonant, percussive and appropriately brutal in its own way; and the piece as a whole is an impressive achievement. Incidentally, I might mention two other pieces inspired by the events in Guernica, viz. Youri Kasparov’s First Symphony of 1984 and Nono’s La victoire de Guernica for chorus and orchestra on words by Eluard dating from 1954; to date I have heard neither of these.

Homage to Sarasate and Homage to Casals, both completed in 1975, make for a contrasted diptych. Homage to Sarasate, opening with the skeleton of a zapateado. It unfolds as a sometimes violently contrasted collage in which whiffs of Sarasate’s tunes are tossed around in a wildly riotous context ending in an Ives-ian row. Homage to Casals is a more serious and searching affair, and – no doubt – a deeply felt (and musically more satisfying) tribute to that great artist. It has none of the wry, ironic humour of Homage to Sarasate.

A commission from the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary, the Symphony No.4 represents Balada at his most overtly expressionistic. We are told that it includes quotations from Swiss folklore but these are hard to identify, although I suspect some of them may be heard on track 4 (from about 6’45"). The piece, however, is a far cry from Honegger’s own Fourth Symphony Deliciae basilienses in which Swiss tunes are more in evidence. Repeated hearings have convinced me that it might be the finest work in this selection.

Zapata: Images for Orchestra is an orchestral suite drawn from Balada’s eponymous opera. Although many Balada fingerprints are to be heard here, one often thinks of Copland’s ballets, particularly so in the first movement (Waltz). After a fairly innocent opening this becomes more intricate as it unfolds. The second movement (March), originally based on La Cucaracha, becomes riotous, bringing in echoes of other revolutionary songs (L’Internationale and La Marseillaise among others). The third movement (Elegy) is more serious - Copland is again brought to mind. The final movement (Wedding Dance) is an extrovert romp in which a popular dance tune rubs shoulders with Balada’s own tunes. Balada, who has collaborated with Dali, obviously has real affinities with Surrealism, and this is clearly to be heard here and in Homage to Sarasate.

This is, I think, the third Balada disc that I have reviewed so far, and it must be the most immediately appealing of the three. Actually, I was slightly disappointed by his two comic operas recorded on Naxos 8.557090, probably because his expressionistic writing does not really fit with his "cartoon" tragic-comic chamber operas. The performances are generally very fine, although – as I mentioned earlier in this review – I find the playing a bit too cautious in the otherwise impressive reading of Guernica, which would have done with some sharper contrasts (or is this only a problem of recording). Well worth investigating anyway.

Hubert Culot

see also review by Paul Shoemaker

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