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Andrés Isasi (1890-1940)
Symphony No. 2 in G minor, Op. 23 (1931) [43.58]
Suite No. 2 in E major, Op. 21 (c.1930) [11.43]
Bilbao Symphony Orchestra/Juan José Mena
Recorded at the Palacio Euskalduna, Bilbao, Spain: 29th – 31st August 2001
NAXOS 8.557584 [56.08]

I must admit that I had not heard of Andrés Isasi until I received this CD for review. And more is the pity. Let me say at the outset that I am seriously impressed with the two works presented on this CD by Naxos.

A few brief biographical details may help. Andrés Isasi was born in the Spanish city of Bilbao in 1890. He was still quite young when he started to learn the piano. He worked locally with a musician called Unceta before moving to Berlin in 1910 to study composition with Karl Kampf and Engelbert Humperdinck. The latter composer introduced him to the structure of large-scale symphonic works. He returned to Spain but in spite of the fact that he is virtually unknown in our day he became a noted composer. Although he had composed much before he went to Germany, these works were mainly songs and small-scale pieces. It was on his return that he turned his thoughts to composing for the orchestra and began a series of ambitious symphonic works.

Unfortunately this ‘Germanic’ turn to his music did not appeal to the local Spanish audience. He seemed to be better appreciated in Eastern Europe, where the present symphony was championed. However Isasi was never in need of money and could accept the fact that destiny was not moving in his direction. He died, virtually forgotten, at Algorta in 1940.

Andrés Isasi has a considerable catalogue of works to his name, nearly all of them unknown. There are two symphonies, a number of concerti, five string quartets and a large variety of choral, vocal and instrumental compositions.

The keynote of the two works presented here is a strong sense of continuity with the great post-romantic European symphonic tradition. He had an obvious gift for creating interesting and attractive melodies. He was a master of the orchestra and this is well reflected in both the Symphony and the Suite. If there is a criticism of his style it is that it is a bit derivative; we hear a variety of influences including Richard Strauss and Frederick Delius. But this is not really a problem – no composer works in a vacuum.

The Second Symphony (1931) cannot be regarded as a great masterpiece; it is a competent essay in this medium. The big advantage it has is that it is quite simply enjoyable. This is a large-scale work lasting some three quarters of an hour; it is in the traditional four movement form.

The first movement has a tremendous Straussian feel. There are a number of long slow build-ups which never reach their final destination, but slip away into more reflective music. There are also some delicious moments for woodwind here. Eventually Isasi reaches his climatic goal with some fine melodic writing. I wonder if he had been listening to Tristan when he composed this! There is a contrasting little marching theme that takes the pressure off the ‘plunging romanticism’ but the passion soon returns. The movement ends quietly. The music is afflicted with a pervasive sense of meandering. I wonder where it is going! And the imbalance between the passionate and the trivial can be a little disappointing. Yet, it is a good opening movement that shows considerable skill and invention

But it is in the adagio that we hear Andrés Isasi at his most expressive. The programme notes liken the tonal world of this movement to the music of Delius. And it is not hard to see why. This is a truly lovely sustained movement. There are darker moments and greater passion in the central section, but the generally restrained mood wins the day. Normally I would never say this, but this movement could well stand on its own. Maybe not the absolute height of romanticism but it comes jolly close in my book. There are moments when one could easily shed a tear. Great stuff!

The Scherzo is actually quite a tightly organised movement. The main theme is ‘a spiky idea played pizzicato and col legno by the violins.’ This is definitely attractive and extremely well scored music. The trio section naturally contrasts with the ‘minuet’ but the opening material seems to be bubbling just under the surface.

The opening of the last movement is contrapuntal. There is almost a Beethovenian feel here. And there are echoes of Jesus Joy of Man’s Desiring! A lovely soaring tune for the strings lifts the music considerably. Although there are many good things here, this is the weakest movement. Somehow it just does not cohere, which is a pity as some of the ‘sections’ and ‘motifs’ are extremely satisfying.

The Suite No.2 in E major (1930) is not a heavyweight work. It is apparently related to the symphonic poem style that the composer developed after his sojourn in Berlin.

The first movement is an Idyll; it has some oriental scale type material in these pages. This is quite meditative; once again we are conscious of Delius in some of the ruminations. The Burleske is almost in classic ‘light’ music style - and none the worse for that. The orchestration is excellent with many shades of colour and light. The final Fugue is more an exercise in counterpoint than an academic fugue – yet at the outset there is almost the intimacy of a string quartet. Soon the orchestra brushes this away and a whole heap of ideas are tossed around. The work ends confidently.

This is an attractive release. Perhaps it is not essential listening, however for lovers of late-romantic music that is totally listenable and enjoyable it will be a valuable addition to their CD collection. The CD is only 56 minutes long; one feels that Naxos could have found another short work to fill up the space to about 70 minutes. There is little information on the ‘Web’ about Isasi and he does not feature in the more readily available musical dictionaries. Perhaps a little more in the way of programme notes might have been helpful.

The playing by Isasi’s home orchestra is without fault. They are well able to create the magic that this music engenders.

John France

see also review by Rob Barnett

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