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Padre José Antonio DONOSTIA (1886-1956)
Piano Music

Basque Preludes (1912-16)
Andante for a Basque Sonata
Heartfelt prayer to Our Lady of Socorri
Basque Minuet
On the Banks of the Ter
Tiento and Song
Homage to Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga
Jordi Masó (piano)
Recorded at the Teatre Ponent de Granollers, Barcelona, July 2000
NAXOS 8.557228 [78.35]


A few words about Donostia, about whom I was completely ignorant. He was born José Gonzalo de Zulaica y Arregui in San Sebastian in 1886. After being ordained he took the Basque name for his place of birth, Donostia, and spent much time researching Basque music and Gregorian Chant. His first early intensive period of composition was in the decade from 1910-20 after which he went to Paris to study, met Ravel, and wrote an increasing number of works in more confident, public mediums – stage works and orchestral pieces, many reflective of his absorption in Basque music. Exiled by the Spanish Civil War, he moved to France and concentrated on sacred music; Passion Poem and the Requiem being the two most significant. He returned to Spain at the end of the war and lived on until 1956.

Collector and disseminator he was a kind of conduit and codifier of Basque music, doing analogous work to Grainger, Vaughan Williams, Bartók and Janáček in taking down native folk music. Of course there are few parallels musically with any of these composers. Donostia’s was a more intimate and deliberate quest, engaged as he was in textual illumination and not particularly great originality or extrapolation. The notes put it well in stressing his "expressing the harmonic backgrounds, rhythmic patterns ... distant music from religious processions ... and children’s games."

The effect of listening to the twenty-one Basque preludes is sometimes bizarre. They fuse folk melodies with generous amplitude and explication of the harmonic shifts that give the tunes their memorable quality. The very first is an improvisation on Twinkle twinkle little star – at least that’s what it sounds like – and the second opens with impressionist gauze but veers away towards sturdy harmony, rising to a peak of vigour. The mood throughout the Preludes is buoyant and good-natured, a glissando introducing a fantastic tale and bass extensions hinting at lost-in-the-woodsness Sometimes one is brought up short; the first chord of the Lullaby No.9 is the Franck Violin Sonata’s famous opening, and aren’t there hints of Albéniz’s Iberia in No.13 as elsewhere there are infusions of Granados and Debussy. The most explicitly impressionist setting is No.18, Landscape of La Soule, with its grandeur of depiction.

The Andante for a Basque Sonata contains amidst its discursive pages, bizarrely, a rousing rendition of Abide with Me – is it known in the Basque country under a different name? The rolled chords are "honestly old fashioned" and the whole movement resembles Haydn more than, say, any contemporary or indeed Romantic composer. The evocations such as On the Banks of the Ter fuse gaudy pounding with impressionist glint and in Tiento and Song he evokes the chordal and strummed simplicities of the guitar with generosity and good humour.

Jordi Masó manages to convey the moods and impressions with crisp rhythm and no little power. Donostia’s muse was one of song and simplicity and we have both here in full measure.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Gary Higginson

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