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Aita DONOSTIA (1886-1956)
Preludios Vascos (Segunda Serie) (1918) [12.41]
Les Trois Miracles de Sainte Cécile (1920) [17.33]
Urruti Jaia (1916) [4.59]
Los Ferrones de Mirandaola (1930) [4.00]
Acuarelas Vascas (1932) [9.16]
La Vie Profonde de Saint François D’Assise (Fourth Tableau) (1926) [7.46]
Rapsodia Baskongada (1906) [12.54]
Coral Andra Maria Choir
Euskadiko Orkestra Sinfonikao (Basque National Orchestra)/Cristian Mandeal
rec. Basque National Orchestra Concert Hall, San Sebastian, March-April 2003
CLAVES CD 50-2305 [68.06]

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This is now the seventh in Claves exploratory and in many cases revelatory series devoted to Basque music. Donostia 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. Somewhat analogous to Grainger, Vaughan Williams, Bartók, Kodály and Janáček he was a collector and disseminator of Basque music though there are no direct parallels with any of these composers; his tendency in any case was more toward codification of his native folk music than in any truly original extrapolation of it.

Nevertheless as his piano music has so adeptly shown (on Naxos) his was a lyrical and attractive voice and this disc of his orchestral music reinforces the view. The four Preludios Vascos are brief but vibrant; the first opens with a horn call reminiscent of the opening of the Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto though the sound world is nymph-warm and reminiscent more of Ravel, one of Donostia’s compositional lodestars. It’s nevertheless interesting to hear how the noble and expressive second of the set, Eztei taldea, strikes a tension between impressionist influences harmonically and romantic impulses in terms of orchestration. The overriding influence, derived from his Parisian stay, is constant, though the final piece of the set strikes a more bullish and brass fuelled boldness. Les Trois Miracles de Sainte Cécile followed in 1920 and is bathed in recollection of Debussy’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, which he’d seen earlier that year. It opens rather like Vaughan Williams in the aftermath of his own studies with Ravel but also takes in high winds and hazy gauze rich string melodies. The third song is especially attractive – delightfully light, aerial and full of grace though he doesn’t stint the sense of serious, contemplative twilit religiosity. The choir enters with the last tableau with some ethereal sounds and a touch – just a touch – of The Lark Ascending about the solo violin line.

Urruti Jaia is a charmingly arranged folk song setting whilst the 1930 Los Ferrones de Mirandaola evokes iron foundry workers - though banish thoughts of Mossolov. We get examples of the piano original but here orchestrated Acuarelas Vascas with their one original movement – these are cheerful and enjoyable but lack something of the tang of his impressionist leanings. We also hear the fourth scene of La Vie Profonde de Saint François D’Assise for string orchestra and choir. Here though one feels the warmth and piety of the music there is a slightly dogged religiosity that never quite convinces. And then we go right back to the beginning with the 1906 Rapsodia Baskongada written when he was twenty – the first ripely romantic and showing how much of the Brahmsian influence he had yet to shake off, and the second a rather old fashioned scherzo.

The notes are succinct, useful and in five languages and the performances sympathetic and warm though not quite detailed or quite hefty enough sometimes to convey the sensuous impressionism and drama of Donostia’s inspiration – and that’s especially true of the Preludios Vascos. But that’s a small reservation given the breadth of the achievement on show here – a warmly welcomed disc.

Jonathan Woolf

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