Spanish vocal music is to most music-lovers in the rest of the
world indelibly associated with three great singers: Victoria
de los Angeles, Montserrat Caballé and Teresa Berganza. Placing
them in order of precedence is of course a delicate task but
probably Ms de los Angeles as the earliest of them was the pioneer.
But we shouldn’t forget singers from even earlier, Conchita
Supervia, for instance. Some Spanish songs, or collections of
songs, have been established as standard repertoire – de Falla’s
Siete Canciones populares españolas, for example, and
the Tonadillas of Granados. Neither of these is included
on this disc which is a coupling of two LPs recorded in 1962
and 1969 with two extra songs thrown in for good measure.
my earliest days as a record collector, Victoria de los Angeles
has been a great favourite of mine, the legendary Bohème
with Björling and Faust with Gedda and Christoff occupying
special places of honour on my shelves. But as so often, singing
in one’s mother tongue liberates the voice and the expression
in a special way, and hearing her in this repertoire is something
extra. What made her such a great artist was not the voice in
itself in the first place. True, she was one of the loveliest
sopranos of her, or indeed any, generation but this was more
through the way she made the words become meaningful, her way
of inflecting the phrases, her endearing timbre, her bird-like
pianissimo top notes and her lack of artificiality. At forte
her tone could become hard and even shrill and she had to work
hard with the top register. She could even be a bit unsteady
on sustained notes. All this, however, contributed to “The Victoria
de los Angeles Sound” and the defects, if that’s what they were,
also became a means to express vulnerability, something that
comes much less easily to singers with steadier voices. Thanks
to discriminating choice of repertoire that suited her voice
and temperament she was also vouchsafed an uncommonly long career,
during which her voice was more or less unchanged. Listening
to her earliest recording, two arias from de Falla’s La vida
breve, set down at Abbey Road in March 1948 (HMV DB 6702),
there is a youthful freshness that inevitably diminished through
the years but it is still remarkable how little. I heard her
in a quite taxing French programme at the Wigmore Hall in 1990
and her voice was in perfect shape. She even sang as an encore
the Seguidilla from Carmen with the same abandon
as on the complete recording with Beecham, made more than thirty
years earlier. And on the final track on the present disc she
can be heard even later in her career, singing Montsalvatge’s
Madrigal in a recording from the Closing Ceremony of
the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. I doubt that many listeners
when hearing this and then listening to any of the items recorded
in 1962 would believe that they were recorded thirty years apart.
other bonus track on the disc is the opening number, the aria
La maja y el ruiseñor (The girl and the nightingale) from
Granados’ opera Goyescas. This was another piece she
recorded very early, 1950, also in London. The differences are
small and what she may have lost in freshness of tone she has
gained in insight. Both recordings are worthy representatives
of an opera that is little played today and from which only
the orchestral Intermezzo can be heard once in a while.
It is wonderfully atmospheric music, richer on lyrical qualities
is followed by Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras
from 1946, possibly the most well-known songs on this disc.
Originally they were written with piano accompaniments and
the young de los Angeles sang them in this version and later
also in the orchestral version from 1949, which is recorded
here. The cycle as such is marvellous music in either version.
It actually also exists in a version for soprano and eight cellos
by Elias Arizcuren and Nicolaas Ravenstijn, authorised by the
composer in 1990 and premiered at the festival of Peralada in
Spain in the presence of the composer and Rostropovich. There
is a recording with soprano Young Hee Kim Peral and Conjunto
Ibérico on Channel Classics CCS 13298. Teresa Berganza recorded
the original version on DG and it was through her I also first
came to know this music at a concert in the early 1970s – but
that was the orchestral version and it is the one I prefer.
Comparing the two great Spanish singers, de los Angeles is the
frailer, more intimate, the “Lullaby for a black baby” (tr.
5) so delicately sung, not to an audience but to the little
one, with “head like a coconut, a coffee-bean / with pretty
dark curls / and great big eyes …” But what horrible things
she whispers: “Close your eyes, my frightened little one /or
the big white devil may come and eat you up”? In the concluding
rhythmic Canto negro, on the other hand, she is wonderfully
outgoing and relaxed, almost casual in her rhythmic lilt, maybe
illustrating the lines “The negro sings / and gets drunk”.
Canciones amatorias is a group of seven songs, which
Montserrat Caballé recorded complete in the mid-sixties, coupled
with the better-known Tonadillas. I still treasure the
original LP but have upgraded to the CD which also includes
some extra songs, including the aria from Goyescas with
piano accompaniment. Caballé’s creamy voice is of course a marvellous
instrument and the whole disc can be wholeheartedly recommended.
De los Angeles is in the last resort the most endearing in the
two songs she recorded from the cycle.
have a soft spot for Rodrigo’s music and the songs performed
here are lovely creations, not least De dónde venis, amore?
(tr. 11), where both the orchestra and the soprano chirp like
amorous birds. De los Alamos vengo, madre (tr. 12) is
even lovelier. These madrigals are all quite happy and sparkling,
while the Triptych of Monsignor Cinto starts solemnly
and melancholy with “The sacred Harp”, where the aforementioned
strain at the top of the voice is noticeable. “St. Francis’s
violin” is lively, even burlesque, but there is a sad undertone.
The third song in the cycle has a heart-warming beauty all of
its own, reminding me sometimes of a Russian folksong.
has been some attention to Federico Mompou’s piano music lately;
Naxos has released four volumes with the excellent Jordi Masó.
Much of it is based on or at least inspired by the folk music
of his native Catalonia. That also goes for his songs, which
are graciously melodic.
music of Oscar Esplá and Eduardo Toldrá is little known, but
Esplá especially has a distinct voice with quite daring harmonies
and rhythms and a characteristic Spanish melodic touch. One
would believe that Las 12 (Twelve o’clock) (tr. 21) should
be sleepy siesta music; it is anything but.
songs are more straightforwardly melodic and Maig (May)(tr.
26) is a beautiful evocation of spring with de los Angeles caressing
is remarkable how many of these Spanish composers reached advanced
ages: Montsalvatge and Oscar Esplá reached 90, Mompou 94 and
Rodrigo 98 and they were obviously active to the very end.
always with this wholly admirable series of reissues from the
important EMI back catalogue the documentation is first class.
There are full texts and translations in four languages and
an appreciation by John Steane.
aplenty on this well-filled disc which shouldn’t be missing from
any respectable collection of vocal music.