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Leonardo BALADA (b. 1933)
María Sabinaa (1969) [38:09]
Part I: En la serranía de Oaxaca [7:56]
Part II: Las viejecitas impedidas quiren ahorcar a María Sabina [16:33]
Part III: Pedimos gue el verdugo ahorque a María Sabina [13:40]
Dionisio: In Memoriamb (2001) [30:43]
Part I: Hambre, Gloria, Vida [12:43]
Part II: Guerra, guerra, la guerra [18:00]
Susí Sánchez (narrator; María Sabina); Ángel Sáiz (narrator; Town Crier and Constable); Fernando Tejedor (narrator and Executionera); Carlos Hipólito (narratorb)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Comunidad de Madrid/José Ramón Encinar
rec. Rehearsal Hall of the Orchestra and Chorus of the Comunidad de Madrid, Teatro Isabel Clara Eugenia, Spain, 27–30 June 2006a; 29 November–1 December 2006, 23–25 May 2007b. DDD.
NAXOS 8.570425 [68:52] 


Experience Classicsonline

Catalan composer Leonardo Balada has catapulted over a course of development only partially revealed by the two works on this new Naxos disc. María Sabina, arguably Balada’s most well-known work, comes from fairly early in his career, in 1969. It is full of social activism and the white-hot intensity of a composer forging a new and personal style in the face of the academic forces which smothered so many other composers, as it were, in the cradle. Balada’s approach was to combine something of the abstraction of mid-century gestural music with visceral rhythms, memorably folkloric motifs, and a vivid sense of color. In the much later Dionisio: In Memoriam, from 2001, we find a mature composer with assured hand, still broadcasting his anger and independence, but also with a noble air of valediction.

María Sabina uses narration, song and orchestral expressionism to tell the story of a Mexican mushroom cult leader persecuted for revealing ancient secrets and put to death. Though inspired by real events, librettist Camilo José Cela sharpened them for dramatic purposes. Cela and Balada weren’t so much interested in the literal truth of what happened to the real María Sabina - who wasn’t put to death - as they were in the metaphoric death of the title character’s independence and individuality in the face of societal pressures. Balada himself, having grown up in Franco’s Spain, was all too aware of the dangers of social repression, and he musically lashes out against it with zeal. 

Within its first few minutes, the work demonstrates Balada’s avant-garde arsenal. Fierce, Stravinskian rhythms give way to eerie, soft tone clusters which melt away into uneasy silence. This music is vividly gestural, like much cutting-edge music of its period. The difference with Balada is that all the sound and fury actually has substance and meaning. This work has done far better than most such pieces because Balada used expressionism not as an everyday vocabulary to replace traditional writing, but as music for the expression of high drama and terror. Indeed, just a minute into the second part, a twisted chorale in the strings almost succeeds in straightening out into a richly tonal chorale, only to be subsumed by an onslaught of tone clusters which are themselves battered to silence by an attack of percussion. Some gestural music can be off-putting, but this music is emotionally compelling. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, it grabs you, refusing to let go until its story is told. 

Although far more folkloric touches were to show up in Balada’s music later, hints of native rhythm and melody are even here somewhere in this music’s DNA. This removes it from the abstract and makes it stunningly real. In one place, I could swear I was hearing the violent crowd in a small Mexican town, in another spot I felt like I was hearing the humid seethe of a tropical night. Fanciful and personal reactions, to be sure, but such is the vividness of Balada’s writing that it provokes personal response. Balada’s own description of the work as a “tragifonia” (tragic symphony) is apt, for it has a symphonic scope and a stark impact. 

The devotion of the performers is visceral and intense. José Ramón Encinar leads the Orchestra of the Comunidad de Madrid with fearless abandon. The orchestra doesn’t merely navigate the thickets of notes, they play them with frightening commitment. The chorus is likewise unafraid to push things to the brink. When orchestra and chorus join for a slow glissando from low to high and back down again (around 9:30 in Part II), it is primordial, like a force of nature suddenly encountered for the first time. The ensuing enchanted, sinuous melody that rises up to radiant heights, only to be attacked by the return of brutal tone-clusters can only be described as a moment of pure genius, both in composition and in performance. 

The three narrators who also assume roles in María Sabina are equally committed. For non-Spanish speakers, English translations of the texts are included in the booklet, though the general mood of what is transpiring is conveyed by tone and music. 

As Balada developed his style over the years, he came to use more tonal, folk-music elements in his works, but dramatic flurries of tone clusters and primal rhythms still appear. In his own program note in the booklet, Balada notes that he intentionally wrote the cantata Dionisio: In Memoriam in a manner echoing the fiery music of María Sabina. But, though it shares some stylistic fingerprints with the earlier work, it is less driven by white-hot anger than it is by richly complex mixed-emotions. The almost innocent fanaticism of the earlier work is replaced by the musings of one looking back over a life full of both passionate commitment and the inevitable human compromises. 

The work is both an elegy for and based upon writings by the Spanish poet and politician Dionisio Ridruejo, whose words are narrated. Additional text reflecting upon Ridruejo’s text surrounds it and is sung by the chorus. This commentary text was provided to Balada by Emilio Ruiz. The closely overlapping threads explore both dramatic tension and lyrical beauty. The first part is more visceral, while the second and longer part of the cantata slowly rises over strife into an uneasy peace that mixes affectionate evocations of Spain, particularly of the Soria region, with stark, sparse moments of bleakness. 

The performers respond to the subtleties of Dionisio with a wide range of touch and dynamics. Though the piece doesn’t fling itself as immediately at the listener, it has depths which yield slowly to repeat listening, and the performers grasp that substantiality.

The least effective element of these recordings is the sound. Recorded in the orchestra’s rehearsal hall, they are very close up, which seems appropriate for Balada’s confrontational stance, particularly in María Sabina. But as the rehearsal hall is small, it basically functions like a recording studio. The clarity of sound would also be extremely dry under such conditions, but the engineers attempt to counter that by adding reverberation. Over main speakers, it passes reasonably well. Over headphones, it is more glaringly obvious, as all sounds, no matter where they come from on the sound-stage, decay in the center of the sonic image, something that real reverberating sounds don’t do. But having this sort of sound is far preferable to not having these recordings at all, particularly at the Naxos price. This music is too good, too important to be missed. Thanks to Naxos for recording several discs of Balada’s music and giving him the international profile he deserves.

Mark Sebastian Jordan


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