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Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
El amor brujo – Suite [24:16]*
Noches en los jardines de España [22:51]**
La vida breve: Introducción [03:00], Vivan los que rien! [06:03]*
El sombrero de tres picos: Danza de los vecinos [03:04], Danza del molinero [02:33], Danza final [06:09]
Tomás BRETÓN (1850-1923)
Escenas Andaluzas: Polo Gitano [04:28], Zapateado [05:02]
Teresa Berganza (mezzo-soprano)*, Gonzalo Soriano (piano)**
Orchestra National de la Radiodiffusion Française (Falla), Gran Orquesta Sinfónica (Bretón)/Ataúlfo Argenta
rec. 21 February 1957, Paris, live (Falla), 1955-7, Madrid, studio (Bretón)
MEDICI ARTS MM0252 [78:14]
Experience Classicsonline

The name of  Ataúlfo Argenta (1913-1958) is sometimes bracketed with that of Guido Cantelli. And not just because they were two enormously gifted conductors who died in tragic accidents in the first flush of their careers. Both, it is said, were purveyors of a similar Dionysian, euphoric style of interpretation. In the case of Cantelli, Toscanini’s support and Legge’s interest saw that we have a fairly broad-based recorded legacy on which to judge the legend. As for Argenta, I learn from Colin Anderson’s note that he set down nearly 50 zarzuelas for Spanish Columbia, many with distinguished singers, so perhaps it’s time someone got busy transferring some of them. Otherwise, he is remembered for a handful of Decca recordings, mainly of Spanish music but also including symphonies by Berlioz, Liszt and Tchaikovsky. To this may be added a Schubert “Great” C major with the Cento Soli Orchestra of Paris. Cantelli’s discography has been considerably extended by research into radio archives. It is possible that Argenta’s could be similarly broadened, but little has been done so far. Readers wishing to know more may like to take a look at the website dedicated to Argenta. It is mostly in Spanish but the detailed biography is translated into English. Scroll down to “Grabaciones” for the discography. Argenta was the conductor of the Spanish National Orchestra; outside Spain he regularly conducted – and recorded with – the London Symphony, Paris Conservatoire and Suisse Romande Orchestras. At the time of his death he had been booked to record the Brahms Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic.

So, while Argenta was undoubtedly dedicated to the dissemination of Spanish music, he did not intend to be seen as a specialist. For better or worse, however, Medici Arts have found a somewhat muddily and boomily, but not unpleasantly, recorded tape of him conducting the music he was most famous for, and conducting it very well. There is plenty of excitement and passion in the faster dances, while the slow movements are tensely expressive. He coaxes the right colours out of the orchestra. Like the best Falla interpreters, he doesn’t rush the Ritual Fire Dance, finding a sinister mystery in it.

Whether this recording adds much to our knowledge of the conductor is harder to say. Argenta completists will already know it from an earlier Stradivarius issue.  His performance of “Noches” with the excellent Gonzalo Soriano was set down for Decca in stereo (SXL2091) at around this time, and in mono for Spanish Columbia a few years earlier. Other Argenta recordings of the popular ballets certainly exist, but they also seem to be live performances and so not necessarily any better sonically. A glimpse of the young Teresa Berganza might tempt her admirers. The Rossini mezzo par excellence is most effective when the music is gentle and in a relatively high register. In the first song of “El amor brujo”, where folksy chest tones are required, she knows what’s needed and has a good stab. But, just to stay with singers around in those years, Oralia Dominguez went a stage further and sounded almost frighteningly visceral. The two agreeable Bretón pieces, taken from an unidentified LP, are nicely played and recorded.

Probably this sounds more lukewarm than I mean it to. The disc certainly proves that Argenta was pretty well ideal in this repertoire, and could inspire an orchestra. I hope Medici will not stop here and seek out a wider range of repertoire. While I was at it, I listened to the one off-the-air Argenta recording I have, of Turina’s “Sinfonia Sevillana” (Turin, 30.4.1954). He certainly got a brilliant and electric response from an orchestra that was presumably playing the piece for the first time. Perhaps Medici might look into RAI as a possible source for Argenta recordings?

Christopher Howell 




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