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CD: Columna Musica

Don Quijote al Piano
Cuatro danzas de la época de Cervantes (transcr. by Eduardo Martinez Torner) (1947) [7:55]
Ernesto HALFFTER (1905-1989)
Serenata a Dulcinea
(1944) [6:19]
Roberto GERHARD (1896-1970)
Danzas de Don Quijote
(1940s) [16:45]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Don Quixote
(Six Character Pieces for Piano) (1909) [12:37]
Ana Vega-Toscano (piano)
rec. 7-8 July 2008 at the Salon de actos de la Fundación Juan March, Madrid
COLUMNA MÚSICA 1CM0233 [43:36]

Experience Classicsonline

I guess that this CD is to Spanish culture what a disc called Pickwick for Piano would be for the English market. The only pieces for that hypothetical release, that spring to mind, would be the Prelude by Claude Debussy- Homage a S. Pickwick, Holbrooke’s The Pickwick Club for string quartet, (surely a desideratum) and some teaching pieces by E. Markham-Lee.

Yet Cervantes does not fare much better in the annals of European music. The sleeve notes reflect on the fact that it was not until twentieth century that composers began to reflect on the adventures of Don Quixote. The most famous piece is Richard Strauss’s evocation of the gentleman in his well-known symphonic poem.

The ethos of this current CD is summed up in a short essay in the liner notes on ‘Don Quixote and Music’ by Carlos Alvar. He writes that this is a series of “works for piano in which Cervantes’s text can be felt, as it were, in the distance. There is no attempt to evoke musically well-known episodes. The composers here create new interpretations using the novel as a pretext.” He concludes by suggesting that the pieces included on this disc are the “fruit of reflection after having read the book…”

It would be a big assumption to imagine that all readers of this review have read Cervantes large volume: I have only read portions of it and an abridgment when I was at school. It is on my list of things to do. Yet most folk will have a good idea what the book is about - even if it is only ‘tilting at windmills.’ The fundamental premise of the story is that of a man who has lost the balance between fact and fiction. Don Quixote believes that he a knight straight out of the books in his beloved library. As such he is duty bound to set off on a chivalrous quest. The book recounts his adventures in the face of a world of harsh, but often hilarious, reality.

The works on this CD has been contrived to present a wide cross section of musical styles from Cervantes own day to the more piquant offerings of Roberto Gerhard. Into this general scheme is slotted Korngold’s excellent ‘character pieces’ and Halffter’s Serenade.

The CD opens with four transcriptions of music taken from guitar tablatures contemporary with the composer. These four dances are Zarabanda, Marizapalos, Villano and Canario. Ana Vega-Toscano, in her notes, is at pains to point out that in spite of the modern sounding harmonies these are exact realisations of this 17th century music. Eduardo Martinez Torner is well-respected in Spain as a musicologist however, his original compositions are less well-known. Each of these dances is a treat and gives an insight to a period of secular Spanish music that is beyond the ken of most British and American listeners.
Ernesto Halffter’s Serenata a Dulcinea is a lovely piece. I have heard nothing from this member of the ‘so-called’ Grupo de la generacion del 27’ and disciple of de Falla, but if this piece is anything to go by he is certainly worth exploring. Halffter wrote a film score for Don Quijote de la Mancha and incidental music for a play based on the fictional character’s life. However the piano piece is the only Cervantes-inspired piece to survive. Interestingly Dulcinea is a character in Don Quixote who does not actually appear. She is a peasant woman: however the knight errant has elevated her in his mind to the most beautiful lady in creation. The music is a skilful balance between the sensuous and a slightly more prosaic strumming guitar, perhaps alluding to reality and to fantasy.

Although Roberto Gerhard lived and worked in Cambridge for many years, he has never really become a huge name in the Britain. This is a pity. Gerhard is one of few composers who managed to fuse skilfully the insights of the Second Viennese School of ‘serialism’ with the melodies and rhythms of his native Catalonia. He produced a ballet, Don Quixote which was later used as a source for other works, including the present Danzas. The original ballet was largely conceived as an exercise in “oppositions and interactions between fantasy and reality, and of sanity and madness”. These polarities are present in the piano pieces. This is perhaps the most challenging work on this CD but is certainly the one that is most worthwhile to come to terms with.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Don Quixote: Six Characteristic Pieces was composed when the composer was only 12 years old. They are remarkable for both their musicality and their integrity. If Korngold’s prodigy was not well established, doubt could enter the mind of the listener that such a set of pieces could be composed by someone so young. Yet we have The Snowman and the First Piano Sonata as further examples of his compositions from this period of his life.

Ana Vega Toscana is surely correct in suggesting that this is a ‘mature’ reflection on the story of Don Quixote - both in the “psychological rendering of the characters and the choice of the episodes.” Interestingly there is no use made of Spanish folk music in these six pieces: they are very Germanic in their effect.

There is a degree of word painting in this music, including the lumbering progress of Sancho Panza and the braying of his ass. The pieces reflect on Don Quixote’s Redemption and Death, Dulcinea of Toboso, the Knight as Adventurer, and the notion of knighthood as an ideal. They are all thoroughly enjoyable and apposite. The Characteristic Pieces were published in an ‘exclusive private edition’ by the composer’s father.

This is a fine CD, if a little on the short side. Surely Columna Música could have found something else to extend the duration beyond 43 minutes? This is especially so as this purports to be Volume 1. Perhaps subsequent volumes will not be piano music, but orchestral, chamber and vocal works?

That said, the playing by Ana Vega-Toscano is a joy to hear. This accomplished Spanish pianist approaches all these pieces with understanding and sympathy. Interestingly, she is also a musical journalist, professor of music and author. Her academic credentials support her excellent performance skills. She also provides the excellent programme notes for this release.

I enjoyed all the music on this CD: I had not consciously heard any of it before. Perhaps, I was most drawn to the Danzas by Gerhard. However, the romantic precociousness of Korngold is hard to ignore.

One last thought. On my next trip to Sunny Spain, I shall be packing Cervantes Don Quixote in my suitcase.

John France



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