Imagine well-dressed gentlemen and old ladies in furs and jewels, coming to listen in concert to some respectable Mass – Cherubini’s, for example. Suddenly they hear about a change in the program, and are presented with the Misa flamenca! A similar shock is in store for you on this disc.
Dedicated to the music of Manuel de Falla, this disc contains the entire El amor brujo (in its later, more “civilized” ballet form), the irresistible Seven Popular Spanish Songs, and a few other pieces, including three dances from The Three-Cornered Hat and the ubiquitous Spanish Dance from La vida breve. In brief, the most Spanish of all the Spanish music. So, the program is quite standard – but the arrangements aren’t! In addition to the two guitars played by Peter and Zoltán Katona, and the mezzo-soprano (in the songs and the vocal numbers of El amor brujo), there is a lot of diverse percussion. Moreover, in several parts of El amor brujo we hear electric guitars! Did I like it? Yes and no. I loved the added percussion – very colorful and inventive. But the electric guitars seem a bit out of place sometimes – and I do not feel musical unity in the cycle, since the electric guitars grab the stage in some numbers and disappear in others. The style jumps hither and yon and back again.
Manuel de Falla’s music appears born to be played on guitar. The short and frequent notes, the clear articulation, the stomping chords, the tremolos – it is hard to believe that it was not initially written for the instrument. This is especially noticeable in the Seven Songs, where the original piano arrangement imitates the guitar. These arrangements liberate the hidden spirit of the music.
The introduction to El amor brujo immediately shows the two strong points of this disc: the sonorous, strong guitar sound (the tadimm-tudamm tadimm-tudamm motif has orchestral power), and the constant presence of the percussion. The following Night in the Cave introduces the electric guitars and is all recyclable plastic, after which we go to flamenco singing in Cancion del amor dolido. All this creates a feeling of a big mix, which continues throughout the entire cycle. It’s a bit uncomfortable. I liked the arrangement solutions in the classical-guitar parts: very rhythmic, propelled by the percussion. In the vocal numbers, Juanita Lascarro does a very good job. She does not descend to the depths of the throat like an authentic flamenco cantaora, but also does not have the superficial opulence of some opera-house singers. Her voice has a natural beauty and roundness. She is recorded a bit remotely, which creates a feeling of stage action. Escena (track 10) is another dubious electric experiment, but the surrounding Danza ritual del fuego and Pantomima are well done, the former with good contrast, the latter sensitive and letting the music breathe.
Out of El Sombrero de tres picos we have three dances. The Miller’s Dance has a virile, rather arrogant, character. Some percussion effects give it a more sinister hue than usual. The Dance of the Neighbors is sunny and good-humored, relaxed, very well arranged and played. The Dance of the Miller’s Wife is, regrettably, too hard-driven and loses its voluptuous, Carmen-like appeal. The percussion try to substitute depth with quantity but lack subtlety. Instead of a dance, the Miller’s Wife seems to be enjoying an exciting horse ride. The same can be said of the opening track of the disc, the Spanish Dance from La vida breve. The guitars and percussion do not always blend well. However, the percussion effects definitely make the music more interesting, although probably less emotional.
But I can say without reservation that in the Seven Popular Songs the arrangers’ approach bears wonderful unique fruit. In the main this is due to the beautiful singing of Juanita Lascarro, her voice strong and velvety, like a clarinet. The accompaniment is well-planned and well-measured. The percussion never dominate, yet they add illuminating detail. The entire construction is open and colorful: an Eiffel Tower of music!
The two last pieces on the disc dispense with the percussion. First comes the purely instrumental Homenaje – the only piece de Falla actually wrote for guitar! It is soft and delicate, like the music of Debussy to whose memory it was dedicated. Last, Juanita Lascarro grants us a radiant performance of the beautiful song Tus ojillos negros. It has one of de Falla’s unforgettable tunes. The two guitars are like two additional singers - a perfect close for the album.
The sound of the guitars is orotund and resonant, well articulated yet not dry, without any extraneous noises, powerful when required and delicate when needed. The recording is clear, though I would prefer the percussion to have been a little more recessed: at some moments it eclipses the guitars. The insert notes speak sufficiently about the performers, but not enough about the works. And no texts of the songs, either.
The bottom line: I would not recommend this disc as the only recording of El amor brujo, but it offers a very interesting and indeed unique alternative view. The songs are first class, with some great singing and sensitive playing. I am very happy that discs like this continue to appear – giving new perspectives on ‘old’ music. This cannot be called a crossover: it’s just a fresh approach. With efforts like this, classical music will never fossilize.
The most Spanish of all the Spanish music - a fresh approach… see Full Review