Three Portraits With Shadow
Rodolfo HALFFTER (1900-1987)
Suite para Orquesta, Op.1 (1924-1928) [12:01]
Marinero en Tierra (1925-1961) (arr. José Ramón Encinar, 1998) [8:19]
Ernesto HALFFTER (1905-1989)
Canciones Portuguesas (1943) [9:22]
Julián BAUTISTA (1901-1961)
Tres ciudades (1936) [11:32]
Sinfonía breve (1956) [21:25]
Lola Casariego (mezzo)
Extremadura Symphony Orchestra/Jesús Amigo
rec. March 2009, Palacio de Congresos Manuel Rojas, Badajoz, Spain

The disc is entitled "Three Portraits With Shadow". It contains music by three composers - but what could this "shadow" be? One doesn't need to read the booklet to make a good guess: this is the shadow of Manuel de Falla, who brought Spanish music into the XX century, and the XX century into Spanish music. However, there is no imitation; the voices of the three composers are so individual that de Falla's presence is felt only as a shadow. I praise this ingenious choice of title. Another marvel is the liner-note by Blanca Calvo (in English and Spanish). Delving deep and wide, the note paints the Spanish musical landscape in the Twenties and Thirties, describes the life and personality of each composer, tells the history of creation and supplies musical analysis of each recorded piece. I would call the booklet exemplary, if only it had contained the song texts with translations!

The Halffter brothers and Julián Bautista were members of "Grupo de los ocho" - the Spanish version of the French Les Six. They aimed at bringing together the national and the modern, folklore and avant-garde. They could have become pillars of the new Spanish music, if history had taken a different course. The other name of the group was "Grupo de la República", which hints that the three composers had to emigrate after 1936.

The disc contains three vocal cycles, framed by two orchestral pieces. It opens with Rodolfo Halffter's Suite para Orquesta Op.1, and what a delightful Op.1 it is! The music is light, refined, exquisitely orchestrated - I loved the touches of the piano. It brings to mind de Falla, Stravinsky, and - unexpectedly - Scarlatti. It is unmistakably Spanish. The four parts of the suite are consistent in style and leave a pleasant aftertaste, like Ravel or Poulenc at their merriest.

The song-cycle Marinero en Tierra, setting poems of Rafael Alberti, was orchestrated by José Ramón Encinar. The orchestration is stylish and inventive, in the same league as Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne. The poems are very musical by themselves, with rhythmic phrasing. The composer treats them carefully, trying not the break this internal music, but to enhance it.

Rodolfo's younger brother Ernesto carries us from Spain to Portugal, and we immediately enter the wonderful world of fado in the first of Canciones Portuguesas. The second song has distinctive Sephardic Jewish roots, and the last two are cheery and playful dances. The orchestration is very different from that of Rodolfo's cycle: it is more lyrical, transparent, without the buzz and the fuss. The four songs are instantly memorable: probably, the best melodies on this disc are found here.

Julián Bautista wrote his Three Cities as a homage to his friend Federico García Lorca, after the poet was killed in 1936. The feelings of tragedy and loss permeate the score, and Andalusian music runs in its veins, as if trying to preserve part of the soul of the great poet from Andalusia. Death starts the first song, which is somber and warm at the same time. Here Death and Love go hand in hand, as they do so often in Lorca's poems. If Mahler had been Spanish, he could have written something like this. Barrio de Córdoba is mournful Nachtmusik. The tears are quiet, the sighs are soft, but grief sinks to the heart. The last song, Baile, is ecstatic and life-asserting - although the words still suggest the joy of a heart in search of a thorn. The melodic leaps are wide and bold, the orchestration is powerful, and the cycle ends in fireworks of flamenco flame. The poet's spirit lives!

The closing work, and the longest one, is Bautista's Sinfonía breve. It starts with an agitated Allegro, organized and distressed at the same time, of the "I'm late!" kind. The strings give no rest, whipping and shouting commands. It brings to mind Shostakovich - although, while the Soviet composer would be deeply miserable after being whipped around like this, Bautista sounds pleased, even enthusiastic, as if after a good workout. The second movement is both disturbing and soothing. Quiet steps are touched in by the strings. Vulnerable tremolos surround the intertwining lines of soloing instruments, which change from woodwinds to strings to brass. The music rises like the sea - and gradually subsides, calm but ominous. The finale is cheerful, yet retains a lot of tension. The gestures are angular, the freedom is restrained. Quite the opposite of the first movement, we see a smile on the face, but it's a grimace; the eyes are unsmiling. There is some Shostakovich here again, but the misty mysticism of the second movement and the grim joy of the third also remind one of Vaughan Williams, especially his Sixth Symphony. As a whole, this is a very valuable symphony, with rich counterpoint and masterful orchestration.

The Extremadura Symphony Orchestra does a great job. The ensemble is very good. Rhythmic and dynamic precision are perfect, the soloing instruments are strong yet sensitive. Jesús Amigo leads energetic, dense interpretations, which deserve to become definitive for these attractive works. My greatest praise goes to Lola Casariego. It is hard to describe how well her voice matches the three vocal works. It is powerful, and she controls this force, never pressing too hard, yet going at full flood when necessary. The voice is sensitive, and we hear the most delicate way with word-painting, notes, intonation and dynamic. She applies the spirit of fado in Ernesto Halffter's songs, and of flamenco in those of Bautista. She does this as if she were a born fado or flamenco singer. In the end, hers is simply a beautiful voice; it has weight over a wide range and the "light smoke" quality of Oolong tea. In brief, I am not just impressed - I am imprinted on this recording.

Spanish composers of the Twenties and Thirties may be less well known than, for example, British composers of the same generation. The present album, made with such devotion, presents to us glorious music, masterfully performed. Some of the pieces are real gems, but the album as a whole communicates as one major artwork - a unified triptych - yet with a shadow.

Oleg Ledeniov