Leonardo BALADA (b.1933)
Caprichos No 2 (2004) [15:09]
Caprichos No 4 ‘Quasi Jazz’ (2007) [24:04]
Caprichos No 3 ‘Homenaje a las Brigadas Internacionales’ (2005) [24:58]
Andrés Cárdenes, violin (No 2), Jeffrey Turner, double bass (No 4)
Pittsburgh Sinfonietta/Andrés Cárdenes (Nos 2,4), Lawrence Loh (No 3)
rec. 27 September, 2009 (No 2), 16-27 May, 2008 (Nos 3-4), Kresge Recital Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, USA (No 2), Alumni Concert Hall, Carnegie Mellon University (Nos 3-4)
NAXOS 8.572176 [64:11]

Years from now Leonardo Balada may well be remembered as one of the most interesting composers of our time. That will be in part because of his significant recorded legacy on Naxos, but mostly due to the simple fact that he is one of the first composers of our age to emerge from the corridors of theory and write naturally. At least, that’s Balada’s own explanation for his style, in the combative and clear booklet note, where he draws a contrast between a time when theorists and musicologists derived their ideas from pre-existing music, and the dawn of Schoenberg, who (Balada says) was the first composer to draw his style from the theory, rather than the other way around.

Balada himself was once a member of the avant-garde, with such works as Guernica, but in recent decades has chosen to let musicologists try to label his music for themselves. He rejects the dichotomy between “abstract” and “folk-influenced” music, and asserts that every composer ought to simply have an individual style, which either works, or doesn’t. Listeners who know his concertos and symphonies from earlier Naxos releases will know that Leonardo Balada’s style does.

These Caprichos, or works for chamber orchestra, are as close as Balada gets to “folk-influenced” music. No 2 is a trio of sharply-cut takes on Latin dance rhythms, although these are often hard to recognize underneath the sarcastic film of what Balada calls “a free modernistic manner.” In some ways this is the driest of the three works, and Balada himself seems to think so, describing it only briefly in the booklet. The starring roles are for violinist Andrés Cárdenes and harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen, who gets some of the juiciest material in the outer movements. Is there a hint of the “Mexican Hat Dance” in the finale?

Capricho No 4, “Quasi Jazz,” is built around a virtuosic, tuneful double bass solo part straight out of classic jazz albums. The piano, clarinet and string accompanists are very skillfully deployed around the soloist, avoiding the problems inherent in choosing such a low-key instrument for the lead part. Listen, especially, to the spiritual second movement, with the double bass singing a sad number over motoric pizzicatos; that the third movement continues the same mood at greater length is a bit of a pity. Jeffrey Turner is the confident soloist with a deep affinity for this music.

Capricho No 3 is presented last on the disc and that makes sense, as it is - to me, at least - the most compelling work. Like the other two works, the influences of Balada’s avant-garde days and his gift for “spiking” tunes with emotional ambivalence are always evident, but without the claims to folk styles which do not always ring true. Moreover, the second movement (“In memoriam”) features a gorgeous, lyrical violin solo that really is quite moving. It might be the most simply-scored movement on the disc, and benefits from that. The last two movements are excellent, too, if very old-fashioned: a lament in the form of a softly eloquent Irish folk song sung by violin against a sophisticated - that is, “modern” - accompaniment and then a really rousing jota in which Balada really frees himself of his inhibitions.

The “Pittsburgh Sinfonietta” was explicitly formed to make this recording, out of members of the Pittsburgh Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, and Naxos has quite generously chosen to provide photos and biographies of every soloist performer - all players but the string orchestra. Andrés Cárdenes, the Pittsburgh Symphony’s fantastic concertmaster - you can hear his violin solo work in the Janowski/PentaTone Brahms Symphony No 1 - supplies confident, glittering violin playing and, in two of the Caprichos, the sure conducting of someone who knows and cares about the music. Lawrence Loh takes up the baton in the Third Capricho with no less satisfying results.

This might not be the best introduction to Balada’s music, since many of the symphonies are more serious and quite a few of the concertos are both highly accessible and dazzlingly written. My favorite Balada disc is probably still the concerto album conducted by José Serebrier, and my preference overall will still run toward Balada’s full-orchestra music, though I suspect he’d be a winner at string quartets. But those who know the composer well and appreciate his output will definitely enjoy this addition to Naxos’ continuing Balada series.

With every new disc, Leonardo Balada looks more and more like one of our most outstanding composers. Or is it that he looks more and more like one of my favorites? Either way, these Caprichos show that even his “folk” side is well worth hearing.

Brian Reinhart

Sterner than advertised, but really good music, especially No 3.