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Leonardo BALADA (b.1933)
Caprichos no.1, Homage to Federico García Lorca, for guitar and strings (2003) [23:02]
Caprichos no.5, Homage to Isaac Albéniz, for cello and chamber orchestra (2008) [21:41]
A Little Night Music in Harlem, for strings (2006) [11:00]
Reflejos, for flute and strings (1988) [17:37]
Bertrand Piétu (guitar); Aldo Mata (cello); Tatiana Franco (flute)
Iberian Chamber Orchestra/José Luis Temes
rec. City Auditorium, León, Spain, 25-27 June 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.572625 [73:20]

Experience Classicsonline

This is the latest addition to Naxos's intended complete works of Leonardo Balada. Reviews of previous volumes of orchestral music can be found here, here and here; of his vocal music here, here, here, here and here. The first volume devoted to Balada's five Caprichos - nos. 2, 3 and 4 - appeared last year, and was enthusiastically reviewed here.
Balada is Catalan by birth, but has been living and working in the USA for the last fifty years; he has been Professor of Composition at the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh since 1975, and it is there that the first disc of Caprichos was recorded. This one has returned to Spain, where technical quality has traditionally been variable and was certainly a black mark against some of those earlier volumes. Not here, however - these are marvellous recordings, spacious and vivid.
Balada's earlier works belonged to the avant-garde, and in the booklet, he states that a "symbiosis of the avant-garde with the folk-traditional" has become his "stamp". Yet from 1975 he turned to a more listener-friendly melodic style, often of a nationalistic colour (Spanish/Catalan more than American), and the Caprichos are unequivocally part of this trend.
Incidentally, individual works are properly entitled Caprichos, not Capricho: the title refers in each case to a suite-like collection of 'capricious' movements. Caprichos no.3 was subtitled 'Homage to the International Brigades', and this programme turns up two further homages, though of a less political nature. The gorgeously Spanish Caprichos no.1 is a tribute to Lorca, its seven short movements borrowing material from the Andalusian folk songs the poet/dramatist himself arranged for piano and voice. Most listeners should recognise a snippet from the finale of Rodrigo's Aranjuez Concerto in the very first section - but Balada is quoting Los Cuatro Muleros, not Rodrigo. Balada admits to using "aleatoric devices, tone clusters, atonality" in this work, but integrates the modernist elements so smoothly and tastefully, with the guitar always playing sunny or soulful Spanish melodies that some may find it hard to credit - the work is truly a child of Rodrigo's concerto. It makes virtuosic demands of soloist and ensemble alike, and Piétu and the Iberian CO turn in some impressive performances. The terrific 'neo-traditional' zapateado that brings this quality work to a close is worth the entrance fee on its own.
Perhaps surprisingly, given its capacity for evocativeness, Balada puts down the guitar for his homage to Isaac Albéniz in Caprichos no.5 and takes up the cello: in fact, each of the four movements, which he calls 'Transparencias', is based on a piano piece by his great Catalan predecessor. Like the First Caprichos, the solo instrument waxes lyrical almost throughout, with sulphurous dissonance generally reserved for the ensemble strings. Again, Balada effortlessly conjures up thoroughly original, communicative music that, whilst predicated on semi-modernist idiom, will still move and entertain even audiences brought up on more traditional repertoire. All the performers here gave the world premiere in 2009, and their familiarity with the work's considerable demands helps paint its colours vividly in this recording, which was made shortly afterwards.
There is no let-up in calibre or originality in the final two works. A Little Night Music in Harlem takes its title from the famous Mozart Serenade of the same name, albeit minus the Harlem reference. Also for string orchestra, it quotes Mozart's motifs freely, in what Balada aptly calls "surrealist transformation", over a jazzy bass rhythm. Yet again the substantial modernist techniques are understated, leaving the quasi-Mozartean melodies, delectable sonorities and infectious rhythms to shine. Cheekily, the last few bars are Mozart's. Reflejos predates the first three works by a decade or two. It was written for flute and strings, but with the flute playing with the strings - though not always - to add extra 'height', rather than as a soloist. Here at last Balada's writing is more obviously modernist, particularly in the textures of the long, dark-hued first movement, which ends in poignant threnody. The shorter Alegrías that follows is almost like a different work, jaunty, optimistic, tonal.
Unlike Balada, the Iberian Chamber Orchestra, Madrid-born Spanish-repertoire specialist José Luis Temes and the three soloists are all making their debut recording for Naxos on this disc, which is part of the label's '21st Century Classics' series. Their highly commendable performances and Balada's imagination and originality combine to present the public with works thoroughly deserving of that accolade.
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