Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 3 in E flat major op.55 Eroica (1804) [46:57]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
The bartered bride (1866) - overture [6:56]
Ruperto CHAPÍ (1851-1909)
Música clásica (1880) - prelude [4:27]
La corte de Granada, fantasía morisca (1879) - serenata [3:30]
El tambor de granaderos (1894) - prelude [5:12]
Gerónimo GIMÉNEZ (1854-1923)
El baile de Luis Alonso (1896) - intermezzo [3:35]
La boda de Luis Alonso (1897) - intermezzo [5:27]
Orquesta Nacional de España/Ataúlfo Argenta (Beethoven)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ataúlfo Argenta (Smetana)
Gran Orquesta Sinfónica/Ataúlfo Argenta (Chapí and Giménez)
rec. Palacia de la Música, Madrid, 24 May 1957 (Beethoven); Victoria Hall, Geneva, 29 August 1957 (Smetana); Madrid, 1955-1957 (Chapí and Giménez)
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5087 [76:35] 

A decade ago, the EMI Classics/IMG Artists Great Conductors of the 20th Century series provoked some spirited debate as it included or excluded particular individuals.
Just to take the first batch of releases, who would have anticipated the appearance of Nikolai Malko? Or that of Nikolai Golovanov, a cult figure to some but, thanks to his Soviet recordings’ sonic deficiencies, little appreciated by a wider audience? What about Ataúlfo Argenta, definitely something of a wild card, you might have supposed, amidst the likes of Ferenc Fricsay, Serge Koussevitsky and Bruno Walter?
Although his prolific output of zarzuela recordings kept his name alive in his Spanish homeland, Argenta's wider reputation following his tragically early death in 1958 largely rested on a couple of discs of colourful orchestral showpieces. Collected together on CD in 1995 under the title España (Decca 443 580-2), they included Chabrier’s eponymous tour de force, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capiccio espagnol, Andaluza by Granados, Moszkowski’s Spanish dances and Debussy’s Images. It’s a disc for any castaway on that proverbial desert island, so full of joie de vivre that it would buck one up even as the tide came in while a hungry shark started circling the shoreline. There’s also a de Falla disc on Medici..

Significantly enough, Decca issued España in a series entitled The Classic Sound. They were, to be fair, entirely justified in doing so, for the quality of those 1957 recordings was by any standards superb. Decca engineers Gordon Parry and Roy Wallace worked sonic miracles: for conclusive proof, just sample the in-your-face trombones and oom-pahhing tuba in Moszkowski’s addictively foot-tapping dances. As a result, those tracks have, quite rightly, provided demonstration material for audiophiles ever since. But, in majoring on the “classic sound” angle, that 1995 reissue rather unfairly took the focus off the conductor. It’s also CD2 in the big 50-CD Decca Sound box issued last year.

Decca more than made up for that in 2006 when it issued a five disc box set as one of its Original Masters series - AtaúlfoArgenta: complete Decca recordings 1953-1957. As well as the “Spanish” tracks itemised above, the contents included Liszt’s Faust symphony, Les Préludes and the two piano concertos with Julius Katchen as soloist; two works by Tchaikovsky - the fourth symphony and the violin concerto with soloist Alfredo Campoli; the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz, a greatly underestimated recording that had been previously issued in 1996 as another Classic Sound CD; Albeniz’s Iberia suite and Turina's Danzas fantasticas.

The contents of the box indicate how, in spite of some ambitious projects in the offing - recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic and possibly the succession to Ansermet at the Suisse Romande Orchestra - at the time of his death Argenta’s recording career had not yet taken off fully. To some extent he had clearly been pigeonholed as a specialist in lighter repertoire and in “Spanish” music - whether genuine or pastiche - and he was still only beginning to work with top-flight orchestras.

Even the appearance of the box hints at a career that was not yet in full gear. Its cover photograph shows Argenta in rehearsal and is almost identical to the cover picture on the EMI/IMG release. Perhaps Decca’s publicity department hadn’t yet got around to taking the varied promotional shots typically accorded to a star performer?

This new disc is of particular interest because it features recordings of Argenta performing some repertoire that he never recorded commercially. The orchestras involved are, it has to be conceded, demonstrably not of the first rank. The first, the Orquesta Nacional de España was Argenta’s own band: he had risen from the ranks, where he was their keyboard player, to become principal conductor in 1947. The second, the Suisse Romande Orchestra, was recording prolifically in the 1950s and many of its discs are still well regarded - but that, in honesty, owes more to the input of its long-term conductor Ernest Ansermet than to that of the players. I have been unable to confirm the provenance of this CD’s third orchestra, the “Gran Orquesta Sinfonica”, but I suspect, both because of its rather vague and geographically-unspecific name and for other reasons indicated below, that it might have been a radio station ensemble.

These are described as concert performances. Audience discipline - and bronchial health - leaves something to be desired and is occasionally a little distracting in the Eroica. Both the Beethoven and Smetana end with quickly faded audience applause. The Gran Orquesta Sinfonica’s zarzuela tracks, on the other hand, are more clearly recorded and noticeably cough-free and applause-free, perhaps confirming my supposition that these were radio concerts broadcast from a studio without an audience. Unfortunately, the booklet notes are silent on the circumstances of all the performances.
What of those performances themselves? I enjoyed the Eroica very much indeed. It is a vital, driven account that blows away the cobwebs, especially in a briskly memorable account of the marcia funebre. The Bartered bride overture - a regular favourite in the 1950s when orchestral lollipops were still staple recording fodder - is brought off jauntily and with a compellingly attractive swing.

Zarzuelas were something of an Argenta speciality and, according to Donald Rosenberg’s booklet notes, he recorded no fewer than fifty of them in full. For anyone unfamiliar with the form, Wikipedia's detailed and very useful entry defines zarzuela as “a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating operatic and popular song, as well as dance”. Such references to other music are found at once in the first piece here, the prelude to Chapi’s Música clásica, where we briefly encounter familiar passages from Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony and Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A midsummer night’s dream. Those unanticipated interpolations are, in themselves, quite enough to bring a smile to the face. In fact, though, all five zarzuela extracts are, while relatively simple and unsophisticated pieces of music, immediately appealing, full of rhythm and orchestral colour and quite delightful.
While not challenging other better recorded and better played accounts of the standard repertoire pieces, this new CD is still a valuable one. Ataúlfo Argenta’s recorded legacy - those fifty zarzuelas aside - is all too small. Making any extra material - especially when recorded at the height of an artist’s powers - more widely available is a useful service, either in confirming our existing impressions or in offering new insights. For so doing on this welcome release, ICA Classics deserve our thanks. 

Rob Maynard 

valuable new CD and most welcome. ICA Classics deserve our thanks. 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven 3