Jesús VILLA-ROJO (b.1940)
Music for Cello
Sonata no.2, for cello and piano (2009) [20:20]
Lamento (version B), for cello, ethnic voice and cello ensemble (2008) * [13:13]
Oración Serena, for cello and piano (2004) + [9:26]
Expresiones, for solo cello (2004) [26:16]
Asier Polo (cello, including *4 pre-recorded cello parts)
Amaia Zipitria (piano)
Gerardo López Laguna (piano) +
Rafael 'El Gallina' Romero (ethnic voice)
rec. Musigrama, Madrid, 2-3 April 2009; 29-30 January 2009 (Expresiones); 24-26 June 2009 (Sonata). DDD

This CD brings together four recent chamber works for cello by leading Spanish composer Jesús Villa-Rojo. It constitutes a follow-up to the warmly received Marco Polo disc of his orchestral music, which included his Cello Concerto no.2, also played by Asier Polo - see review of the re-release by Naxos in the same 'Spanish Classics' series.

Those new to Villa-Rojo's music will be surprised to learn that he was for a long time a prominent figure in the Spanish avant-garde. He produced numerous experimental works that employed indeterminacy, electronics and multimedia. Aside from the ethnic voice in Lamento, all post-modernist tendencies have been dropped and the modernism softened to give a set of works that most listeners should find at the very least palatable, but more likely rather attractive.

It is no great leap to believe that even Johann Sebastian Bach would have admired Villa-Rojo's suite for solo cello, the aptly-named Expresiones; this despite - and likely because of - its lite-modernist elements. This extended, seven-movement work is a fine vehicle for cellists. Indeed it’s challenging to play but appealing to audiences. At the other end of the recital is the Second Cello Sonata, which, according to the notes, is "a monument to abstraction as a source of immediate emotion", whatever that means. Spirited, spiky and sombre, it is reminiscent of Prokofiev and pleasing to head and heart in a similar fashion. That said, the final movement does seem a couple of minutes too short.

'Version B' indicates that the solo cello in Lamento was originally a saxophone. The effectiveness of El Gallina's flamenco-style growlings is up for discussion - it may be that they subtract more from the already powerful cello parts than they add, especially as the vocal part is also clearly pre-recorded, reverberating and shifting disconcertingly from one channel to the other and producing a rather lamentable New Age effect. The description in the notes of Lamento seems to bear little resemblance to what happens in the work. The idea, for example, that "the vocal part is exhaustively developed" is laughable. The notes, in fact, are often rather fatuous or self-indulgent. Is the reader told anything about Oración Serena, for example, by a 'description' like this: "A journey into ourselves and back again: is this music as psychology?" Better just to say that this 'Serene Prayer' is an elegiac tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Madrid in March 2004, and leave it at that. Villa-Rojo's poignant music will always say a lot more than any waffle.

The notes do not say why Asier Polo plays all the cello parts in Lamento - does Villa-Rojo specify this in his score? He does a fine job in any case, performing throughout with great technical confidence and communicative commitment. There’s a sureness of touch about this playing and expressive insight into the depths of Villa-Rojo's intelligent, memorable music. Both pianists also play their part commendably, but let this be the last heard of El Gallina on Naxos.

Sound quality is very good. The superscript numbers used to indicate who plays what on the back inlay do not quite add up.

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Intelligent, memorable music played with great technical confidence, communicative commitment, sureness of touch and expressive insight.