The programme presented here would seem to be the perfect calling card for the BBC Philharmonic’s new chief conductor, Juanjo Mena. And so it is. The natural affinity for this repertoire that the Spanish conductor possesses is obvious from these performances. The selection of three of Falla’s best orchestral works makes this a valuable addition to the composer’s discography. It also marks what is hoped to be just the beginning of many recordings of Spanish music from Mena and the orchestra.
While one could argue that there is no urgent need for another Three-cornered Hat
or Nights in the Gardens of Spain
, the inclusion of Homenajes
makes this an attractive proposition. Furthermore, both the ballet and the concertante work receive superb performances and can be considered at or near the top of available recordings. Mena has the perfect soprano in Raquel Lojendio for her all-too-brief role in the ballet. She has that dusky, authentic voice that is so appropriate for her solos. In addition to the introduction and the “cuckoo” song in the second interlude, she has a brief solo in the fourth movement (“the Grapes”) that I have not heard on any other recording. It is a pity that the otherwise excellent booklet does not contain any of the texts or translations — brief as they are. Mena is especially good at illuminating all the subtleties of the score with its delightful woodwind solos, yet he does not stint on the bigger elements and brings the work excitingly to its rousing conclusion. He has a natural feel for the Spanish dance rhythms that must be second nature to him. I would not want to be without Frühbeck de Burgos (EMI
) or Dutoit (Decca
) in this music - Dutoit’s splendid horns are not quite matched here - but Mena can justifiably join them among the best versions of the ballet.
The Mena/Bavouzet account of Nights in the Gardens of Spain
is even better, for they treat the work not as a piano concerto but more as a symphonic poem with piano. I realize that Alicia de Laroccha “owned” this piece in recent times (Decca
), but I was never a real fan of hers in this work. I found her interpretation rather heavy-going, whereas Bavouzet and Mena see more light. They clarify the orchestral texture so that you can hear what the orchestra is playing at all times. That’s not to say that the piano part is in any way short-changed. It is only that the piano plays more of an obbligato role as the composer intended. Bavouzet has already made his reputation in a wide range of music from Haydn to Bartók. He can now add Falla to his list of accomplishments. The performance by the BBC Philharmonic is very evocative of the music’s Moorish background and Mena gauges the climaxes well. While the piano adds sparkle throughout, the brass and winds are also particularly distinguished and bring out all the power and even wildness in the last movement. Special mention should be made of the horn refrains there, as they are superbly rendered in this account.
As a real bonus, the disc concludes with the orchestrations that Falla made of works he composed earlier for piano and guitar. These are tributes to his fellow musicians and composers. Homenajes
is an orchestral suite in five movements, the first and third of which are short fanfares. The brass and drums are most impressive here. The three main movements pay homage, posthumously, to Debussy, Dukas, and Felipe Pedrell, who was very influential in shaping Falla’s musical thinking. Both the second movement tribute to Debussy and the fourth to Dukas are rather dark and elegiac. The last movement, which is the longest, is somewhat lighter and gentler with themes that readily stay in the memory. The horns again have fanfare-like passages that contrast with the more poetic ones for woodwinds and strings. The lyricism in this movement reminds me of Fauré in such works as Pelléas et Mélisande
or Masques et Bergamasques
is a wonderful way to end this disc, as it deserves the exposure of the other works that it rarely receives. The recording quality on this CD leaves nothing to be desired in terms of warmth and clarity.
As usual with Chandos, the production values from the front cover photograph of five Spanish windmills to Harriet Smith’s first-rate notes on the works are of the high standard one expects from this label. Omitting the texts of the brief vocal sections is only a small blemish on what has quickly become one of my favorite discs so far this year. Bravo to Mena and the BBC Philharmonic!