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Leonardo BALADA (b. 1933)
Symphony No 6 Symphony of Sorrows (2005)* [18.43]
Concerto for three cellos and orchestra A German Concerto (2006) * [21.23]
Steel Symphony (1972) [19.49]
Hans-Jakob Eschenberg, Michael Sanderling and Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt (cellos)
Galicia Symphony Orchestra, Barcelona Symphony Orchestra/Jesús López-Cobos
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Eivind Gullberg Jensen
rec. Palacia de la Opera, A Coruna; Auditori Hall, Barcelona; Philharmonie Hall, Berlin; 2007-12
*world première recordings
NAXOS 8.573298 [59.54]

A work entitled Symphony of Sorrows and based on tragic twentieth-century historical events inevitably invites comparison with Górecki’s commercially successful Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. In fact Balada’s work is a very different kind of composition. Where Górecki concentrated on the inward personal aspects of his sung texts, Balada has taken inspiration from a number of marching songs from the Spanish Civil War. These are interspersed with music that conjures up images of violence and conflict.

Górecki’s symphony gathered a number of critical brickbats. Of these the most virulent was probably that by Jim Svejda in his Record Shelf Guide where he lambasted its lack of variety and content and sneered comprehensively at the massive sales of the recording of the work by Dawn Upshaw which soared right up into the pop charts at the time of its first release. I had already made the acquaintance of the symphony through an older recording on the long-defunct Olympia label, and had fallen in love with its gently bruising harmonies and dream-like qualities without ever suspecting that it had within it the germs of a best-selling piece.

With this symphony by Balada, however, my feelings are quite the opposite. The use of the marching songs, interspersed with passages to represent gunfire and conflict, falls all too easily into a galumphing rhythm which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the clodhopping Uranus, the Magician, from Holst’s Planets. Feelings of sorrow are comprehensively subsumed into a sort of almost jolly celebration which is clearly far from the composer’s intention. One might suspect irony here, as in Shostakovich’s similar use of Soviet revolutionary songs, but if so the suspicion is in the ear of the listener rather than the intent of the composer. The idea of a symphony to commemorate the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, so often overshadowed by the horrors of the greater tragedy whose onset it heralded, is a good one; but I am afraid this is not it.

Similar problems arise with the much earlier Steel Symphony (Symphony No. 3), written to celebrate the industrial life of Pittsburgh and already recorded by Lorin Maazel on New World NW 348-2 where it is coupled with Schuman's Seventh Symphony. Here the sounds of hammers striking on metal recall in too many places nothing so much as a movement from Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony from which the ondes martenot has incomprehensibly gone missing. Again, this is music of immediate appeal, but the fact that it has failed to make its mark over the period of forty years and more is understandable.

The third work on this compilation, the German Concerto for three cellos and orchestra, also has an extra-musical programme based on Germany’s economic recovery from the ruins of 1945. It is a considerably different kettle of fish. Opening contemplatively, it only slowly gathers momentum, and there is nothing here which need cause listeners alarm or concern but the lack of material that is thematically memorable here becomes problematic. One would welcome a more emotional response to the admittedly potentially dry topic of financial growth. Balada is an extremely prolific composer, and here one has the uncomfortable feeling that he may be spreading his inspiration somewhat thinly.

Nonetheless Naxos have been doing Balada proud over recent years, with a sheaf of nine excellent recordings which have thoroughly explored all aspects of his compositional career (search 'Balada' using the site's in-house search engine). Those who have been collecting these will need no encouragement to investigate this new release. Those who are not acquainted with his work should perhaps begin elsewhere, in particular with his opera Cristóbal Cólon written to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Columbus’s discovery of the New World. This was one of the best of the multifarious works composed in 1992 for this event although the most attractive of all over the centuries is probably Franchetti’s 1892 opera Cristoforo Colombo. Balada’s score is lent added attraction by the presence of such eminent singers as Montserrat Caballé and José Carreras in the cast Glyn Pursglove gave this work an a generally enthusiastic review for this site in 2010 as did Goran Forsling. There's a sequel La Muerte de Colón also recorded by Naxos.

The recordings here, assembled from three different performances, are well matched with excellently clear sound and superlatively assured playing from everyone concerned. The booklet notes, as usual from Naxos, are comprehensive.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey