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Joaquín RODRIGO (1901-1999)
Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra [22:41]
Fantasía para un gentilhombre for guitar and small orchestra [21:33]
Concierto madrigal for 2 guitars and orchestra [31:40]
Narciso Yepes (guitar)
Godelieve Monden (guitar)
Philharmonia Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra/García Navarro
rec. 1977/79, Watford Town Hall; Henry Wood Hall, London. DDD/DSD
PENTATONE PTC5186209 SACD [75:54]

The virtues of Yepes’ recording of Concierto de Aranjuez are well enough known, so this is mostly by way of a reminder of the re-appearance of these performances, one of a number of reissues by Pentatone of recordings made by DG and Philips in the 1970s in 4- and 8-channel format but never sounding successful on quadraphonic LP. Other releases include Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Bizet’s Carmen, Seiji Ozawa’s of music by Ravel, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Faust, and, most enterprisingly, the Houston Grand Opera recording with Gunther Schuller of Joplin’s Treemonisha, the DG recording of which is download only.  It’s good to see Pentatone taking up these older recordings – it’s even nice to see them using the round-shouldered SACD cases.

Universal gave up on SACD quite some time ago, using up their round-shouldered cases for ordinary CDs, and, with a few notable exceptions such as the brilliantly successful and inexpensive single-disc Solti Ringreview – have not replaced it with blu-ray audio, so I’m pleased that Pentatone have re-mastered these recordings, though most of the initial release failed to thrill me.  This Rodrigo recording did, however, and having waited some time in vain to see if it would become available as a Pentatone 24-bit download such as those which eclassical.com and Qobuz offer, I bought the disc, both in order to make the acquaintance of an old friend and to see how well the recording had polished up.

Narciso Yepes made a number of recordings of the Concierto de Aranjuez.  His recording with Ataúlfo Argenta and the Spanish National Orchestra was originally coupled in mono with Gonzalo Soriano’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, though later released in stereo differently coupled at budget price on SPA233.  There’s a much more than tolerable mono transcription of these two recordings on the BnF label, available to download for a very small price: sample/stream/download for £2.87 from Qobuz.  In many ways that recording remains my benchmark for all subsequent recordings of Aranjuez: I very much enjoyed re-hearing both it and the Falla coupling, as I did also when they were reissued with Turina’s Danzas Fantásticas on Beulah 2PD88 – Download News 2014/2: more music for a slightly higher price from Amazon UK and iTunes.

A stereo remake for DG with Odon Alonso conducting has appeared in various couplings on LP and CD and is currently available on DG Galleria at mid-price (4395262), with the Concierto Madrigal – the same performance of the latter as on the new Pentatone release – and Bacarisse’s Guitar Concerto and on the budget Eloquence label, with the Fantasía para un Gentilhombre, both in the recording with Alonso (4696292).  Performance and recording are generally considered less recommendable than his earlier and later recordings.

DG released Yepes’ third recording of Aranjuez, with García Navarro, coupled with the Concierto Madrigal on LP in 1980 and reissued it on CD in 1986 with the Fantasía, originally coupled with Giuliani’s Guitar Concerto on LP in 1979.  That remains available on DG 415349-2, rather short value for a full-price CD at around 40 minutes.  It’s a measure of the quality and popularity of these performances that they remain at full price after such a long interval.  

If you are looking for value, however, both of these recordings also feature on a 2-for-1 DG Duo, with four other Rodrigo concertante works, including Nicanor Zabaleta’s classic recording of the Harp Concerto (4779999 - £6.50 from Amazon UK, which is considerably less than their download price).  The similarly-priced and worthwhile EMI collection of six concertos and the Zarabanda lejana y villancicoreview – now appears to be download only – e.g. from Qobuz – though Amazon UK have a few CD sets left as I write.

Now Pentatone restore the original LP coupling of Aranjuez and Concierto Madrigal and add the Fantasía para un Gentilhombre to extend the playing time to a respectable 76 minutes and also reinstate the multi-track recording.  In doing so they have effectively placed the single DG CD out of court, especially as I found the SACD on offer for less.

Despite the huge popularity of Aranjuez, my own favourite is the Fantasía para un Gentilhombre – i.e. for a noble or courtier, not a gentleman, as per the sleeve of one RCA release – based on music by Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710) but unmistakably a twentieth-century take on that music, rather in the manner of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances for the Lute.  My own benchmark coupling of the two works together remains that of Julian Bream from the 1980s, his third, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Sir John Eliot Gardiner in Aranjuez and Leo Brouwer with the RCA Victor Chamber Orchestra in the Fantasía at budget price (RCA 88697715002). 

A different coupling pairs Bream’s performance of Aranjuez with Lennox Berkeley’s Guitar Concerto for just £3.99 in 320 kb/s mp3 from sainsburysentertainment.co.uk : the original LP coupling from 1975 with the Monteverdi Orchestra and Gardiner, but there’s no CD equivalent.  Alternatively there is Julian Bream’s even earlier recording of Aranjuez, c.1965, with Colin Davis, coupled with Britten’s Courtly Dances from Gloriana and Vivaldi’s Lute Concerto, RV93, the original LP coupling, in 320kb/s mp3 for £3.99 from sainsburysentertainment.co.uk but again without a CD equivalent.  Both contain short playing time and come without notes, but are offered at a very attractive price.  It’s also possible to sample/stream/download various combinations of Bream recordings of Aranjuez and the Fantasía from Qobuz, some of them available in lossless sound there for only a little more than the mp3 versions.

I wouldn’t want to be without one or both of those Bream recordings of Aranjuez and I also very much enjoyed a recent DG/Mercury recording of the concerto and Fantasía by Miloš Karadaglic with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, coupled with Invocación y Danza and music by Falla and challenging Julian Bream at the top of the tree (4810811/4810652 – reviewreview).

Why, with all that competition, much of it obtained free for review, would I now spend my own money on the Pentatone when, in reviewing the Miloš recordings I didn’t go back to the DG Yepes, though I mentioned the earlier Decca recording and the Beulah reissue of it?  Returning to Yepes and Navarro now, I find myself surprised that I didn’t turn to them also for comparison: I’d have to be very hard pressed to discard their interpretations from a spot at or near the top along with the three Bream recordings and the more recent Miloš.

The performances remain strongly competitive, not least in that Yepes doesn’t over-indulge in the more colourful aspects of Aranjuez: indeed, his is one of the most considered recordings of this work, with some very delicate playing in the quieter sections, and Navarro offers a very sympathetic accompaniment.  You may even think the performance a little lacking in sparkle at times.  Yepes and Navarro are equally at home in the other two works and though no amount of advocacy can make Concierto Madrigal sound the equal of the two main pieces, it certainly receives as fine a performance as I have ever heard, with Godelieve Monden an able and well-balanced second guitarist.  I listened to the Romeros, for whom the work was composed, with the ASMF and Neville Marriner (Decca Duo 4622962) for comparison.  As in the Fantasía, Rodrigo draws on the musical styles of the past, with references to Monteverdi, hence the word madrigal in the title.

The stereo SACD layer sounds almost new-minted and even the CD layer is much brighter and clearer than I have ever heard these recordings, I found that I needed to turn up the volume a notch or two for the best effect.  I can’t speak for the surround-sound layers.  In some earlier transfers the guitar was rather too far forward but the balance on the new SACD seems ideal.  It was a little unfair to compare the reissue with the DG as streamed in mp3 from Qobuz but a hint of an edge on the top notes seems to have been effectively tamed by Pentatone.

The problem with making one recommendation for Aranjuez and Fantasía concerns the question of the third item: for example, with performances of the two main works, coupled with the Dances from Falla’s Three-cornered Hat, Carol Bonell and Charles Dutoit with the Montréal Orchestra are now very attractively priced on the Decca Virtuoso label (4783362, around £6.50)

A very good runner-up recording of the two main works, from Craig Ogden with the BBC Philharmonic and Sachio Fujioka, is coupled with the comparatively rare but worthwhile Concierto para una Fiesta on Chandos CHAN9604.  If you chose this for Concierto para una Fiesta, for which there are few alternatives, you would also obtain two very decent recordings of the other works that just lack that last degree of brilliance. 

If Chandos were to reissue this in their lower-mid-price Classics range it would be well worth considering for someone coming to Rodrigo for the first time, though it would still have formidable competition in the form of a 2-for-1 Decca Duo of Aranjuez, Fantasía, Concierto Madrigal, Concierto para una Fiesta and other Rodrigo concertante works from the members of the Romero Family and others, with Neville Marriner and Antonio de Almeida (4622962).

There’s a bewildering degree of competition for the Pentatone reissue – you’ll find even more than I have mentioned in MWI Recommends.  Without making a single choice, I can only point as I have to some of the front runners, most of which I own and enjoy hearing in one form or another.  If I had not thought that Yepes and Navarro remain among those front runners I wouldn’t have bought the new Pentatone.  I wasn't diappointed. Q.E.D.

Brian Wilson

 




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