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Alberto GINASTERA (1916 -1983)
The Vocal Album
Cinco Canciones Populares Argentinas Op.10 (1943, orch. Shimon Cohen) [9:16]
Excerpts from Don Rodrigo Op.31 (1963/4) [17:16]
Milena Op.37 (1971) [26:43]
Ana María Martínez (soprano, op. 10)
Virginia Tola (soprano, opp. 31/37)
Plácido Domingo (tenor, op. 31)
Rafael Sardina (speaker, op. 31)
Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra/Gisèle Ben-Dor
rec. Oxnard Performing Arts Centre, California, USA, 2002 (Cinco Canciones); East West Studios, Los Angeles, USA, 2011 and Metropolis Studios, London, UK, 2014 (Don Rodrigo, Milena)
Texts and translations included
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 686830 [53:07]

Originally written for voice and piano, the early Cinco Canciones Populares Argentinas Op.10 are heard here in a very fine orchestration by Shimon Cohen made at the request of Gisèle Ben-Dor. Cohen and Ben-Dor were also responsible for the orchestration of the Suite de Danzas Criollas Op.15 available on Naxos 8.570999 reviewed here. These two works belong to Ginastera's so-called early nationalist, folk-inflected period that also produced works such as Estancia Op.8 (1941). The short cycle of songs is a really lovely work and Cohen's scoring is quite subtle and colourfully done.

Ginastera's first opera Don Rodrigo Op.31 belongs to the composer's maturity and is stylistically light-years away from the folksy early phase. The music is now rather radical. It adopts the considerably enlarged sound palette which was to characterise most of Ginastera's later works. The opera was also of importance for Plácido Domingo who had one of his first international successes when performing the title role with the New York City Opera at the outset of his career. This is why he wanted to do some of it for this centenary release. So it was decided to record two scenes from the opera: the duo d'amore “The Outrage” (Act II, Scene 5) and the final scene “The Miracle” (Act III, Scene 9). The libretto is by Alejandro Casona and tells of Don Rodrigo who loses Spain to the invading Moors. Don Rodrigo rapes Florinda whom he had promised to protect and profanes an old secret: which one we are not told. He dies in misery and despair, begging for forgiveness, accompanied by a hermit and the ever-loving Florinda. They witness a miracle, as all the bells in Spain toll simultaneously without being rung by human hands. So the first excerpt deals with the rape scene. The second excerpt is to my mind the most impressive for it is for the most part a poignant prayer in which Rodrigo expresses his deep and sincere regrets for all the hardships that Spain had to suffer because of his arrogance and in which he begs forgiveness. Heard after the preceding, expressionist excerpt the final scene is deeply moving for all its comparative simplicity. The music slowly builds up to the miracle that has all bells of Spain ringing, which provides the opera with a truly spine-chilling final climax. Listening to these excerpts one would definitely like to hear the opera as a whole. This seems an unlikely prospect for the time being. I would, however, like to mention the existence of a Sinfonia 'Don Rodrigo' Op.31a for soprano and orchestra playing for some twenty-five minutes that could have been brought into the bargain considering that the total playing time of this release is rather short.

The cantata Milena Op.37 may be somewhat better known since a recording of it by Phyllis Curtin, the Denver Symphony conducted by Brian Priestman made during the LP era (Desto 7171) was later available in CD format (Phoenix PHCD 107). The words were assembled by the composer from a Spanish translation of Kafka's Briefe an Milena (“Letters to Milena”). As the composer once mentioned, Kafka's letters are his most unconscious and private masterpiece. In them he tells of the happiness his relationship with Milena gave him and later relates his painful collapse. He wanted all of her for himself but she was a married woman. By some strange spiritual unity she died of the same pulmonary disease as the writer. The cantata is structured in six movements: an a capella Praeludium (De los fantasmas) which after a somewhat mysterious bridge passage leads into the first Cantus (Del amor). There follows a Prosa I (De los sueños) set as a melodrama, spoken voice over orchestral accompaniment. Cantus II (De las cartas) leads into Prosa II (De celos y desesperanzas), also set as a melodrama, eventually leading into the Cantus Finalis (Del infinito). Milena is one of Ginastera's most impressive achievements for the richness of its invention, its masterly scoring and its strongly communicative expression. The composer may rely on a number of 'advanced' techniques. I suspect that there are some aleatoric passages in this work: in the bridge section between Praeludium and Cantus I. However his ultimate aim is and remains communication.

Gisèle Ben-Dor's advocacy of Ginastera's music and whole-hearted commitment to it are well-known and displayed in her recordings of his music (review review). This release is no exception and she commands strong orchestral support for her soloists including the veteran Plácido Domingo who at times seems effortful in meeting the demands of Don Rodrigo's role though he still copes bravely with them here. I cannot really fault any of the performers. Phyllis Curtin and Virginia Tola rise to the demanding part in Milena Op.37 and are rather on a par although the Spanish-speaking Virginia Tola is generally more at ease in the difficult Prosa sections.

In short, this is a splendid centenary release with two substantial works - even if one of them is represented by two excerpts - and a lovely early one in a very fine and subtle orchestration. My sole 'grumble' will have to do with the short playing time which prompted my earlier remark concerning a possible inclusion of the Sinfonia 'Don Rodrigo' which would have proved a formidable complement to an outstanding release.

Hubert Culot



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