Isabel Leonard (mezzo)
Sharon Isbin (guitar)
rec. 2016, American Academy of Arts and Letters Auditorium, New York City
Texts and translations included.
BRIDGE 9491 [66:24]
I begin this review with some lines from one of my favourite poems by Lorca, ‘La Guitarra’ (from Poema del Canto Jondo, written c.1921, published 1931):
Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Es inútil callarla.
Llora por cosas
Arena del Sur caliente
que pide camellias blancas
por cinco espadas.
(The weeping of the guitar begins. It is useless to silence it, impossible to silence it … it sobs for far off things. Sands of the hot South, pleading for white camellias … Oh, guitar! Heart badly-wounded by five swords).
These lines come as close as anything I know to evoking (and to a degree defining) the ‘Alma Española’ (the Spanish soul/spirit) and the guitar’s place in it. As such they seem apt to this CD, entitled Alma Española, and containing work by Lorca himself.
My overriding response to this album is that it communicates the essence of the Spanish ‘soul’ superbly, perhaps more powerfully than any other recording of modern ‘classical’ song (‘real’ flamenco is, of course, a different matter!). Lorca (along with de Falla) is at the core of this recital, insofar as the two of them provide more than two thirds of the material on it and the (interrupted) sequence by Lorca, which opens it, does much to set the tone for what follows, in its passionate theatricality.
Born near Granada, Lorca was Andalusian through-and-through; he had a long-standing – and knowledgeable – fascination with flamenco, its traditions and its nature. One might argue, indeed, that it was a key shaping influence in much of what he attempted in his own poetry; more straightforwardly, aspects of flamenco are recurrent subjects in that poetry. But his interest took practical forms, too. At the beginning of the 1920s he joined Manuel de Falla (who moved from Madrid to Granada in 1920) in organizing the first major festival of cante jondo (‘deep song’), which took place in 1922. Later, early in the 1930s, as director of a travelling student theatre company, Teatro Universitario La Barraca, he often provided – and performed – incidental music, based on traditional flamenco songs. (Lorca had studied classical piano in his childhood and early youth, and for a long time loved music more than poetry). His Canciones española antiguas grew out of this work. Lorca seems never to have committed them to paper (certainly he never published them), perhaps believing that such music should survive through oral and performance traditions, with the inevitable changes that they involve, rather than being ‘fixed’ in print; but he did play piano on a recording of some of them, made in the 1930s by the Argentinian singer La Argentinita. In the 1960s transcriptions of these songs, in both piano and guitar versions, were made and published. Leonard and Isbin didn’t find these transcriptions satisfactory, so Sharon Isbin prepared a new version (working, in large part, from the recordings). She also incorporated some new touches, notably by the addition of some patterns of strumming (usually called rasgueado or rajeo), characteristic of flamenco guitar-style. Further changes were apparently made (according to Allan Kozinn’s booklet essay) during rehearsal and after the experience of performing these pieces in the concert hall. The results are impressive and powerful. Particularly striking and memorable are ‘Las morillas de Jaén’ (The Moorish girls of Jaén) where Leonard’s pure, but intense, voice is complemented by beautiful guitar figurations, delicate yet earthy; ‘Ande, jaleo’ (Come, clap hands) an oblique but dramatic narrative of love and death, in which Leonard’s singing catches more than a little of the ‘cry’ of the flamenco singer and Isbin’s guitar ‘accompaniment’ (though the relationship between voice and instrument is much subtler than that word suggests) is richly poignant; and ‘Zorongo’, an archetypal song of love’s pains – ‘Tengo los ojos azules,/tengo los ojos azules/y el corazoncillo igual/que la cresta de la lumbre.’ (I have blue eyes,/I have blue eyes,/and a little heart/like a crest of fire), is sung and played with utter directness and weight of emotion.
Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas were, of course, written for voice and piano. But their spirit and style so echo the folksong traditions of Spain that they sound more natural when sung with guitar. The great guitarist Manuel Llobet made an arrangement for voice and guitar around 1930, as did Emilio Pujol. What is performed here is a version made by Sharon Isbin which draws on those by Llobet and Pujol. Isbin’s version certainly places more emphasis on the ‘popular’ origins of the songs and is generally more varied in colour than its predecessors were. If you only know these songs in the original voice and piano version, these performances by Leonard and Isbin may come as something of a revelation. In both ‘Jota’ and ‘Canción’ the guitar introduction (though only brief in the case of ‘Canción’) sets the mood superbly, more successfully than in any performance of the original score that I have heard. In ‘Canción’ the words – about the wretchedness of love – seem to grow organically from the notes of the guitar. In these songs by de Falla, as elsewhere on the album, the sense of unity between Leonard and Isbin is little short of wonderful – so, for example, it invests ‘Asturiana’ (a song of the unsuccessful search for comfort) with greater passion (of a very distinctly Spanish kind) than I have ever heard it possess before.
While the works by Lorca and de Falla are at the heart of this collection, the remaining works are far more than just ‘fillers’. The two solo guitar pieces played by Isbin, Llobet’s transcription of Granados’s ‘Danza española No. 5’ and Tárrega’s ‘Capricho árabe’ are played with both exactness and the kind of investment of self that comes from the successful interiorization of the music. I have admired a number of Isbin’s other recordings, but these (especially the Tárrega) are as good as anything I have heard by her. ‘Granada’, by the Mexican Agustín Lara, is perhaps all too familiar nowadays (often being heard with overblown orchestral accompaniment and sung without much sense of style). Hearing it in this arrangement for voice and guitar (by Isbin) is like hearing a new work, such is its freshness and intensity. Xavier Montsalvatge, a Catalan, was inspired more by the music of the Caribbean than by anything specifically Spanish, when he wrote his Cinco canciones negras and that, perhaps, is why the two songs from the collection, which are sung here, are the least memorable in this recital. They are, though, eminently listenable, especially the ‘Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito ‘, a lullaby which closes the CD on a note of profound repose.
I have saved until last mention of a rather special and rare piece, Rodrigo’s ‘Aranjuez, ma pensée’. The booklet essay by Allan Kozinn explains the background to the piece: “A recasting of the exquisite Adagio of the 1939 Concierto de Aranjuez, this short piece dates to 1988, when Rodrigo’s wife, the pianist and poet Victoria Kamhi, composed a poem, to strains of the concerto’s slow movement, in which she looked back at the afternoons she and the blind composer walked, hand in hand, through the gardens at the Royal Palace of Aranjuez”. The resulting piece has not, I think, been often performed, and I can recall hearing only one previous recording (though there may be others), by Patricia Rozario and Craig Ogden on a CD entitled Spanish Songs (SOMM078). I prefer this new recording by Leonard and Isbin, which is taken a little slower. ‘Aranjuez, ma pensée’ is not, it has to be said, a great piece of music, but it has real charm and an intimacy enhanced by knowledge of its origins. It adds to the pleasure of this excellent album.
Although born in the USA, Isabel Leonard’s mother was Argentinian and she grew up speaking both English and Spanish. Her native command of Spanish is evident in her diction and in the way her emphases and word placement demonstrate her understanding of the poetry she is singing. Isbin is one of our age’s finest guitarists, with a well-deserved reputation as an interpreter of the Spanish guitar tradition. Together they make a kind of dream team; they have worked on this repertoire together for a few years, something which shows in the quality of the performances recorded here – grounded in thorough familiarity both with the material and with one another, but without the slightest sense of complacency or over-familiarity. Indeed, they throw new light on almost everything in this fascinating and rewarding programme.
Federico Garcia LORCA (1898-1936)
from Canciones española antiguas [pre. 1936] arr. Isbin.*
1.El café de Chinitas [2:59]
2.Las morillas de Jaén [2:08]
3.Anda, jaleo [2:01]
Enrique GRANADOS (1876-1916) transcribed Miguel LLOBET (1878-1938]
4.Danza Española No. 5 (Andaluza) [c.1888-90] [5:36]
Federico Garcia LORCA (1898-1936)
from Canciones española antiguas [pre. 1936] arr. Isbin.*
5.Romance de Don Boyso [5:02]
7.Nana de Sevilla [4:22]
8.La Tarara [arr Emilio de Torre, Sharon Isbin] [0.57]
9.Los mozos de Monleón [6:18]
10.Sevillanas del siglo XVIII [2:45]
Joaquín RODRIGO (1901-1999) arr. Isbin*
Aranjuez ma pensée  [6:29]
Agustín LARA (1897-1970]
12.Granada  [3:08]
Francisco TÁRREGA (1852-1909)
13.Capricho árabe  [5:55]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946) transcribed LLOBET, rev. Emilio PUJOL (1886-1980), rev. Isbin.
Siete canciones populares españolas 
14.El paño moruno [1:22]
15.Seguidilla murciana [1:22]
Xavier MONTSALVATGE (1912-200) arr. Isbin*
from Cinco canciones Negras 
21.Canto negro [1:17]
22.Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito [2:42]