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Juan Crisóstomo de ARRIAGA (1806-1826)
Overture to ‘Los esclavos felices (1819-rev c.1821) [7.14]
Herminie (c.1825) Cantata for soprano and orchestra [15.52]
Overture Op 20 (1821) [11.05]
Air de l’opéra Médee [5.17]
Symphonie a grand orchestra (c.1824) [28.13]
Berit Norbakken (soprano)
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
rec. 2018, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
Sung texts included
CHANDOS CHAN20077 [68.09]

As you step into the world of Arriaga or, to give him his full name, Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga y Balzola (employing his mother’s maiden name at the end of the family name) you are in a world of grace, charm and lure. The music of a young man of exceeding talent and a gift for melody. First on the CD, comes the Overture to Los esclavos felices (The Happy Slaves), an opera, of which only the overture and some sketches have come down to us. You will notice that it was written in 1819 and realise that its composer was just thirteen years old – and that he saw fit to revise it when he was fifteen!

Arriaga was brought up in the Basque town of Bilbao where his manuscripts, the booklet tells us, are still held and which often has a festival of his music: This, it seems, can be viewed on-line. He received little or no musical instruction until he left to study in Paris in the autumn of 1821, though he had already had an opera performed. Three years later, he published his three string quartets, which sadly I have not heard, and wrote works like this remarkable Symphony. So let’s start with that.

I also have a recording of this work made in 1993 by Concerto Köln on a disc entitled ‘Sinfonias Españolas c.1800’ (Capriccio 10 488). I have enjoyed this recording and still think that omitting the exposition repeats in the first and last movements is a good idea as it keeps the tension going. Furthermore, their use of eighteenth and early nineteenth century instruments give it more attack but also a lightness of touch. Even so, this newcomer is powerful and makes one realise that this symphony would work in a normal, large concert hall, where it certainly deserves a hearing. Funnily enough Capriccio call it a symphony in D major not D minor. The last movement, which has a real feeling of Mendelssohn about it, is largely in D minor as is most of the 1st movement. The composer’s manuscript simply calls it ‘Symphonie à grand orchestre’ and at almost half an hour one can see why.

It falls into the four conventional movements for the period – that is a sonata form first movement, an Allegro, preceded by a noble Adagio introduction, an Andante of pleasing melodic simplicity and delicate orchestration, a rather blunt Minuet and Trio and then the strongly characteristic Allegro con moto. What especially appeals to me in this work and in the beautifully memorable Overture ‘Los esclavos felices’ is the way Arriaga divided the interest between strings and woodwind, separating out their distinctive timbres. The symphony and this overture can be thought of as an interesting conglomeration of styles. In fact in both overtures I felt the spirit of Weber in the string writing and of Rossini in the re-iteration of phrases approaching climaxes.

But Arriaga has been called the ‘Spanish’ Mozart and not only because he was a boy genius. The two vocal works give us a clue. The nearest we get to understanding what kind of an opera composer Arriaga might have made had the gods allowed is through the concert aria Air de opera Médée and the delicious cantata Herminie, sung with such modest simplicity, hiding the technical challenges, by Berit Norbakken Solset. The elegance of the lines and the word setting (all in French as they were composed in Paris) might remind the listener of the Mozart of ‘Così fan tutte’. The former with a text by Hoffmann is a plea for help to Hymen or Hymeneus, as used in Cherubini’s opera of the same name. Perhaps Arriaga set it as a personal exercise for himself to see how he might tackle the text compared with his famous contemporary. The cantata Herminie is divided into recitatives and arias, which Chandos have usefully tracked separately, in which she thinks that Tancredo has been killed but later realises that he is alive and in love with her. It was premiered exactly one hundred years to the day after the composer’s death.

It’s really good, then, to have these works put side by side. You might find the BBC Philharmonic a surprising choice, but Juanjo Mena, who has made a special study of the composer, coaxes from them a clear sense of idiomatic style and sophistication.

The texts are provided, as is an ideal essay on each of the pieces by Larringa Cuardo and ‘Remarks by the conductor’. The recording is up to the normal exemplary standard of the Chandos engineers.

Gary Higginson
Previous review: Michael Wilkinson

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