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Juan Crisóstomo de ARRIAGA (1806-1826)
Overture to Los esclavos felices (1819, rev. 1821) [7:14]
Herminie (c. 1825) [15:52]
Overture, Op. 20 (1821) [11:05]
Air de l’Opéra Médée [5:17]
Symphonie à grand orchestre in D minor [28:13]
Berit Norbakken Solset (soprano)
BBC Philharmonic / Juanjo Mena
rec. 2018, MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester,
CHANDOS CHAN20077 [68:09]

If Mozart had died four days before his 20th birthday, as Arriaga did, how might we consider his legacy? Certainly he was a prodigy of exceptional gifts, but we would not be looking at his early works, formidable as they are in their own right, through the lens of our knowledge of the glories to come. We would not know how his genius might have developed, nor what the works might foreshadow. We would have the promise, but not the fulfilment. It is interesting to speculate – though we cannot know – whether these earlier works would have been so lovingly preserved, or very much performed. Much of Arriaga’s work is lost, and we cannot know how his talent might have developed: he might have progressed no further, turned to other activities, even, like the older Rossini, left it to one side for the pleasures of the table. We have what we have, and there is much to enjoy.

The longest piece on the CD is Arriaga’s only surviving symphony, in D Minor. It is also perhaps the most conventional, with a whiff of the textbook about it. Mena’s performance is careful, very well-prepared from the most scholarly edition (by Christophe Rousset), and, at least to my ears, a touch dull. There are sparky moments but it is not very memorable. There is a case, with such a work, for approaching it with a degree of gusto. Charles Mackerras whips through the first movement in just under 8 minutes (Hyperion CDA 66800), Cassutto (Naxos 8557207) in just under 9, while Mena takes a more ponderous 10:30. Only Jordi Savall approaches such breadth in his 1994 recording (Alia Vox ADE035). The movement is marked Adagio-Allegro vivace-Presto, and might have been a touch more exciting. The flowing second movement is more successful, the genuine Andante of the marking rather than a quasi-Adagio, as in the recordings by Savall and by Zollman (Bluebell ABCD073). The minuet and final movement are very well projected.

Of Arriaga’s other orchestral works, the Overture to Los esclavos felices is probably best known. The remainder of the opera is lost. The Spanish title suggests an original performance in Bilbao, before Arriaga’s move to France. It is a lovely piece, with piquant themes, charming and original. The Overture Op. 20, certainly written in Bilbao, is not quite so original, but has much to attract.

Herminie belongs to the Paris years. It is a cantata for soprano and orchestra in two scenes, the first of one recitative and aria, the second of two of each. Berit Norbakken Solset delivers the text beautifully and sensitively, both here and in the brief and fairly grim Air de l’Opéra Médée (Medea is hardly the cheeriest soul in Greek mythology).

Lovely Chandos sound enhances the overall pleasure to be gained from the disc. If the music does not attain the high level of Arriaga’s three string quartets, Op. 18, there is still much of real substance.

Michael Wilkinson

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