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Joaquín RODRIGO (1901-1999)
Fantasía para un Gentilhombre [22:01]
Concierto de Aranjuez [22:58]
Xianji Liu (guitar)
Orquesta Sinfónica de Radio Televisión Española/Pedro Amaral
No recording dates given.
IBS CLASSICAL IBS42020 [44:59]

Xianji Liu comes to this recording with a strong claim for attention; the first Chinese winner of the Tarréga International Guitar Competition, he has performed Rodrigo’s music in Spain, including at a special concert at the Palace of Aranjuez in September 2019, where he played these two works with the RTVE Orchestra. I assume that the recording was made around that time – it’s one of the many pieces of information which the IBS booklet fails to give, including the composer’s dates, unless they are included in the mandarin section of the multi-lingual notes.

Any recording of Rodrigo’s music which includes just these two standards is going to have to work hard to sell when most recordings throw in an extra work. A 1997 Chandos recording from Craig Ogden, with the BBC Philharmonic and Sachio Fujiyoka throws in Concierto para una fiesta and offers 73 minutes of music against 45 minutes on IBS (CHAN9604). PentaTone, digging back into the DG catalogue, have reissued Narciso Yepes’ recording with the ECO and García Navarro in the two standards, with Concierto madrigal, in an SACD reincarnation which remains one of the front runners, the 1970s recording having come up very well in the process (PTC5186209 – review).

Even better value if you are prepared to forego SACD or hi-res download is a 2-for-1 DG Duo, with Yepes’ recording of those three works plus three other concertos (4779999). Of the two, Yepes still has the edge, but Ogden is well worth considering for the coupling, and there are several other very fine alternatives which I mention in the Yepes review. Fans of the phenomenal Miloš Karadaglić, for example, are well served by his recording of Aranjuez and Fantasía, with solo works (DG 4810811 – review). Another very worthwhile 2-CD bargain containing Aranjuez and six other works – not the Fantasía, however – from Alfonso Moreno, Enrique Bátiz and others is now download only (2376812 - review).

In the notes Liu expresses the hope that ‘by integrating East-West cultural elements’ he has ‘interpreted Joaquín Rodrigo’s music in a brand-new way’, but I didn’t hear much, if anything, that struck me as novel in either work. To be fair, Rodrigo’s music is not open to wildly different interpretations, by and large, what you see (or hear) is what you get.

In Aranjuez, for example, Liu and Amaral are a shade slower in each movement than most, but the difference on paper is hardly apparent in performance. Their performance is as evocative as any, but never over-deliberate. If the adagio second movement brings out a little more emotion, it’s by a minimal amount – a smoochy performance that you can snuggle into.

Again, in the Fantasía, which Liu claims gave him a special insight into Rodrigo’s playing technique, this is an attractive performance. It confirms my own love of this work, perhaps even more than Aranjuez, but then I’m a great fan of modern re-workings of the music of the past – Walton’s The Wise Virgins, Respighi’s Gli Ucelli, just as enjoyable as hearing period-instrument performances of their originals.

The recorded sound, heard on CD, is good, and there’s a hi-res 24-bit download available from some suppliers, but neither performance nor recording is special enough to surmount the hurdle of short playing time. Reissued with another concerto thrown in, and made more widely available, this might be competitive.

As I close this review, I note that another IBS recording of Rodrigo is in the offing: Soleriana, Tres viejos aires de danza, Dos miniaturas andaluzas and Zarabanda lejana y villancico from Orquesta de la Communitat Valenciana/Joan Enric Lluna (IBS72020). If these performances are as light and breezy as I have seen claimed, with far fewer alternatives for the music, that looks like a more attractive proposition, though still offering less than an hour of music. So far the only way that I’ve found to track it down is via the Naxos Music Library.

Brian Wilson