The Three-Cornered Hat; Nights in the Gardens of Spain; Tributes. Raquel Lojendio, soprano; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; Juanjo Mena, BBC Philharmonic. Chandos CHAN 10694.
Spanish composer Manuel Maria de Falla (1876-1946) wrote some of the most colorful music Spain ever produced, and this album offers three of his best works, done up in splendid Chandos sound.
The program begins with his two-act ballet El sombrero de tres picos (The Three Cornered Hat), a lighthearted tale of attempted seduction, which the composer wrote in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The music, based on a well-known Spanish folk tale and several popular Spanish folk tunes, is continuously rhythmic and infectious, here presented by the BBC Philharmonic under their current chief conductor, Juanjo Mena, with soprano Raquel Lojendio. While the performance is most fetching, the real question, I suppose, is how it compares to the famous 1961 stereo recording by Ernest Ansermet, who conducted the music's première, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Decca and LIM). The answer is that Mena and company almost hold their own.
Maestro Mena displays a good deal of spark in select passages, sometimes igniting a fiery response from his performers, while also taking a more relaxed, though eloquent, approach throughout much of the rest of the piece. The soloist is especially effective and her phrasing impressionistic. OK, I have to admit that Ansermet seems more consistently animated throughout, yet that should take nothing away from Mena's more easygoing and evocative interpretation. I also have to admit that for me the music itself gets a little static by the halfway point, and Mena's slightly casual reading doesn't exactly make it any better. However, that's just me, and I have no doubt the present recording, particularly the exhilarating conclusion, will more than satisfy most listeners.
The second item on the program is Noches en los jardines de Espana (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), for piano and orchestra, which Falla originally wrote in 1909 as a set of nocturnes for piano alone and orchestrated for a première in 1916. Here, pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet joins Maestro Mena and his BBC players for the recording. Falla described the music as a set of impressions of three gardens in his country, and if any performance is to succeed, it must call to mind the visions, even smells, of those gardens. Here, I found Mena's performance more to my liking. It clearly evinces the proper moods and atmosphere of the various gardens, and Bavouzet's piano playing is dynamic in support.
The program ends with Homenages (Tributes), a suite for orchestra Falla completed in 1939 and was among his last works. In four primary movements Falla pays his respect to four fellow composers and musicians (Enrique Fernandez Arbos, Paul Dukas, Claude Debussy, and Felipe Pedrell), and in the music he draws upon some of his previous work. Not terribly "Spanish" in flavor, the Homenages are, nevertheless, quite full of distinctive character, specifically the way Mena does them up. And although they are understandably dark and elegiac, they can be rather exuberant affairs at times as well.
Chandos recorded the music at MediaCityUK, Salford, England, in June and September of 2011. The sound is vivid enough, yet natural, too. It hasn't the immediacy of the old Decca recording I mentioned earlier, but for a lot of folks the softer, warmer Chandos sound may be easier on the ear, depending on one's playback equipment, of course. Additionally, the Chandos disc has a nice balance between soloists and orchestra, with a fair amount of transparency, air, and depth to the instruments. The acoustic is somewhat resonant, so we get an adequate sense of hall ambience in the music without losing too much detail or definition. Bass sounds taut, and highs, while not prominent, sound well extended.