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CLASSICAL  August 2006

CLASSICAL August 2006

Subject:

Rodrigo on Naxos, volume 6

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 7 Aug 2006 05:16:21 -0700

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     Joaquin Rodrigo

*  Palillos y panderetas
*  Dos danzas espanolas
*  Per la flor del lliri blau
*  Tres viejos aires de danza
*  A la busca del mas alla

Lucero Tena, castanets;
Castile and Leon Symphony Orchestra/Max Bragado Darman
Naxos 8.555962 Total time: 68:52

Volume 6 in Naxos's Rodrigo "Complete Orchestral Works" series.  Although
A la busca del mas alla (in search of the beyond, to give it its usual
English title) has been recorded before, none of the works here can claim
a wide listener familiarity, certainly not to the extent of the composer's
megahit, Concierto de Aranjuez.

The very choosy tend to sniff at Rodrigo, precisely because of the
ubiquity of the Concierto de Aranjuez, as if the barbarians clamored
at the city gates every time an ad with a Ricardo Montalban voice-over
appeared on the tube.  They fail to take into account little things like
its tunefulness, its memorability, and its considerable compositional
smarts, not the least of which is its successful transformation of the
guitar from an intimate to an heroic soloist.  Just consider the fact
that you can't easily hear a guitar over the din of a modern orchestra
of even modest proportions, and you should get some idea of the immense
craft Rodrigo put in the score.

As a matter of fact, I'm a bit surprised more companies haven't explored
Rodrigo's output with the commitment Naxos has shown.  After all, in
addition to the Concierto, one also finds its brother, the Fantasia para
un Gentilhombre, certainly a repertory staple, as well as other concerti
that seem to do well whenever new recorded incarnations turn up.  So
while I applaud Naxos's decision to undertake the project, especially
the composer's rather neglected children, I respond mainly with a "But
of course." Unfortunately, only decent sales can justify my complacency.

Not that I'm an unabashed fan.  I admit to my own misgivings about
Rodrigo's work.  His structures usually exhibit very little interest -
mostly the accumulation of four-bar phrases, repeated verbatim or in
sequence, yielding mainly simple three-part melody.  His thematic resources
also seem limited: the same ideas pop up in work after work.  Furthermore,
compared to his master, Falla, his expressive range is unusually limited.
He rarely strikes a deep note.  With Rodrigo, you get song and dance and
usually very little else, although he tends to mine nostalgia for Spain's
Golden Age.  The music derives from Falla's El Retablo de Maese Pedro,
last aria, which gives us the heroism, primitivism, and idealism of the
country's soul in a short space.  Nevertheless Rodrigo's music just
sounds so good, at its best with every note perfectly in place, that it
easily sweeps away objections.

The program divides into minor and major works.  With Rodrigo, the
distinction usually comes down to a matter of length, and we see that
here.  In the three movements of Palillos y panderetas (castanets and
tambourines, written in 1982) -- fast-slow-fast -- and at roughly thirteen
minutes, the two instruments of the title form part of the orchestration,
but they remain very much subordinate to the orchestra, more a color
than an idea.  Far more interesting is the fact that various orchestral
sections get to imitate the two instruments, little jabs from the brass
and "swirlies" from the strings and reeds, evoking the castanets and the
tambourine, respectively.  The rhythms of the piece derive mainly from
the castanets, as does the opening for solo guitar of the Concierto de
Aranjuez, by the way.  On the other hand, Dos danzas espanolas (1966,
two fast movements, running around ten minutes altogether) has a prominent
solo part for a castanet virtuoso, and here one sees how close the ideas
lie to other Rodrigo works, how deeply castanet rhythms penetrate this
composer's music.  You'd think that the sound of castanets would quickly
pall in such an exposed and lengthy part, but somehow it never does, yet
another indication of Rodrigo's rhetorical mastery.

Tres viejos aires de danza (3 traditional dance airs) occupy an unusual
space in the composer's catalogue.  They are definitely miniatures --
the movements are "Pastoral," "Minue," and "Giga" -- and just about
perfect, at that.  They say their say, and that satisfies the listener.
One wouldn't want them any longer or shorter.  They resemble the lute
dances orchestrated by Respighi, although Rodrigo orchestrates more
cleanly, yet, as far as I know, Rodrigo wrote the tunes, orchestrating
some of his piano pieces of the Twenties.  This is neither modern music
nor pastiche.  Rodrigo has completely "thought himself into" the old
dances and has come up with something original and authentic.  For me,
the second-movement minuet stands out.  While I listened, I kept thinking
Haydn or Mozart could have written it without feeling ashamed.

The two most ambitious works on the program, Per la flor del lliri blau
(for the flower of the blue lily) and A la busca del mas alla (in search
of the beyond), appeared roughly forty years apart.  Rodrigo wrote Per
la flor in 1935, about four years before the Concierto de Aranjuez, and
A la busca for the U.S.  bicentennial.  He described both as "tone poems,"
although neither has the argumentative steel of, say, Strauss's Heldenleben
or even Eulenspiegel.  Like Grieg, Rodrigo tends to build a piece by
adding another song or dance or by repeating the same material, rather
than by conventional development.  Consequently, the quality of each
piece depends greatly on the strength of the songs and dances themselves.
Per la flor, from a particularly rich period in Rodrigo's creative life,
depicts a medieval Spanish legend, the details of which need not concern
anybody.  The importance of the story lies in how it fired Rodrigo's
musical imagination to create a modern facsimile of Spanish Renaissance
and medieval music.  The piece largely consists of martial fanfares and
reflective lute songs.  Again, the quality of the ideas themselves,
rather than their working out, carries the listener along for almost
twenty minutes, showing Rodrigo's essential nature as a wonderful
miniaturist.  Again, don't look for profundity or even psychological
complexity.  The beauty to a great extent runs skin-deep.  But it is
indeed beautiful and shows Rodrigo at the top of his game.

To Rodrigo, A la busca (1976) represented man's exploration of outer
space.  To me, it represents the composer's attempt to assimilate certain
Seventies trends of composition.  The opening few seconds could have
come from Henze, for example, but the chaos quickly evaporates.  Rodrigo
falls back on his penchant for song and dance -- in this piece, mainly
song.  The main idea is a good one, but it doesn't really carry over the
entire span of the score.  Rodrigo keeps returning to it for energy, but
he gets less from it each time.  Again, the lack of real psychological
or emotional depth becomes apparent, like staring at a painting on a
motel wall.  Unlike Per la flor, however, the work lacks a truly ravishing
idea to distract a critical ear.

Rodrigo's music is mainly surface, and the band here does well with its
crisp rhythms and lean, bright textures.  Max Bragado Darman manages to
get even more: a very nice sense of breathing and line and the palpable
yearning of the music.  Lucero Tena, the dedicatee of Dos danzas espanolas,
clicks them castanets with fire.  The sound is fine without calling
attention to itself, one way or the other.

Steve Schwartz

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