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CLASSICAL  May 2010

CLASSICAL May 2010

Subject:

Songs by Rodrigo

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Thu, 6 May 2010 15:34:25 -0700

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[Read online: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs55845b.php ]

Joaquin Rodrigo
Complete Orchestral Music - 10
Songs and Madrigals for Soprano & Orchestra

*  Cuatro madrigales amatorios (1948)
*  Cantos de amor y de guerra (1968)
*  Triptic de Mossen Cinto (1936)
*  Romance del Comendador de Ocana (1947)
*  Cuatre cancons en llengua catalana (1935)
*  Rosaliana (1965)
*  Cantico de la esposa (1934)

Raquel Lojendio, soprano
Asturias Symphony Orchestra (OSPA)/Maximiano Valdes
Naxos 8.555845 Total Time: 66:42

Summary for the Busy Executive: Windows into Spain's history and soul.

Apparently Naxos has determined to record all of Spanish composer
Joaquin Rodrigo's orchestral catalogue.  Perhaps it will go on to issue
his complete guitar music as well (if it hasn't already done so).  Of
course, most of the concerti have received several recordings on full-priced
labels - especially the Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar, a chartbuster
hit of twentieth-century music (the slow movement even appeared in a
Chrysler commercial with Ricardo Montalban hawking "rich Corinthian
leather" interiors).  On the other hand, major works have gone begging
for recording, and Naxos has to a large extent addressed the deficit.
As far as I know, only three of the items on this particular CD have
appeared before, so even the most avid collector will probably find most
of these scores new territory.

Rodrigo studied in Paris with Dukas.  However, like just about every
other Spanish composer of his generation, he fell under the influence
of Falla, particularly the Stravinskian aspects of that master, and in
time came to occupy the same position in Spanish music after Falla's
death.  Like Falla, he had a great gift for melody.  When he fires on
all cylinders (which is most of the time), every note seems perfectly
placed.  In his choice of song texts, he's more Spanish than bullfights,
particularly drawn to Spain's Moorish history and heritage.  He sets
classical Spanish, Catalonian, Sephardic, and various other dialects.
Often as I listened, this or that song would remind me of Falla's
masterpiece El retablo de maese Pedro, a setting of a passage of Cervantes.
The same sense of Spain's long cultural history inhabits both.

Rodrigo's mature song output divides into roughly two phases: the first
from the Thirties through the Forties; the second from the Fifties on.
The earliest song on the program, "Cantico de la esposa" (song of the
bride), with a text by St.  John of the Cross, Rodrigo considered his
best.  I don't agree, but I understand why he favored it.  A lovely work,
he wrote it as a gift to his Jewish wife, whom he had married under hard
economic, political, and social circumstances.  The poem itself has
little obvious structure, other than what the composer provides.  While
Rodrigo has imposed a structure, he seems constrained, too worried about
the structure to let himself go musically.

I find far more interesting the Cuatre cancons en llengua catalana
(four songs in the Catalan tongue) of 1935.  Rodrigo was born in Valencia,
just south of Catalonia and always had an affinity with its poetry and
culture.  The cycle presents settings of four Catalonian poets, including
the expatriate Josep Carner, "the prince of Catalan poets." Rodrigo's
cycle, considered as a whole, however, I think weak.  This time, the
structure of these poems is usually pretty intricate.  The first two
songs (including the Carner setting) escape the charge.  "Canco del
Teuladi" (song of the sparrow) charms the listener as the sparrow wittily
pleads to a hunter for its life.  The orchestra trills in subtle intimations
of birdsong, without hitting you over the head.  "Canticel" (song or
ditty) takes a strange, haunting little poem by Carner (I would give a
throne for sailing on the sea, youth for a "virtuous face," and love for
rosemary) and tames it by setting it straightforwardly, in the manner
of a folk ballad. It takes a great, even lucky, songwriter to pull off
something like that.  The next two songs, however, show a distinct falling
off - nothing terrible, just lacking the precision and incisiveness
characteristic of Rodrigo.  I find it ironic that they're also the
simplest structurally.  "L' inquietut Primaveral de la Donzella" (the
maiden's anxious spring) seems like a capable, though uninspired riff
on Impressionism, a bit unfocused, while the final "Brollador gentil"
(gentle fountain) belies its title with an orchestral accompaniment that
out-Respighis Respighi's depiction of the Fountain of Trevi.  It sounds
like Neptune and all his retinue on a wild ride through the ocean.  The
orchestration, ingenious, nevertheless goes way over the top.

With the Triptic de Mossen Cinto of the following year, Rodrigo creates
one of his finest works - a masterful fusion of tune and text.  The texts
come from Jacint Verdaguer, arguably Catalonia's greatest poet (he wrote
L' Atlantida, the basis of Falla's last - incomplete - masterpiece).
"Mossen Cinto" is the affectionate nickname by which he often goes in
his native region.  "Cinto" is, of course, short for "Jacinto," while
"mossen" means "monsignor," since Verdaguer worked as a priest. The poems
of the triptych all deal with sacred myths surrounding music: the Virgin
Mary plays King David's harp; St.  Francis picks up two sticks and plays
great violin music in honor of the Nativity; St.  Francis asks a cricket
to sing to the glory of God.  In its melancholy, "L' harpa sagrada"
anticipates the slow songs of the Cuatro madrigales amatorios of more
than a decade later. "Lo Violi de Sant Francesc" continually pours out
glorious music as it alludes to bagpipes, tambours, guitars, and, of
course, the violin.  Rodrigo throws in a near-virtuosic violin solo.
The last song, "Sant Francesc i la cigala," amazes me the most.  Most
of it rests on a drone, evoking a symphony of crickets on a hot summer
day, and still Rodrigo keeps musical interest, modulating at the last
possible instant and at the proper dramatic point in the poem - a work
of beautiful proportions.

Rodrigo wrote one zarzuela, "El hijo fingido" (1964) (the pretended son),
which I haven't heard (I've ordered it).  Romance del Comendador de Ocana
seems like a sketch for that later work.  The Romance is a dramatic
monologue of a virtuous wife fending off the advances of the lecherous
"knight commander of Ocana." Unfortunately, in spite of all the possibilities
in the situation, it fails to generate much drama.  In fact, at this
point in his career, although he writes music we commonly call dramatic,
Rodrigo doesn't strike me as a composer for stage drama, but a great
lyricist.  He's not particularly penetrating in delineating character
or even of conjuring up stock emotion - the latter probably counts as a
good thing.  Whether he discovered the knack in time for his zarzuela,
I'll have to see.

The Cuatro madrigales amatorios I view as the culmination of Rodrigo's
first period of songwriting.  It was probably the second Rodrigo piece
I had ever heard (on the old Louisville label), and it hooked me
immediately.  Not one song in this cycle falls beneath superb, and there's
a deep folk element.  Indeed, in the last song, "De los alamos vengo,
madre" (I come from the poplars, mother), he borrows a traditional melody,
and puts it over a really spiffy fandango accompaniment.  The texts come
from sixteenth-century Spain, a period that continually attracted the
composer.  The first two songs, "Con que la lavare" (with what shall I
bathe) and "Vos me matasteis" (you have slain me), pour out rivers of
yearning.  The poet bathes in his tears and is "slain" by love at first
sight - to melodies of great beauty.  The third song, "De done venis,
amore" (Where are you, love?  I know) functions as a light-hearted
scherzo.  The most difficult number of the group, it pushes the soprano
through simple arpeggios at freakishly high parts of her range.  You
need a Sherpa guide for some of those passages.  It's the very devil to
keep in tune, but the melody is so attractive that if the singer pulls
it off, you get both the flush of the melody and of the soprano's victory
hurtling over fiendish obstacles.

With Rosaliana, we encounter a work of Rodrigo's second great songwriting
period.  The texts are by the Galician poet Rosalia de Castro.  By the
way, this Galicia lies not in Central Europe (where my ancestors hail
from), but just north of Portugal.  One reads of some debate whether
Galician is a dialect of Spain or of Portugal (although the Spanish and
the Portuguese understand one another pretty well).  At any rate, de
Castro writes in Galician dialect.  The cycle contains four songs:
"Cantart'ei, Galicia" (I sing to you, Galicia); "Por que?" (why?); "Adios
rios, adios fontes" (goodbye rivers, goodbye fountains); "Vamos bebendo!"
(let's go drinking!).  In these songs, the folk element, though still
present, becomes more and more abstract, much in the way it runs through
Vaughan Williams's mature work.  In addition, the great floods of melody
that ran through the earlier work give way to spare, even austere (though
memorable) cells.  The orchestration, never particularly obese, has
slimmed a bit as well.  The first three songs talk of loss, particularly
the loss of country.  Indeed, the first reminds me a bit of "singing ...
in a strange land." I believe all of the poems come from a point of such
poverty in Galicia, that at least twelve percent of the population
emigrated.  The poems capture the pathos of that.  In fact, I wondered
whether de Castro herself was forced to leave.  It turns out, no, but
she and her family were extremely poor.  In "Vamos bebendo," a girl sings
of selling her eggs at the market and how she will save for her bridal
veil, her marriage, and her dowry, and then decides to blow her earnings
on a good drink.

Even sparser are the Cantos de amor y de guerra (songs of love and war).
In many instances, the texture comes down to the voice and one or two
instruments.  The melody does, consequently, most of the work.  Musically
and psychologically, this cycle strikes me as the most complex of the
works here, and yet it retains Rodrigo's characteristic directness of
expression.  Indeed, that directness becomes more pointed because of the
new economy of means.

The texts come mainly from Rodrigo's beloved sixteenth century.  Three
of the five songs deal with the Moors.  The first - "Paseaba el rey moro"
(the king of the moors passed through) - tells of the fall of the Alhambra
and the king's lament.  It begins and ends with a lone snare drum.  The
"full" orchestra consists of strings, oboe, clarinet, and flute, but
they very seldom play together.  Furthermore, just strings accompany the
singer most of the time.  "A las armas, moriscotes!" (to arms, Moors!),
about the wars between the Moors (even the ones converted to Christianity)
and the French, has the fullest orchestration, but it seldom sounds
simultaneously with the singer.  It consists mainly of strong "stings."
This texture takes up half the song.  The second half consists mainly
of snare drum, piccolo, and soprano.  "Ay!  luna que reluces" (oh, shining
moon) invokes the moon to "light my way to war." A single flute accompanies
the soprano, depicting the loneliness of night.  "Sobre Baza estaba el
Rey" (the king was near Baza) tells of the defiance of the Moorish
defenders toward the Christian king Fernando.  A lone harp supports the
singer over much of the song.  In the finale - "Pastorcico, tu que has
vuelto" (shepherd lad, you who have returned), probably the most radical
song of the cycle - the singer asks whether the shepherd has seen the
poet's beloved.  The singer and the snare drum get most of the music,
with single brass coming in with the same riff as an instrumental refrain
- delightful, and slightly maddening.

Victoria de los Angeles, of course, owned this repertoire (I first heard
the Triptic from her), but Raquel Lojendio, a sweet voice with plenty
of dramatic power, comes pretty damn close.  Despite their folk-oriented
melos, these songs pose great challenges to singers.  Lojendio in at
least some of them doesn't go flat exactly, but shades a bit to the
underside of the pitch.  It didn't bother me at all, especially since
de los Angeles did the same in the same songs.  Again, Rodrigo can commit
cruelties in his vocal writing.  The orchestra under Vald's plays cleanly
with toe-tapping rhythm.  In the slow numbers, they impart a necessary
acidity latent in the music that keeps sentimentality (though not
sentiment) at bay.  This disc stands out in Naxos's Rodrigo series. 
It will undoubtedly make my best of the new year list.

Steve Schwartz

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