Classical CD Reviews

LEONARDO BALADA: Caprichio No. 1 “Homage to Federico Garcia Lorca”; Capricho No. 5 “Homage to Isaac Albéniz”; A Little Night Music in Harlem; Relejos / Iberian Chamber Orchestra / José Luis Temes – Naxos

I like Balada, but I find only about half this program truly compelling.

Published on April 11, 2012

LEONARDO BALADA: Caprichio No. 1 “Homage to Federico Garcia Lorca”; Capricho No. 5 “Homage to Isaac Albéniz”; A Little Night Music in Harlem; Relejos / Iberian Chamber Orchestra / José Luis Temes – Naxos

LEONARDO BALADA: Caprichio No. 1 “Homage to Federico Garcia Lorca”; Capricho No. 5 “Homage to Isaac Albéniz”; A Little Night Music in Harlem; Relejos – Bertrand Piétu, guitar / Aldo Mata, cello / Tatiana Franco, flute / Iberian Chamber Orchestra / José Luis Temes – Naxos 8.572625 73:20 ***:

Naxos has dedicated a considerable bit of disc space, some might argue an inordinate amount, to Spanish-American composer Leonardo Balada in its 21st Century Classics series. I’ve admired some of the releases in this series, some I’ve admired quite a bit, so I’m not one who would say Naxos has gone out on a limb for Balada, especially since this label seems bent on recording all of Western classical music from Gregorian chant forward. Still, I must confess that this latest release is something of a hit and a miss for me—a couple of hits and a couple of misses.

I’m very attracted to Capricho No. 1 (2003), which is “freely based on the folk songs the poet-dramatis Federico Garcia Lorca arranged for piano and voice.” According to the composer, he has faithfully quoted the first two or three bars of each song and then gone his own way, “using an assorted number of contemporary techniques, aleatoric devices, tone clusters, atonality mixed with tonality, textures and so on.” Certainly this is true, and yet the music retains its folkloric nature and has a true vital Hispanic ring to it that—I hope Balada will forgive me, if there’s anything to forgive—sounds for all the world like latter-day Rodrigo. I might be wrong, but this music, commissioned by the Austin Classical Guitar Society, has the bearing of a contemporary classic about it, and I hope it gets the exposure to which it is entitled. Certainly, it could make a splash in the concert hall, as it does in this recording.

I’m not quite as partial, but almost so, to Balada’s relatively early Relejos (1988). Scored for flute and string orchestra (or quartet), it is far from a concerto. The flute is imbedded in the orchestra fabric and often disappears within that fabric only to emerge for a brief time in the limelight. The work is cast in two contrasting movements, Penas (“Sorrow”) and Alegrías (“Exuberance”), and except that the contrast is all-to-true to the titles and thus less than subtle, this is an effective piece. The first movement has uses alleatoric effects and extreme dissonance to create a desolate modernist musical landscape. The second movement is all dance-like energy, with a definite folk influence. Does the spirit of Bartók hover over this music? I’m not sure Bartók was in Balada’s thoughts, and yet his rhythmic energy and attachment to folk idioms are in my mind as I listen.

So far so good. And in fact the whole disc offers good music, but the two works I have discussed so far are, I think, the finest music on the disc. The other pieces are in the category of, I guess you would say, “reimagining” repertory works. Thus they’re similar to Luciano Berio’s Rendering for Orchestra, based very, very loosely on Schubert’s sketches for his unfinished Tenth Symphony in D Major. A similar example is Wolfgang Rihm’s Fremde Scene, again, based very loosely on Schumann’s piano trios. Like Balada’s professed practice in Capricho No. 1, these works quote more or less faithfully from the original sources and then launch into a series of variations, or rather Cubistic explosions, of the original music. The result is a kind of fun-house rendering of the source material, pulled out of all shape, served up for modernist ruminations on traditional nineteenth-century musical ideals. How attached you are to the work of the moderns depends on how much umbrage you take at their treatment of the classics. Actually, I think Rihm has some very interesting things to say vis-à-vis Schumann and German Romanticism. I’m not so sure that Berio’s atomization of Schubert is all that effective. And I feel the same way about Balada’s Cubistic treatment of Albéniz. It may simply be I’m so much more familiar with the originals in the case of Albéniz than I am with the folk songs that are the basis of Caprichio No. 1. In that case, forgive me for being a curmudgeon and party-pooper. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is clearly not Balada at his most effective and thus a definite step down from the immediately attractive Capricho No. 1.

I could lodge some of the same criticism against Balada’s Cubistic treatment of one of the most beloved pieces in the classical music canon, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, but even if a Little Night Music in Harlem is not going to be one of my top listening experiences of 2012, it’s good-natured enough. And it has its moments, without doubt. It’s just that Balada comes a little late in the history of Western art for a Dadaistic treatment of such a redoubtable classic. I truly enjoy the laidback, semi-pop opening, with its squealing harmonics in the upper strings, but by the time Balada gets around to putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, he’s lost me. This is ultimately a musical joke that’s no funnier than Mozart’s own Musical Joke, which is a compositional lead balloon if there ever was one. [Hey, that’s one of my favorite Mozart works!…Ed.] But then one man’s funny is another man’s I-don’t-get-it: since Balada’s piece is more jeu d’esprit than serious Classical composition, I’ll let you decide on its musical and extramusical merits.

I may have some reservations about the quality of the music, but I have none about the quality of the performances, which are all polished and professional in the extreme. That includes the very adept soloists, especially guitarist Bernard Piétu: I’m glad he brings such authority to what is far and away my favorite work on the program. As to the recorded sound, it’s good but a more than a little close and aggressive, which incidentally matches Balada’s approach in this music. But both sound and music are a bit too much of a good thing, and after a while, the whole enterprise wears on the aesthetic nerves.

—Lee Passarella

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