RAVEL: Menuet Antique; Alborada del Gracioso; Concerto in D for the Left Hand; FALLA: Nights in the Gardens of Spain; Three-Cornered Hat: 3 Dances – Michel Block, piano/ Sinfonia da Camera/ Ian Hobson – Zephyr

by | Apr 3, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

RAVEL: Menuet Antique; Alborada del Gracioso; Concerto in D for the Left Hand; FALLA: Nights in the Gardens of Spain; Three-Cornered Hat: 3 Dances – Michel Block, piano/ Sinfonia da Camera/ Ian Hobson – Zephyr Z-114-99, 70:47 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Virtuoso pianist Michel Block (1937-2003) appeared with Ian Hobson and his Sinfonia da Camera 30 October 1998 for this Ravel/Falla program, recorded in stunning sound at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts by Jon Schoenhoff.  An immediate sensation in 1960 when Artur Rubinstein presented Block with a special prize at the Warsaw Chopin Competition, Block proceeded to make a teaching career at Indiana University in lieu of a concertizing artist; his appearances before an audience were rare.

Hobson makes his own points in clear and resonant sonics in the two opening orchestral works, the stately Menuet Antique and the racy Alborada del Gracioso. The slow tempo of the Menuet allows the individual wind voices to exert their anomalous resonance, given the absence of minuets prior to the sixteenth century, while Ravel imitates a sarabande style indicative of Lully. The “Morning-Song of the Jester” was originally a piano piece in a set of Miroirs (1905). The orchestral version of 1918 captures the strumming of Spanish guitars and spasmodic splashes of dancing colors. The Sinfonia da Camera bassoon makes his presence known with a haunted melody that indicates an essential lyric pathos at the heart of this otherwise waggish piece whose string work demands a special bravura.

From the opening cello-bass pedal-point and contrabassoon, the Ravel 1931 Concerto in D writhes into a melodic core the way a chrysalis emerges from the a colorful cocoon, with Block’s establishing the jazzy spirit that compels most of the single-movement’s energy. A staid nobility of mien opens the piece, Lento, the texture thick in a manner that well approaches what two hands could achieve at the keyboard. Once the horns and snare drum enter, the nervous frisson plays against the piano’s intricately lyric sentiments, Block’s lilting arpeggios set against ripe wind colors. The jerky badinage between piano and orchestra, Allegro, assumes a military carriage rife with irreverently syncopated humor. Hobson manages to imitate a musical toy-box in the woodwinds which reverts to an ostinato and snare mix reminiscent of Bolero. A percussive explosion in Technicolor ensues, hints from Dukas scurrying along, only to invoke Gershwin and the martial recapitulation, Tempo primo.  Block plays the last cadenza with a wistfully romantic exoticism, Ravel cross-fertilized by Liszt and Eastern pearls. The explosive final page invites an equally volatile response from an enthralled audience. 

The set of three nocturnes for piano and orchestra, Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1915), combines Andalusian sensuality and the canto jondo tradition in gypsy music, all filtered through a Parisian lens. Block and Hobson take the At the Generalife opening movement at a rapid pace, but they do not short change the sultry vapors and Moorish eroticism of the occasion. Strummed and singing guitars mark significant portions of the following two nocturnes, the first a dreamy campfire reverie, the second a passionate tryst in hazy and melancholy colors. In each movement Block’s carefully etched obbligato piano portrays a fertile mystery that the tremolo strings, horns and tympani embellish suggestively as prevalent in the Iberian temperament.

The famed three dances from The Three-Cornered Hat  – Seguidillas, Farruca, and Jota – have come to represent the entire 1919 ballet in miniature. The swaying rhythms and perfumed colors capture the repressed sensuality of the young miler and his pretty wife, the latter courted by an aged Corregidor. The heavy, virile flamenco rhythm of the Miller’s Dance has a counterpoint in delicate figures from woodwinds and harp. The Final Dance exploits the familiar Deus ex machina formula that restores all principals to their rightful place and situation, but the fun lies in the swirling color combinations that Falla invents, the writing for the horns quite brilliant. Cymbals, triangle, and kettledrum contribute to the festivities, Falla having learned his Spanish blood by way of the Paris masters who had imbued “Truth without authenticity.”

—Gary Lemco

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