THEODORAKIS: Canto General – Orquesta de Nuestra Tierra/ Leopold Griessler/ Sybille von Both (chorus master)/ Sergio Cattaneo (baritone)/ Julia Schilinski (alto) – Gramola 99025 (Dist. by Naxos) About 90 min. **½:
When I first heard Canto General over twenty years ago, I thought: this is music for revolutionaries to sing while storming the gates. Based on the greatest poem by the renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the oratorio is vibrant, dramatic, and unabashedly inspiring. My favorite recording was the first, released thirty years ago (RCA ND74883-1) and featuring the justly famous alto Maria Farantouri. Its melodic and emotive power is astounding. It ranks with Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar) or his cantata, The Execution of Steka Razin. Yet as Shakespeare’s Dogberry says, “comparisons are odorous.” I should say I’ve really never heard anything like it and leave it at that. Here is a video of Farantouri singing the opening piece, Algunas Bestias in the early eighties: https://youtu.be/aDPi11XhcG8. It’s an exultant aria about richly varied South American life.
In a 1993 release (Intuition Records INT 31142), Alexandra Papadjiakou also shows her lusty chops on Algunas Bestias. It too is a good recording and features Theodorakis’ updated version with five new pieces. Using rousing choral accompaniment, bouzoukis, and tympanis, Theodorakis constructs an undulating panorama of varying volume and easeful rhythms.
The current version has Julia Schilinski and Sergio Cattaneo singing the lead alto and tenor roles. As conductor Leopold Griessler slows the tempo of Algunas Bestias, Schilinski does sing tenderly: “It was the night of the cayman,/the night pure and pullulating/with snouts emerging from the ooze . . .”Then the tempo picks up again, ending the piece with terrifying exclamations as an anaconda lunges from the water, “devouring and religious.” Every time I hear this piece I think, why hasn’t anyone turned it into a ballet?
The centerpiece of Canto General is the stirring Los Liberatadores: “Here comes the tree, the tree whose roots are alive/it fed on martyrdom’s nitrate/its roots consumed blood . . . .” Farantouri sings these lively lines as if hurling thunderbolts, and so does Papadjiakou. Unfortunately, Schilinski does not. She conjures up a rainstorm you don’t even run from.
Theodorakis continually alters the relationship between singer and chorus: sometimes the alto delivers her lines with droning choral accompaniment, other times she alternates with the chorus. Such varied effects ordinarily astonish the listener. The Orquesta de Nuestra Tierra does a barely acceptable job, often overpowering her and the lead tenor. The sound balance is off and it seems the performance was distantly miked.
True, the music itself is not flawless. Theodorakis’ later additions at transcribing Neruda’s more tendentious verses don’t always work. Sometimes the music isn’t up to its material. A Mi Partido, Neruda’s paean to his membership in the Communist Party, falls flat despite Cattaneo’s earnest rendition. Sandino, virtually a recitative about the famous Nicaraguan rebel, is melodically uninventive and strays from all attempts at engagement. Lautaro does take off, but its trenchant lyricism is skewed by puzzling flute accompaniment. Theodorakis’ elegy Neruda Requiem Aeternam has a monotonous melody and solemn choral accompaniment that imparts a dreary hymn-like quality. No one can help that.
Not all the arias are political. Vienen los Pajaros is a jubilant evocative piece about the many bird species circling the countryside. “All was flight in our land,” sings the chorus, accompanied by spry celestas and folk guitars. In the other recordings voices swoop around the harmony like condors. The lights are on Papadjiakou and Farantouri whenever they open their mouths, even when enveloped by the chorus. With Schilinski, you just hope she makes it through. Her voice – lacking spark and bite – is simply not suited for this material.
Few can sing as melancholically about death and starvation as Farantouri, but Schilinski, while hitting all the right notes, fails to stir the soul. The prior two recordings convince you that the singers believe the material. Tenor Sergio Cattaneo may be a competent baritone, but he lacks the sardonic edge to his voice that these pieces demand. Although it would have been so easy to have made this work bombastic, the answer is not to move in the other direction and hold back. I am pleased that another recording of this great work has been released and I would like to have given it a higher recommendation. However, the competition soars too far above it for that to happen.
Algunas Bestias (Some Beasts)
Voy A Vivir (I Am Going To Live)
Los Libertadores (The Liberators)
A Mi Partido (To My Party)
Vienen Los Pajaros (The Birds Arrive)
Neruda Requiem Aeternam
La United Fruit Co.