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Todd:


I figured it was about time to try another disc of Leonardo Balada’s music, so I opted for the Naxos disc with his second Cello Concerto, entitled New Orleans, along with his Concerto for Four Guitars and Orchestra, as well as two shorter orchestral works, Celebracio and a Passacaglia.  Again, it was a good choice. 

The disc opens with the Cello Concerto (2001), which is heavily influenced by “folk” sources, here a combination of spirituals and jazz.  The opening movement entitled Lament is influenced rather obviously by spirituals; it fairly oozes with the stuff.  But it works.  The music is still dense and layered and surprisingly modern while retaining an immediately accessible neo-romantic sound.  One may even be able to detect very faint whiffs of American-era Dvorak in the mix, along with hints of jazz.  The cello part is well written and superbly played by Michael Sanderling.  The second movement, called Swinging swings!  Here the obvious spiritual references are replaced by jazz elements that sound more than jazzy enough.  It’s more a Gershwin or perhaps Schulhoff style of jazz than an Ellington or Davis style, and it appears in a strangely surreal, dream-like setting; the music flows along, with jazzy bits popping in and out at random, or seemingly so.  (Of course it’s not really random.)  So much sounds so familiar, but it’s all new invention.  One can’t place the exact influence because it’s a blend of many, and it just jells.  Another superb work.

I approached the Concerto for Four Guitars and Orchestra (1976), with the Versailles Guitar Quartet doing the small ensemble honors, with some trepidation.  Truth to tell, I’m not a big fan of acoustic guitar music, in its classical guise or any other guise.  A little bit goes a long way.  Electrify and amplify the instrument, and, well, the same holds true.  But here I must say that I was pleasantly surprised.  First things first: this is a decidedly “modern” work, all knotty and dense and avant garde, so some may run for cover just reading that.  I almost did.  But I stuck it out.  When the guitars enter, they play with a nice degree of tension and simple repetitiveness, then something quite striking happens – they blend seamlessly into the pizzicato high strings that bring the orchestra in full bore.  Throughout the work the transitions between orchestra and soloists sound perfect, and Balada never lets the orchestra overpower the four instruments, which could very easily happen.  The second movement (the movements are titled I, II, and III) is slow and eerie, with some tangy and delicious high register playing on the guitars and various intriguing devices elsewhere.  The nine minutes sail by, and then the final movement just appears, with more energy and bite and some satisfying tuttis sprinkled throughout.  That makes yet another winner.

Next up is Celebracio from 1992.  It opens very slowly and quietly and has a distinctly baroque sensibility.  It quickly expands into a denser, more modern sounding piece, with Balada’s writing highlighting different sections of the orchestra to spectacular effect.  It takes a little time, but the piece develops into full, grand, celebratory music that works as both a thought-provoking musical essay and easily accessible public showpiece. 

The disc closes with a Passacaglia from 2002.  It sounds spare and lovely to open, and it immediately evokes the same type of quasi-dream state that the Cello Concerto does.  And that wind writing!  I know I’ve heard something like it before.  Or have I?  Various musical ideas dance in and out of the piece fluidly, yet there’s an effortlessness and inevitability to how the music progresses.  It starts off abstract and hard to pin down, but slowly turns into a folk passacalle.  Another little gem.

All parties involved do a superb job, with Colman Pierce showing himself to be a fine conductor and the Barcelona orchestra a rather fine regional ensemble.  Excellent sound rounds out a superb disc.  At full price it would be worth every cent; at the Naxos price it’s a veritable steal.  I need more Balada.

Guido:
Thanks for these - all very interesting reads. I do not share your enthusiasm for Balada, but it is good to read nonetheless. You should try the Naxos disc of the Rawsthorne Cello concerto again - even if the thematic material isn't always first rate, there are many moments of real beauty, and it is a very good work. The Symphonic Studies on the same disc is similarly brilliant.

Todd:


For years I planned on getting this disc, yet I only recently got around to doing so.  I didn’t really miss a whole lot.  Don’t get me wrong, the disc isn’t terrible or even bad – hell, it’s okay or better – but it doesn’t really offer anything that really catches the attention for long in two of the three works.  The best of the lot is the trio by Gunther Schuller, which is dense and layered and rhythmically complex, all while being subtle.  The Lalo Schifrin and Gerald Shapiro trios both bring to mind that famous Stravinsky quip: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.”  Both works are too long, and while both have some appealing elements, I just cannot get into them.  It’s not that they’re especially difficult, “modernist” pieces, mind you, they just don’t hold my attention.  Indeed, the Shapiro has some decidedly romantic aspects, including a creamy beautiful Adagio, but it still just doesn’t do it for me.

Sound is generally excellent and spacious, especially with HDCD decoding.

karlhenning:
Thanks for carrying the thread on, Todd.

Todd:


Heitor Villa-Lobos isn’t a composer new to me, but aside from The Baby’s Family and one other miniature played by Nelson Freire on an Audiofon recording of a 1984 recital, I’ve not listened to his piano music.  So I figured why not give one of Sonia Rubinsky’s discs of the composer’s piano music a shot?  Ms Rubinsky apparently is recording a complete set of Villa-Lobos’ piano music, so if one disc is good there may be more goodies to be heard.  Plus the discs have been well-reviewed, so I figured the music and playing should be at least pretty good.  They’re much more than that.

If the third volume in the series is anything to go by, this is one heck of a series, and Villa-Lobos is one heck of a composer for solo piano.  The disc opens with the Suite Floral, and it’s an absolutely lovely little work.  Much of it sounds like a missing piece by Faure, though the third piece betrays its non-French heritage with some verve not often found in the piano works of the more famous French composer.  Next up is Ciclo Brasileiro, which is another collection of miniatures that at times sounds like a modern-day Latinization of other composers: The third piece sounds like virtuosic, Latin Chopin; the fourth sounds very much like a tropical Prokofiev.  That’s not to say that Villa-Lobos doesn’t have his own voice.  He does.  Indeed, the opening miniature is simply wonderful, with its ubiquitous right hand ostinato underpinning lyrical left hand playing, and the second piece sounds like a waltz-meets-tango dance.  The next work is Brinquedo de Roda, which one can think of as Villa-Lobos’ version of Children’s Corner.  It’s largely delightful, but such a suite invariably invites comparison to Debussy’s more famous, and better, work, and at times the material just doesn’t rise to the same level as the other music on the disc.  The next work is a trio of pieces called  Dancas Caracteristicas Africanas, and while there’s a “folk” element to it, it ultimately sounds abstract and rhythmically complex, and really invites the listener to listen carefully.  The disc ends with four miniatures – Tristorosa and three Choros – and all of them display the same traits, to one degree or another, of the preceding works.  On the basis of this music, I can’t quite say that Villa-Lobos should be considered alongside the very greatest composers for the keyboard, but he deserves far more attention, and I intend to here more discs in this series.

To the pianist: she is quite fine indeed!  Perhaps because she’s Brazilian, or perhaps because of her training and technique, or perhaps because of all of that and more, Ms Rubinsky really delivers the goods.  She seems to understand the music well, and she masterfully handles the rhythmic aspects of the music and brings out delicate and varied tonal colors throughout the disc.  I’d very much like to hear her in some standard rep – above all, Chopin and Schumann – and I know I must hear more of her Villa-Lobos. 

Sound is superb, though some pedaling is perhaps a little more noticeable than ideal.

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