Summary for the Busy Executive: Windows into Spain's history and soul.
Apparently Naxos has determined to record all of Spanish composer Joaquín 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, "Cántico 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 cançons 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. "Canço del Teuladí" (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 Tríptic de Mossèn 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' Atlàntida, the basis of Falla's last – incomplete – masterpiece). "Mossèn Cinto" is the affectionate nickname by which he often goes in his native region. "Cinto" is, of course, short for "Jacinto," while "mossèn" 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 Ocaña 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 Ocaña." 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 qué la lavaré" (with what shall I bathe) and "Vos me matásteis" (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 dóne venís, 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 Rosalíana, we encounter a work of Rodrigo's second great songwriting period. The texts are by the Galician poet Rosalía 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?); "Adiós rios, adiós 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 – "Paseába 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, tú 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 Tríptic 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.
Copyright © 2010, Steve Schwartz.