22 August 2014

CD REVIEW: CANCIÓN AMOROSA – SONGS OF SPAIN (Corinne Winters, soprano; Steven Blier, piano; GPR Records GPR70013)

CD REVIEW: CANCIÓN AMOROSA - Songs of Spain (GPR Records GPR70013)

NARCÍS BONET I ARMENGOL (born 1933), JOSÉ MELCHOR GOMIS (1791 – 1836), JESÚS GURIDI BIDAOLA (1886 – 1961), ALBERTO HEMSI (1898 – 1975), FÉLIX LAVILLA MUÑARRIZ (1928 – 2013), FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA (1898 – 1936), XAVIER MONTSALVATGE I BASSOLS (1912 – 2002), MANUEL GARCÍA MORANTE (1886 – 1942), MANUEL PENELLA MORENO (1880 – 1939), JOAQUÍN NIN Y CASTELLANOS (1879 – 1949), GRACIANO TARRAGÓ (1892 – 1973), EDUARD TOLDRÀ SOLER (1895 – 1962), and JOAQUÍN TURINA (1882 – 1949): Canción amorosa – Songs of SpainCorinne Winters, soprano; Maya Lahyani, mezzo-soprano; Oren Fader, guitar; Steven Blier, piano [Recorded at Sound Associate Studios, New York, USA, 2 – 3 and 25 October 2013; GPR Records GPR70013; 1CD, 49:43; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Spain is a nation of contrasts. One of the last bastions of exoticism in modern Europe, Spain and her people have clung to elements of their endemic culture even as the Twenty-First Century has ushered in a solidification of the transition from the post-Civil War autocracy of Francisco Franco to today’s vibrant, socially-progressive democracy. As has been achieved almost nowhere else in the world, Spain has embraced reform without discarding or ignoring the past. Ambiguity is at the heart of being Spanish: the soul of the nation responds with equal enthusiasm to protests and religious processions, bullfighting and environmental conservation, respectful discourse and raucous football rivalries. All of this is evident in the back streets of Madrid and Barcelona, but it is nowhere more explosively eloquent than in the indigenous music of Spain. The very notion of a native Spanish music is a contradiction, of course: blending the influences of Christian, Islamic, and Judaic traditions, the music of Spain is a piquant paella that teases, threatens, and torments. Spanning virtually the entire musical history of modern Spain, the songs on Canción amorosa spread their seductive melodies into the grand spaces of the Plaza Mayor and la Rambla, the dusty carreteras of Andalucía, and the windswept shores of Galicia. The politics, literature, art, and spirituality of Spain surge through these songs, and when performed with the open-hearted sincerity that they receive on Canción amorosa they allow even the casual listener to momentarily hear, think, and feel as a Spaniard.

One of America’s foremost protectors of the Art of Song, exemplified by his founding work with the New York Festival of Song, pianist Steven Blier is an artist for whom the interpretation of song is second nature, and in these performances of fifteen of Spain’s most alluring inspirations in the genre he discovers in young Maryland-born soprano Corinne Winters a companion for this journey who needs no atlases or musical road maps. Spanish Art Song and zarzuela—Spain’s emblematic género chico—are particularly susceptible to the stupid notion that they are among those art forms that should be left to ‘natives.’ Galina Vishnevskaya and Irina Arkhipova naturally had special relationships with the operatic and song repertories of their native Russia, just as Pilar Lorengar and Teresa Berganza were attuned by right of birth to Spanish repertory. Neither Lorengar and Berganza nor Alicia de Larrocha were more suited to expressive performance of Spanish music than Ms. Winters and Mr. Blier here prove themselves to be, however. Their partnership is one of complementary virtues. Mr. Blier’s playing is marked by the kind of insurmountable virtuosity that deals handily with the greatest difficulties without ever calling attention to itself, and Ms. Winters’s vocalism is consistently artful without ever seeming artificial. Their partnership is shaped by obvious affection for the music at hand and the simple joy of two musicians interacting in ways that surprise and delight. What makes their trek through the aromatic harmonies of Spain so transporting for the listener is the abandon with which they surrender themselves to the music. Try to listen to any of the songs on Canción amorosa without sensing in the mind the delicate fragrances of almonds and saffron hanging in the air.

Ms. Winters and Mr. Blier launch their exploration of the musical topography of Spain with Eduard Toldrà’s setting of Francesco de Quevedo’s poem ‘Después que te conocí.’ Examining the ways in which love alters one’s perceptions of life, the Castilian text draws from Ms. Winters singing of great refinement, the delicacy of her approach contrasting with the formidable security of her singing. Her vocal storytelling is no less poised but passionate in ‘Maig,’ Toldrà’s setting of an evocative Catalan poem by Trinitat Catasús in which reflections of human passion are observed in nature, including portentous tidings in the May moon that bring to mind the effusions of ‘Casta diva’ in Bellini’s Norma and ‘Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém’ in Dvořák’s Rusalka, both of which are arias with which, in time, Ms. Winters could do much. ‘Paño murciano,’ Havana-born Joaquín Nin’s arrangement of a ‘dance from Murcia,’ contemplates the price of setting a lover’s kiss in silver, and it is the glow of molten silver that flows in Ms. Winters’s voice, compellingly framed by the calm brilliance of Mr. Blier’s playing. All of the threads in these songs are woven together in a fascinating tapestry in Lope de Vega’s ‘Si con mis deseos,’ set to music by Joaquín Turina that subtly reveals the abiding power of love to conquer both man and nature.

One of the starkest songs on the disc is ‘Aldapeko, Mariya,’ Félix Lavilla’s setting of a traditional Basque poem that tells of the despair of a woman pregnant with the child of wealthy landowner. The hopelessness in Ms. Winters’s recounting of the unwed mother-to-be’s tacit contemplation of suicide is made more poignant by the uncompromised beauty of tone. The truest sense of bel canto is present throughout her singing of these songs, in fact: she brings to these melodic feasts a voice that is rich without ever seeming heavy, and the depth of her interpretations is derived from her attention to the nuances of text and the expressive interplay of her collaboration with Mr. Blier. Together, they convey the metaphor of love being like the union of wind and waves imparted by Xavier Montsalvatge’s ‘Cançó amorosa,’ a setting of a Catalan poem by Tomás Garcés that inhabits the same world as the texts of Elgar’s Sea Pictures. Federico García Lorca’s arrangement of the Eighteenth-Century folk song ‘La Tarara,’ a musical portrait of a legendary alma gitana, offers Ms. Winters the opportunity to create a character with almost operatic intensity, a feat which she accomplishes unforgettably to the accompaniment of guitarist Oren Fader. Mr. Fader’s playing also contributes stirringly to Ms. Winters’s performance of ‘Nik baditut,’ Graciano Tarragó’s arrangement of a Basque folk in which the singer vaingloriously catalogues earthly possessions, ostensibly in an effort to impress a potential lover. Mr. Fader joins Ms. Winters and Israeli mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani in acutely sensitive performances of Mr. Blier’s arrangement of José Melchor Gomis’s ‘Si la mar fuera de tinta,’ its likening of love to a light in darkness projected with appropriate luminosity, and ‘Todas las mañanitas’ from Don Gil de Alcalá, a gorgeous piece by Manuel Penella Moreno, the composer of the celebrated zarzuela El gato montés.

A setting by Narcís Bonet of verses by Joan Maragall, ‘Haidé’ unifies the divergent emotional profiles of ‘Com una flor,’ ‘Ves qui t’ho havia de dir,’ and ‘Jo porto el teu pensament’ with vigor and originality, and Ms. Winters sings the piece with careful negotiation of its caprices of expressivity and vocal writing. Alberto Hemsi’s arrangement of the traditional Sephardic song ‘Tres hijas tiene el buen rey’ deals almost insouciantly with a father’s incestuous infatuation with his most beautiful daughter, touching in its perusal of the relationship between father and daughter the milieu of King Lear, but Ms. Winters downplays the uncomfortable implications of the text with her lustrous, practically playful singing. She enunciates the Ladino text with the same unaffected accuracies of stress and accent that she exhibits in the Basque, Castilian, and Catalan selections. The dual smallness and infiniteness of human love are celebrated in the folk poem ‘Cómo quieres que adivine,’ set to music of incredible beauty by Jesús Guridi, perhaps the greatest genius of Basque music in the Twentieth Century. Both to this and to ‘Paisatge del Montseny,’ Montsalvatge’s setting of Pere Ribot i Sunyer’s paean to the manifestations of love and man’s connection with the divine in the exquisite landscapes of the Montseny Massif, Ms. Winters lends vocalism of the highest order, the integration of her soft-mahogany lower register with the comet-like bursts of tone in her upper register reliable and frankly surprising for so young a singer. The best of her artistry is poured out in the haunting ‘Adío querida,’ a timeless Sephardic melody arranged by Manuel García Morante, and here as in every song Mr. Blier’s playing is so intrinsically synchronized with Ms. Winters’s singing that she might well be thought to be accompanying herself.

Offering performances of fifteen songs that any nation should be proud to claim as representatives of its unique artistic identity, few discs succeed as completely and memorably at capturing in sound the essence of a culture as Canción amorosa manages to do, but few labels are as accomplished in the art of giving artists and composers recordings worthy of their endeavors as GPR Records. Steven Blier is a tireless and erudite champion of Art Song whose work in a fascinating and always-growing repertoire deserves to be recorded frequently and with the quality lavished on this disc by his co-producers, Glen Roven, Peter Fitzgerald, and Richard Cohen. Corinne Winters introduces herself on disc not with a template recital of the same tired material intoned by many young sopranos but with an incandescent disc that says, ‘¡Oye! Soy diferente!’ Solely for being different, Canción amorosa earns the distinction of being one of the most enjoyable recordings released in recent years. As a performance that temporarily subdues the cares of the world with sly smiles, sighs, and splashes of sangria, it truly inspires sentimientos amorosos.