Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major; SMETANA: The Bartered Bride – Ov.; CHAPI: Musica classica: Prelude; La corte de Granada, Fantasia morisca: Serenata; El tambor de granaderos: Prelude; GIMENEZ: El baile de Luis Alonso: Intermezzo; La boda de Luis Alonso: Intermezzo – Orq. Nac. de Espana/ Orch. de la Suisse Romande (Smetana)/ Gran Orquesta Sinfonica (Chapi, Gimienez)/ Ataulfo Argenta – ICA Classics

The gifted but ill-fated conductor Argenta delivers an Eroica that avoids cliches and restores the fervor of Beethoven's originality.

Published on November 18, 2012

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major; SMETANA: The Bartered Bride – Ov.; CHAPI: Musica classica: Prelude; La corte de Granada, Fantasia morisca: Serenata; El tambor de granaderos: Prelude; GIMENEZ: El baile de Luis Alonso: Intermezzo; La boda de Luis Alonso: Intermezzo – Orq. Nac. de Espana/ Orch. de la Suisse Romande (Smetana)/ Gran Orquesta Sinfonica (Chapi, Gimienez)/ Ataulfo Argenta – ICA Classics

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”; SMETANA: The Bartered Bride – Overture; CHAPI: Musica classica: Prelude; La corte de Granada, Fantasia morisca: Serenata; El tambor de granaderos: Prelude; GIMENEZ: El baile de Luis Alonso: Intermezzo; La boda de Luis Alonso: Intermezzo – Orquesta Nacional de Espana/ Orch. de la Suisse Romande (Smetana)/ Gran Orquesta Sinfonica (Chapi, Gimienez)/ Ataulfo Argenta – ICA Classics ICAC 5087, 76:35 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Spanish conductor Ataulfo Argenta (1913-1958) died prematurely by mis-adventure, his having succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage. At the peak of his interpretative powers, he had been scheduled to inscribe the Brahms symphonies for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic. Charismatic and many-talented, Argenta found particular favor in two of his orchestral mentors, Carl Schuricht and Ernest Ansermet, the latter of whom had begun grooming Argenta as a successor to L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The present ICA collation of performances 1955-1957 adds significantly to the Argenta recorded legacy.

Argenta makes speedy points with his volatile account of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (24 May 1957) from the Palacio de la Musica, Madrid with the Spanish National Orchestra.  While not a virtuoso ensemble in the manner of the London Symphony – which Argenta had led  -  the level of execution remains quite high, the elided repeat of the first movement’s inducing a rather manic rush of energy from the outset. The upward rockets and woodwind interchanges enjoy considerable power and flexibility, the dynamics rising tumultuously in grand upheavals that recapture something of the shock this music must have had on its original public. The vocal character of Beethoven’s melodic sweep Argenta delivers in long lines; and the final pages of the Allegro con brio scamper most deliciously in their sense of metric liberation.

The Marcia funebre proceeds on a grandly somber scale, with Argenta’s allowing the solo instrumentals their full, clear sonic splendor- the flute, oboe, bassoon, and tympani – prior to the occasional dance-like filigree that lightens the burden of the event. In retrospect, this new addition to the Argenta recorded archive adumbrates the gravity of the conductor’s own passing. The gravitas, the intensity of the moment achieves a mighty organ-based sonority, and there are moments when the passion approaches the many Furtwaengler conceptions of this dark score. Besides a fervent tempo, enthusiastic playing by the National Orchestra horns delivers a febrile Scherzo of bewitched power. The feathery elasticity of the rapid string playing adds to the demonic character of the rendition.   Argenta approaches the contredanse or “Prometheus” tune of the last movement rather religiously, gathering up his textural intensities with singular drive. The singing line and dance-character of the flute variation and its dramatic, contrapuntal successors enjoy wonderful resonance. Here is an Eroica that avoids cliches and renews the splendid revolutionary ardor of the composer’s inspiration.

The Spanish light-opera tradtion, the zarzuela, occupies in the national lore something of what the mazurka does for Poland or the maerchen accomplishes for Schumann.  Argenta left a considerable legacy of zarzuela recordings: these excerpts from ICA derive from performances in Madrid, 1955-1957.  The opening Musica clasica Prelude by Ruperto Chapi (1851-1909) makes all sorts of allusions to Schubert’s Rosamunde, bird calls from Beethoven’s Pastoral, and the braying from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the course of Spanish pageant. The two other Chapi selections demonstrate a fleet facility in string and wind writing, the Offenbach-like melodies simple, martially colorful, and folk-like, sometimes reminiscent of the music that Chaplin devised for his own movies.  The music of Geronimo Gimenez (1854-1923) plays like watered-down Falla, charming but nationalistically predictable. The colors, though, realized via castanets and triangle, add some degree of sparkle to melodies Sarasate and Chabrier better exploited elsewhere.

Smetana’s virtuosic Overture to The Bartered Bride (29 August 1957) live from Victoria Hall, Geneva provides a svelte example of Argenta’s sway over an extended contrapuntal piece, a bravura juggling of the many chattering lines of townspeople’s gossip, the butt of Smetana’s comic opera. Woodwinds, strings, and tympani deliver an accented scintillating seven minutes’ worth of music, light, transparent, and lusciously mounted.

—Gary Lemco




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