Ibéria [excerpts, orchestrated Arbós]
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
España – Rhapsody for Orchestra
Images pour orchestre
Andaluza [Danza española No.5 in E minor, Op.37]
A Faust Symphony
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat
Piano Concerto No.2 in A
Spanish Dances [Book I, Op.12]
Capriccio espagnol, Op.34
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Alfredo Campoli (violin)
Julius Katchen (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra
Recorded between 1953 and 1957 in Kingsway Hall, London; La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris; and Victoria Hall, Geneva
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: September 2006
CD No: DECCA 475 7747
Duration: 6 hours 1 minute
This is a first-rate set of recordings – everything that Ataúlfo Argenta made for Decca before his untimely death in 1958. He was but 44 when his demise came in tragic circumstances. As Alan Sanders relates in his booklet note, Argenta, and a student friend, took refuge in Argenta’s garage while his study warmed up (this was a cold evening in January); Argenta switched on his car’s engine and heater but left the garage doors closed. The student survived, but Argenta died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Argenta’s death came at a time of increasing success for him; he was due, just a few months later, to record Brahms’s symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic, and other plans were being discussed.
Born in 1913 in a Spanish fishing town, Argenta studied music in Madrid, primarily as a pianist; he eked out a living a piano-player in dance halls and bars and also worked for Spanish National Railways (his father had been a station-master). Come the Spanish Civil War, Argenta was conscripted – and managed in the nick of time to prove he was not a spy and avoid a firing-squad – and, and the end of World War II, now married and with four children, he was appointed pianist with the National Orchestra, and was soon conducting it. International engagements followed, so too recording sessions, and he continued to work in Spain and promote Spanish music at home and abroad (he recorded, with some very distinguished singers, nearly 50 zarzuelas – popular opera – for Spanish Columbia) as well as developing an extensive repertoire beyond that of his homeland.
Despite his poor state of health – as a result of his wartime experiences – which meant time away from the podium and a reduced income, Argenta went on to make some memorable recordings for Decca. Among these is a famous one of Spanish-inspired music with the London Symphony Orchestra, made in Kingsway Hall in January 1957, something of a demonstration LP in its day, and still fizzing with detail and colour. Performances of poise, finesse and vibrancy inform Chabrier, Rimsky-Korsakov, Granados (the only native!), and Moszkowski (his Spanish Dances are attractive trifles).
Completing CD 1 is Debussy’s Images – the central tableau being ‘Ibéria’ – and which features Ernest Ansermet’s Suisse Romande Orchestra. Argenta and Ansermet had a good relationship (there’s a picture in the booklet of them enjoying a conversation over a beverage), and Argenta was a regular in Geneva with Ansermet seeing him as his successor. This is an outstanding account (from 1957) of Debussy’s travelogue (England, Spain, and France) – meticulous, glowing, deeply expressive, and superbly recorded. It must be said, despite this writer being a huge admirer of Ansermet and treasuring so many of his wonderful Decca recordings, that the sometimes-fallible Suisse Romande Orchestra here plays with a precision that didn’t always happen with Ansermet; of course, the musicians would have known this repertoire inside out given Ansermet’s championing of it. (The three sections of ‘Ibéria’ are afforded only one track.)
Similarly in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, the SRO responds to Argenta with total commitment, a marvellously passionate and vivid account that really gets under the skin of the fateful aura of this work, and which ends with a trenchant view of the finale. The 1955 sound is a fine example of ‘early’ stereo recording, and the performance is compelling. Tchaikovsky was not stranger to the SRO, for Ansermet himself recorded Suites 3 & 4, the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, and the ballets; but it is interesting to hear the orchestra ‘change’ when Argenta was conducting it. He also fashions an accompaniment that is more than off-the-peg for Alfredo Campoli’s suave account of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (London Symphony Orchestra, 1956), in which the finale – quite novel for those days – is given complete.
Another of Argenta’s musically-profitable associations was with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, a band full of old-world sounds now more or less lost (the Suisse Romande’s woodwinds are similarly distinctive). Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is suitably alive with passions and imagery; this is a performance that paints pictures. If Argenta’s repeat scheme is odd – the first movement without, the ‘March to the Scaffold’ with – there’s potency here at-one with Berlioz’s hallucinatory invention – and the recording (1957) is fresh and resplendent. Liszt’s A Faust Symphony (Paris, 1955, mono) – the composer’s revised thoughts but taking the composer’s option to do without the solo tenor and the men’s chorus to culminate the character studies of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles – is also given with a sense of narrative and descriptive power, and, coming before it on CD 4, is Les Préludes (SRO, 1955, mono), which has majesty, eloquence and impetuosity. Recorded in London, with the London Philharmonic in 1957, are Liszt’s two piano concertos with Julius Katchen; heady performances that are unobtrusively balanced – even if the piano sounds rather plummy – that glitter and salivate and in which, again, one senses a ‘real’ conductor on the podium rather than one prepared to simply go with the soloist; a collaboration.
Argenta’s devotion to Spanish music made him a “national celebrity”, and as Sanders also tells us in his accompanying note, at Argenta’s funeral “crowds lined the streets through which the cortège passed, and his death was mourned nationally.” Turina’s Danzas fantásticas and Arbós’s orchestration of some of Albéniz’s piano suite Ibéria (both recorded in Paris in 1953, in mono, and issued on LXT 2889) are rendered with an insider’s appreciation (Decca also recorded Ansermet in the Turina); there is here a languor and a rhythmic dexterity that is innate, the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra responding with appreciation.
There is one thing that shines through these documents (apart from the superb technical recordings produced and engineered by such legends as John Culshaw, Kenneth Wilkinson, Erik Smith and Gordon Parry): however combustible the music-making, Argenta didn’t force or apply what occurred, orchestras responding instinctively to him and his insights into and feelings for the music. These are valuable recordings – quite a few are or have been available on CD, but it’s good to have them as a collection in very good re-mastering. Comparisons with the material already issued, in Decca’s “The Classic Sound” series, finds that the latest transfers are that little bit fresher.
This is a handsome set, a timely reminder of Argenta’s musical talent which was cruelly cut short. As Sanders writes, regarding Argenta’s aforementioned fame: “… Argenta achieved this status not through self-publicity, but through his musical achievements along with a lack of pretension and an ability to communicate easily with everyone.”