Juanjo Mena conducts Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga [Berit Norbakkeen Solset, BBC Philharmonic; Chandos]

5 of 5 stars

Los esclavos felices – Overture
Herminie – Cantata
Overture in D, Op.20
Air de l’Opéra Médée
Symphonie à grand orchestre in D-minor

Critical Editions by Christophe Rousset

Berit Norbakkeen Solset (soprano)

BBC Philharmonic
Juanjo Mena

Recorded 15 & 16 March 2018at MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester, England

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: February 2019
Duration: 68 minutes



The Overture to Los esclavos felices (The Happy Slaves) is all that survives of the very short-lived Bilbao-born Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga’s opera, composed when he was thirteen (he died aged nineteen). It probably received its premiere in Paris in 1820 where one year later he made a revision. Conventionally, operatic Overtures use melodies from the main work and here the very first theme is obviously an aria. Had the work been written later in the century, the subsequent faster air could easily have accompanied what became known in Arthur Sullivan’s time as a ‘patter song’; otherwise this is a sequence of tunes with a clever coda which incorporates a long, Rossini-like crescendo. Arriaga’s lucid scoring is full of expressive idea for woodwinds, a feature enhanced by Stephen Rinker’s excellent recorded sound within a sympathetic acoustic.

When Berit Norbakkeen Solset joins the orchestra for Herminie the balance is again immaculate. This work is based on a famous poem by the sixteenth-century Torquato Tasso. The text was reset for the Cantata and although the story is bizarre the sequence of Recitatives and Arias makes beautiful music and Solset sings the poem eloquently yet never overstates the drama. The music has such grace that the dated sentiments of the text are no barrier to enjoyment. Solset manages this quarter-hour journey from cautious sadness to great joy sensitively and the orchestral opening to the final Aria subtly anticipates the optimistic conclusion.

The Aria from Médée is Arriaga’s entirely different setting of the text which Francois-Benolt Hoffmann’s used at the start of his opera of that name. It is a high-lying concert piece – sung here without stress and with beauty of tone, the music calm in nature – the bloodthirsty outcome of the libretto is to be found only in Hofmann’s opera.

The Overture in D is a firmly constructed creation. At first it seemed that Mozart (born fifty years to the very day before Arriaga) might be the model – especially as the first three powerful sets of chords recall The Magic Flute, but Arriaga soon makes his own personality felt using lyrical themes supported by woodwind episodes involving syncopated exchanges. Flying string passages make for great excitement and the recording pinpoints every inner phrase. Arriaga was a skilled orchestrator and again there is a coda that moves swiftly forward.

This is also the case with the close to the first movement of his Symphonie à grand orchestre, probably the composer’s masterpiece. Juanjo Mena’s is a sensitive account with ideally chosen tempos – the Allegro Vivace moves on purposefully from the introductory Adagio, the Andante flows serenely and the Minuetto [sic] and Trio move graciously This is a post-Classical view of the dance-form and interestingly Arriaga asks for repeats only in the Trio. The Finale starts gravely – this is a D-minor Symphony after all, but it ends with a sense of major-keyed hopefulness, presented with utmost clarity.

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