Prom 26: Mexico v. Spain

La noche de los mayas

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Enrique Diemecke

La vida breve

Salud – Maria Luisa Tamez (soprano)
Grandmother – Felicity Palmer (mezzo-soprano)
Carmela – Susan Marrs (soprano)
Paco – Jorge Antonio Pita (tenor)
Voice in the Forge – Edgaras Montvidas (tenor)
Uncle Sarvaor – Neal Davies (bass)
Manuel – Leigh Melrose (baritone)

Pilar Rioja (flamenco dancer / castanets)
Alfonso Cid (singer)
José Luis Negrete & Antonio Munoz (flamenco guitar)

London Voices

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Enrique Diemecke

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 8 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Christmas came early for the growing band of Revueltas fans with this rare UK performance of La noche de los mayas (The Night of the Mayas), one of the composer’s most exotic and vibrantly-coloured works in an oeuvre where these qualities are the norm. Posthumously extracted as a suite from a film score, it epitomises all of the characteristics of Revueltas’s uniquely pungent soundworld that manages to combine the tropical luxuriance of Villa-Lobos with the stark modernism of Varèse yet still find room for something homespun.

The four movements each tap into a different element of Revueltas’s musical language. The first conjures up a pre-Christian, atavistic world with baleful chants punctuated by clattering gongs and strident horns. The second features popular Mexican dance-music but refracted through a Cubist prism of rhythmic dislocation. In the third movement, a succession of tender cantilenas displays the composer’s lyrical gifts at their very best. The finale is the showstopper, an extraordinary conception pitting primeval brass – and eventually the whole orchestra – against a continuous skein of polyrhythms from the hugely expanded percussion section, creating a kind of Varèse-a-la-bossa nova effect. Periodically, the percussion shifts up a gear in a sequence of metric modulations that propel the music into an ever-more orgiastic state. Finally, the work’s opening material reappears in a blaze of pagan glory, at a stroke taming the percussion into rhythmic subservience, a supremely satisfying moment.

Conducted without a score and evidently con amore by Enrique Diemecke, music director of the National Symphony of Mexico, the work could hardly fail to rouse a Proms audience, many of which were probably hearing a Revueltas score for the first time. I could have done with even more ’oomph’ (a larger orchestra perhaps?), ensemble was a little ragged here and there, but the third movement was ravishing, the ending overwhelming and, really, I was in no mood to quibble.

The occasional rough edges of the Revueltas were perhaps the consequence of what sounded an exceptionally well-prepared concert performance of Falla’s early opera. Given the relative familiarity of Falla’s mature musical language, it was fascinating to hear it in its formative state. The popular Spanish elements, both lyrical and dance-like, emerge periodically from a skilful but only partially-digested admixture of Wagnerian continuous recitative and Italian verismo. The melodramatic storyline of a love betrayed is hackneyed and the denouement is distinctly underpowered. Yet the work has many passing attractions and was well worth dusting off in this year’s Spanish-themed season.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the betrayal in love of Salud by the dastardly Paco, who is secretly marrying another. Maria Luisa Tamez standing in for an indisposed Veronica Villaroel took the part of Salud at short notice. It would be hard to imagine a more convincing replacement. Throughout the work, and particularly in her two big solos, she captured the intensely dramatic and wide-ranging nature of the part. Her impassioned performance met its match with Felicity Palmer’s powerful delivery of the pivotal role of Salud’s grandmother. Jorge Antonio Pita as Paco, with his sweet delivery but smaller voice, was at times overpowered by Tamez and by the orchestra, whose contribution was plush yet incisive throughout. Of the smaller roles, Edgaras Montvidas particularly stood out with his plangent singing of Voice in the Forge. Indeed, the opening passage with Montvidas’s lament alternating with darkly original choral writing and the clanking of anvils, was one of the most striking moments in the score.

The novelty of the performance was undoubtedly the use of ’real-life’ flamenco performers in the wedding scene. Two flamenco guitarists and a singer (Alfonso Cid, with authentically strangulated melisma) set the scene for the performance of veteran dancer Pilar Rioja, whose show-stealing performance I will not forget in a hurry. The problem was that she did steal the show – upon her exit after a spectacular number with castanets (putting to shame the BBCSO’s percussion common or garden contribution), I had entirely forgotten about the travails of poor Salud. Admittedly, Falla and his dramatist don’t help here, with a final scene of purest bathos.

Diemecke presided over the whole with affable authority. The concert as a whole cried out to be televised. Can I add my voice that BBC4 covers the whole season next year? Its contribution this year has in my book been a major success.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Tuesday, 13 August, at 2 o’clock

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