RODRIGO: Palillos y panderetas. Dos danzas españolas. Per la flor del lliri blau. Tres viejos aires de danza. A la busca del más allá.
Lucero Tena (castanets); Castile and Leòn Symphony Orchestra/Max Bragado Darman.
Naxos 8.555962 (B) (DDD) TT: 68:52

Volume 6 in Naxos's Rodrigo "Complete Orchestral Works" series. Although A la busca del más allá (in search of the beyond, to give it its usual English title) has been recorded before, none of the works here can claim a wide listener familiarity, certainly not to the extent of the composer's megahit, Concierto de Aranjuez.

The very choosy tend to sniff at Rodrigo, precisely because of the ubiquity of the Concierto de Aranjuez, as if the barbarians clamored at the city gates every time an ad with a Ricardo Montalban voice-over appeared on the tube. They fail to take into account little things like its tunefulness, its memorability, and its considerable compositional smarts, not the least of which is its successful transformation of the guitar from an intimate to an heroic soloist. Just consider the fact that you can't easily hear a guitar over the din of a modern orchestra of even modest proportions, and you should get some idea of the immense craft Rodrigo put in the score.

As a matter of fact, I'm a bit surprised more companies haven't explored Rodrigo's output with the commitment Naxos has shown. After all, in addition to the Concierto, one also finds its brother, the Fantasía para un Gentilhombre, certainly a repertory staple, as well as other concerti that seem to do well whenever new recorded incarnations turn up. So while I applaud Naxos's decision to undertake the project, especially the composer's rather neglected children, I respond mainly with a "But of course." Unfortunately, only decent sales can justify my complacency.

Not that I'm an unabashed fan. I admit to my own misgivings about Rodrigo's work. His structures usually exhibit very little interest - mostly the accumulation of four-bar phrases, repeated verbatim or in sequence, yielding mainly simple three-part melody. His thematic resources also seem limited: the same ideas pop up in work after work Furthermore, compared to his master, Falla, his expressive range is unusually limited. He rarely strikes a deep note. With Rodrigo, you get song and dance and usually very little else, although he tends to mine nostalgia for Spain's Golden Age. The music derives from Falla's El Retablo de Maese Pedro, last aria, which gives us the heroism, primitivism, and idealism of the country's soul in a short space. Nevertheless Rodrigo's music just sounds so good, at its best with every note perfectly in place, that it easily sweeps away objections.

The program divides into minor and major works. With Rodrigo, the distinction usually comes down to a matter of length, and we see that here. In three movements -- fast-slow-fast -- and at roughly thirteen minutes, Palillos y panderetas (castanets and tambourines, written in 1982), the two instruments of the title form part of the orchestration, but they remain very much subordinate to the orchestra, more a color than an idea. Far more interesting is the fact that various orchestral sections get to imitate the two instruments, little jabs from the brass, "swirlies" from the strings and reeds evoking the castanets and the tambourine, respectively. The rhythms of the piece derive mainly from the castanets, as in the opening for solo guitar of the Concierto de Aranjuez, by the way. On the other hand, Dos danzas españolas (1966, two fast movements, running around ten minutes altogether) has a prominent solo part for a castanet virtuoso, and here one sees how close the ideas lie to other Rodrigo works, how deeply castanet rhythms penetrate this composer's music. You'd think that the sound of castanets would quickly pall in such an exposed and lengthy part, but somehow it never does, yet another indication of Rodrigo's rhetorical mastery.

Tres viejos aires de danza (3 traditional dance airs) occupy an unusual space in the composer's catalogue. They are definitely miniatures -- the movements are "Pastoral," "Minué," and "Giga" -- and just about perfect, at that. They say their say, and that satisfies the listener. One wouldn't want them any longer or shorter. They resemble the lute dances orchestrated by Respighi, although Rodrigo orchestrates more cleanly, yet, as far as I know, Rodrigo wrote the tunes, orchestrating some of his piano pieces of the Twenties. This is neither modern music nor pastiche. Rodrigo has completely "thought himself into" the old dances and has come up with something original and authentic. For me, the second-movement minuet stands out. While I listened, I kept thinking Haydn or Mozart could have written it without feeling ashamed.

The two most ambitious works on the program, Per la flor del lliri blau (for the flower of the blue lily) and A la busca del más allá (in search of the beyond), appeared roughly forty years apart. Rodrigo wrote Per la flor in 1935, about four years before the Concierto de Aranjuez, and A la busca for the U.S. bicentennial. He described both as "tone poems," although neither has the argumentative sweep of, say, Strauss's Heldenleben or even Eulenspiegel. Like Grieg, Rodrigo tends to build a piece by adding another song or dance or by repeating the same material, rather than by conventional development. Consequently, the quality of each piece depends greatly on the strength of the songs and dances themselves. Per la flor, from a particularly rich period in Rodrigo's creative life, depicts a medieval Spanish legend, the details of which need not concern anybody. The importance of the story lies in how it fired Rodrigo's musical imagination to create a modern facsimile of Spanish Renaissance and medieval music. The piece largely consists of martial fanfares and reflective lute songs. Again, the quality of the ideas themselves, rather than their working out, carries the listener along for almost twenty minutes, showing Rodrigo's essential nature as a wonderful miniaturist. Again, don't look for profundity or even psychological complexity. The beauty to a great extent runs skin-deep. But it is indeed beautiful and shows Rodrigo at the top of his game.

To Rodrigo, A la busca (1976) represented man's exploration of outer space. To me, it represents the composer's attempt to assimilate certain Seventies trends of composition. The opening few seconds could have come from Henze, for example, but the chaos quickly evaporates. Rodrigo falls back on his penchant for song and dance -- in this piece, mainly song. The main idea is a good one, but it doesn't really carry over the entire span of the score. Rodrigo keeps returning to it for energy, but he gets less from it each time. Again, the lack of real psychological or emotional depth becomes apparent, like staring at a painting on a motel wall. Unlike Per la flor, however, the work lacks a truly ravishing idea to distract a critical ear.

Rodrigo's music is mainly surface, and the band here does well with its crisp rhythms and lean, bright textures. Max Bragado Darman manages to get even more: a very nice sense of breathing and line and the palpable yearning of the music. Lucero Tena, the dedicatee of Dos danzas españolas, clicks them castanets with fire. The sound is fine without calling attention to itself, one way or the other.

S.G.S. (July 2006)