BALADA:  Piano Concerto No. 3.  Concierto Mágico for Guitar and Orchestra.  Music for Flute and Orchestra.
Rosa Torres-Pardo, piano; Eliot Fisk, guitar; Magdalena Martínez, flute; Barcelona Symphony/Catalonia National Orch/JosÈ Serebrier, cond.

NAXOS 8.555039 (B) (DDD) TT:  70:11

BALADA:  Zapata: Images for Orchestra.  Columbus:  Images for Orchestra.  Reflejos (Music for Strings and Flute).  Divertimentos for String Orchestra.
Orquesta de Valencia/ Manuel Galduf, cond.; Orquesta Sinfónica de la Radio TV Española/Sergiu Comissiona, cond.;  Alberto Almarza, flute/Cuarteto Latinoamericano/Anthony Bianco, contrabass; Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Ensemble/Eduardo Alonso-Crespo, cond.

ALBANY TROY 343 (F) (DDD) TT:  75:47

BALADA:  Violin Concerto No.1.   Folk Dreams.  Sardana.  Fantasías Sonoras.
AndrÈs Cárdenes, violin; Barcelona Symphony Orch; Matthias Aeschbacher, cond.
NAXOS 8.554708 (B) (DDD) TT:  75:18

Hardly had I bought and listened (with considerable disappointment) to the Naxos disc featuring Violin Concerto No. 1 than webmeister Benson forwarded a second Naxos disc of Leonardo Balada's music (concerted pieces for piano, guitar, and flute), and another from Albany with suites from two of his operas and two chamber-ensembles pieces. Altogether these offer 11 works from the 68-year-old composer's third period ("avant-garde ways [blended] with ethnic and traditional ideas"). Catalan by birth, in Barcelona on September 22, 1933, he has lived and worked in the U.S. since arrival in 1956 as a Juilliard scholarship student. He lists Vincent Persichetti, Aaron Copland and Igor Markevitch as influential teachers, and for the last three decades has himself taught at lucky Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

It was a broadcast performance of his 1979 Sardanas by Michael Lankester and the Pittsburgh Symphony that first compelled my attention—a performance I once had on tape, but alas no longer (probably because it was on open-reel, which I haven't been able to thread for a decade now). It was a helluva lot more vivid, in any event, than the Naxos version by a German conductor whose home base is Essen, not one of Europe's (or even the GDR's) cultural nexuses. What was obvious then and continues to be, even when materials are trivial, is Balada's mastery of the orchestra. Few are as adept at sound effects and patterns, buttressed by a rhythmic vivacity that entirely escaped Herr Aeschbacher in Sardanas. The work's 17 minutes seem to last twice as long, and the Barcelona Symphony and Catalan National Orchestra (hereinafter BSCNO) is no help, probably because they had none. The Violin Concerto of 1982 contains wisps of Catalan folk melody in a context that begins quasi-atonally but ends up in the John Adams camp with a Catalonian accent. AndrÈs Cárdenes plays well, but I'd like to hear him with a better conductor. The three Folk Dreams (1994, 1996 and 1998) are based, respectively, on Latvian, Catalan and Irish melodies—tapas, in other words, that leave one hungry for dinner. Fantasías Sonoras from 1987 might have worked as the fish course, say, had Herr Aeschbacher been more than a short-order cook. But he isn't, and close-up recording highlights too much tonally provincial playing.

That the fault lay principally with him is triply underscored by Naxos' newer disc of Baladiana with the same orchestra one year later, in the same Sala Sinfonica of the Auditori in Barcelona, plus the same producer and engineer. But here the conductor is JosÈ Serebrier, who knows more about recording than most engineers, and is in the bargain one of the best conductors on the globe, which is not to say an ideal interpreter of everything. However, his command of and control over contemporary idioms of the last 100 years (listen to his Ives’ Fourth Symphony for certification) is uncommonly, perhaps uniquely, formidable. As a Uruguayan (albeit of eastern European parentage), he is working here in a kindred idiom. As a composer also, he leaves no nuance in Balada's music unexplored. The BSCNO may not be a first-class orchestra, but he makes them play above their heads, with care for articulation and intonation in the bargain. All of the music on Serebrier's disc is recent and accessible— I kept being reminded of a Catalan Morton Gould. The Third Piano Concerto is as recent as 1999, and Madrid-born Rosa Torres-Pardo plays it with extraordinary charm, indeed like a younger Alicia de Larrocha. Nights in the Gardens of Spain isn't far from the opening of the third movement, which Torres-Pardo and Serebrier make irresistible. The Mágico Concerto for Guitar of 1997 belongs in the same league as those of the late Joaquín Rodrigo, although far more piquantly spiced. Eliot Fisk plays it like a Romero, than which there is hardly more praise. Music for Flute and Orchestra, a year newer than the Piano Concerto—Y2K, no less—presents Catalan folk melodies with a saucing of Balada's early Dali-influenced surrealism. Everything considered, including a recording that belies the producer and engineer's involvement with the earlier Balada disc, this is a clear winner from Naxos. OlÈ, todos!

The Albany disc is a mixed bag both as music and playing, although total-timing is comparably generous: indeed, it outpoints Naxos No.1 by half a minute. But the four "Images" from Zapata of 1984 (yet to be produced) are workaday movie folk-music, slickly scored but unsubstantial minus an operatic context. The Columbus "Images" (at least that one got produced, at Barcelona in 1989, starring CaballÈ and Carreras) has more meat on its bones, but the gristle-content is off-putting. It suggests a collage without an organizing center. At least the Zapata music gets a bracing (if regional) performance by the Valencia Orchestra under its current music director, but the Columbus hors d' œuvres sound disorganized as played by Spain's 36-year-old Radio-TV Orchestra under that peripatetic Romanian, Sergiu ("Sins of") Comissiona. Last time I noticed (following his departure from Baltimore some 14 years ago), he was in Vancouver, but evidently Spain is the current way station. At the other extreme, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano is one of the world’s best among those that play with passion as well as precision. They are joined in two 1988 pieces (translated “Sorrow” and “Exuberance”) by a fellow Carnegie Mellon faculty member on contrabass, and a former CM student from Chile on flute. Balada’s idiom leans toward dissonant minimalism, but the performance is gripping. The three 1991 Divertimentos for string orchestra grow on one with repeated hearings, much helped by Argentinian Eduardo Alonso-Crespo’s conducting of the Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Ensemble. Recorded sound over a period from 1992 (Columbus) to 1998 (Divertimentos) has been welcomely mastered to stress unity rather than disparity, and the result is full-bodied and wide-range.

Three and a half hours of Leonardo Balada's music can, like German beef tea, be put through a strainer to distill its essence(s), and some of it discarded. But nothing is less than ingeniously scored. That said, the Naxos disc of concerted works conducted by Serebier does more than satisfy curiosity, and may lead pleased listeners to the other two, of which the Albany is superior in respect to performance. But I would like to hear Sardana and Fantasías Sonoras by other performers than those on the older of Naxos' two Balada discs to date.