Everybody knows Spanish music: guitars, castanets, sometimes a bit of tambourine; frenzied dance rhythms and the vibrant ululations of the flamenco cantaor . Various colorful bits of it have been enshrined in some of the best-loved works in the classical reportoire: Bizet's "Carmen," Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol, Lalo's Symphonie espagnole, Chabrier's Espana, Glinka's Jota Aragonesa, Debussy's Iberia, Ravel's Bolero, Alborada del gracioso and Rapsodie espagnole.
In terms of popularity, the above is an almost-complete list of the top 10 Spanish classics, and the most curious thing about it, I suppose, is that all the composers on it are either French or Russian. Some Italians have also written Spanish music - Luigi Boccherini and Domenico Scarlatti, for example, both of whom spent a good part of their lives as court musicians in Madrid; but that was in the 18th century, when musical nationalism was not the rage is later became, so the flavor is not so overwhelming.
Curiously, Spanish composers showed relatively little interest in writing "Spanish" music until the French and Russians showed them that there was a large audience for it, and the reason is not that there were no Spanish composers; in the Renaissance, Tomas Luis de Victoria wrote better polyphonic Masses than Palestrina, and Padre Antonio Soler was one of the most interesting keyboard composers of the 18th century.
A number of current and noteworthy recordings of Spanish music are briefly discussed below, arranged in order of increasing "Spanishness."
Granados: Goyescas. Alicia de Larrocha, piano (London CS 7009). These pleasant, often technically brilliant and lightly Spanish-flavored pieces serve as a timely reminder that, even in music, not all Spaniards are Andalusian Gypsies. Based programmatically on paintings of Goya, they are subtler in style than most of the music we recognize instantly as Spanish and reflect primarily the stylized life of the upper classes in Madrid in the late 18th and early 19th centuries - their light flirtations, romantic dreaming and occasional real pain hidden beneath a bright facade. De Larrocha is the definitive interpreter of this music, and she makes it sound better than anyone else does - perhaps better than it really is.
Albeniz: Iberia. Aldo Ciccolini, piano (Seraphim SIB 6091, two records). Albeniz applies the local color rather more lavishly than Granados, most notably in his lengthy and graphic evocation of the annual Corpus Christi procession in Seville, but also in a variety of distinctive dance rhythms and melodic lines whose sinuous curves recall the strong Moorish influence on SPanish culture.
It is his masterpiece and a constant delight to lovers of Hispanica. Ciccolini's performance is just a shade less brilliant than De Larrocha's on London 2235 (two records) and, since it costs only half as much, you may find it more cost-effective.
Conchita Supervia: Opera Arias and Spanish Songs (Seraphim 60291). Victoria de los Angeles Sings Falla & Granados; Gonzalo Soriano, piano (Angel S-37425). The voice of Conchita Supervia (who died in 1936) is legendary, and this record is a convincing demonstration that people who want their voices to become legends should approach the recording studios with extreme caution.
Stylistically, her 1930 "Carmen" selections have an almost comic old-fashioned flavor, as does Musetta's big number from "La Boheme," sung in French. The Spanish songs - a selection from the "Tonadillos" of Granados and a complete performance of Manuel de Falla's "Siete canciones populares espanolas" - give a better idea of what old-timers were raving about when they went wild over Supervia. The voice is not pretty, at least not as represented in this aged recording, but at times it is irresistibly compelling. These times occur more often in the Falla collection, where authentic folk materials are transfigured into high art, than in the Granados, whose proper milieu is the drawing room.
Victoria de los Angeles sings the Granados complete as well as the Falla, and overall her performance and the recorded sound are much more satisfactory; she has more of the sophistication in phrasing required by Granados and almost as much of the earthy intensity needed for Falla. But once in a while (in Falla's "Jota," or "Polo," for example) Supervia reaches an incandescent intensity that makes me forget all her shortcomings elsewhere.
Overall, I think Victoria de los Angeles will give more pleasure to more listeners. To confuse matters further, this collection duplicates quite a bit of material from her 1971 recital at Hunter College, with Alicia de Larrocha at the keyboard (Angel S-36896), and for those who want only one recording of this repertoire, that is the one to have.I think one may be enough for Granados, but Falla's work has so many possible shadings of style and meaning that some duplication can be justified.
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez. Fantasia para un gentilhombre. Angel Romero, guitar; London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn conductor (Angel S-37440). The Concierto de Aranjuez, with its bright instrumental colors and energetic, incisive rhythms, is the most popular piece of Spanish classical music since Falla's ballet "The Three-Cornered Hat," and rightly so, since it is also the most distinctively Spanish. The Fantasia, based on the works of Gaspar Sanz, a 17th-century guitarist-composer, is archaic and gentle in flavor, more purely musical in its appeal and almost as popular; there are a dozen recordings of the Concierto, by every major guitarist except Segovia, and nine of the Fantasia (including one by Segovia). I know of none in which the recorded sound and the performance (by soloist and orchestra alike) are superior to this latest issue.