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The Spanish Legacy of Ataúlfo Argenta

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The latter half of the 1950s saw the deaths of two youngish conductors who, with the significant encouragement of eminent senior practitioners, had established themselves firmly enough to create not only expectations but outright assurances of great careers ahead of them. The Italian Guido Cantelli was a protégé of no less a figure than Arturo Toscanini, who brought him to New York to conduct his NBC Symphony Orchestra. Engagements quickly followed with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. Cantelli conducted both concerts and opera at La Scala; appeared with the Scala Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival, and he recorded with four of the orchestras mentioned here (all but Boston), variously for RCA Victor, American Columbia, and EMI’s HMV. Many of those recordings have been recirculated on CD by the respective originating companies, and an international conducting competition was established in Cantelli’s name in Milan, where he had been named director of La Scala only a few days before his tragic death in an airplane accident in France in November 1956, at age 36.

Ataúlfo ArgentaThe Spanish conductor Ataúlfo Argenta (1913-1958), seven years older than Cantelli, was patiently establishing his podium credentials while Cantelli was still in school, and both came to international attention at about the same time. While the younger Cantelli had the backing of Toscanini, Argenta attracted the interest of Ernest Ansermet, who was apparently grooming him to be his successor with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande -- and then he was suddenly gone, dead in a freak accident at age 44. According to Alan Sanders’s splendid biographical piece for a CD set of all of Argenta’s Decca recordings, the Spanish conductor "threw his life away with an act of thoughtlessness. One evening in January 1958 he returned home [in Madrid] with a student, and as his study was cold they went to the garage beneath while it warmed up. Argenta switched on the car engine and heater, but the garage doors were shut. The student was found unconscious and Argenta died of carbon monoxide poisoning. . . . On the day of his funeral crowds lined the streets through which the cortège passed, and his death was mourned [throughout Spain]." 

Argenta remained to be discovered by much of the world through his numerous recordings, which also introduced a lot of fascinating music that was new to us. One of the earliest to reach us was a monophonic LP that comprised two strongly appealing concerted works in which he conducted the Madrid Chamber Orchestra: Joaquín Rodrigo’s until then virtually unknown Concierto de Aranjuez, with the guitarist Narciso Yepes, coupled with a stunningly authoritative performance of Manuel de Falla’s far better-known Nights in the Gardens of Spain, with the pianist Gonzalo Soriano, who was especially admired for his performances of that work. 

Argenta had in fact recorded the Rodrigo work for Spanish Columbia with a different guitarist, Regina de la Maza, in 1947, but that did not circulate in the US. It was the later one with Yepes, also made for Spanish Columbia, but issued in the US and UK on the London International label (TW91019), that established the piece virtually overnight as the most popular guitar concerto of all time. Argenta remade this coupling with the same soloists and the National Orchestra of Spain as soon as stereophonic recording was introduced, and that LP instantly became a bestseller on Decca’s own label (London Records in the US at the time, CS 6046).

But it did not belong to Decca, and neither of the Rodrigo/Falla couplings with Yepes and Soriano is available from Decca now. There have been some pricey "audiophile" reissues from time to time, licensed by various concerns in Japan and Europe, and at present ArkivMusic.com offers a more economical alternative, directly from Spanish Columbia’s successor, the Spanish arm of Sony Classics (71675, with the old RCA logo as well as the name Sony on the disc), available on special order. This is not an outstanding success in matching the sound of CS 6046. The output level is unusually high, and the balance between the respective solo instruments and the orchestra is not as good as on the LP: Argenta’s part in the enterprise is minimized because the orchestra seems to be in another room. It doesn’t help, either, that the documentation is in Spanish only, and that two of the three pages of annotation, in my copy, were overprinted, leaving them illegible -- or that what passes for a track listing gives a misleading impression of the number of tracks on the disc. Listeners with equipment that can deal with this may be happy to have it -- I’m certainly holding on to it -- but I would hope for something a little truer to the original.

Recording imageThe above references to Spanish Columbia call for a bit of clarification at this point. Some major changes in the record industry took place in the early 1950s, affecting longstanding trans-Atlantic affiliations and also some within Europe. EMI, whose major labels were HMV ("His Master’s Voice"), English Columbia, and Parlophone, severed its connections with RCA Victor, which had issued HMV material on its own label in the US, also with American Columbia -- and with Spanish Columbia as well. At that time the Spanish company’s material began to appear in England and the US from Decca, chiefly on the London International label -- and it may well have been Argenta’s recordings in particular that provided the impetus for Decca’s productive (if impermanent) connection between those two companies.

Argenta had by then become a presence in many parts of Europe, and Decca was quick to make use of him in two different approaches. In one, his recording of Spanish music in Madrid was stepped up and Decca cut a deal with Spanish Columbia under which the English company’s production crews would make those recordings, and certain others, in exchange for the rights to distribution, for a specified period, on the Decca label in the UK and on London Records in the US. Argenta not only remade the splendid Rodrigo/Falla LP but recorded nearly 50 complete zarzuelas, with some of Spain’s most highly regarded opera stars. He recorded Granados’s one-act opera Goyescas and Falla’s intimate and imaginative little entertainment El retablo de Maese Pedro, and he began a survey with the Orquesta Nacional of significant orchestral music beyond the Rodrigo and Falla concerted works, under the heading "España, the Music of Spain" -- a series which unfortunately did not get beyond Volumes 1 and 2 before the conductor’s untimely death.

Concurrent with the arrangement with Spanish Columbia, Decca began recording Argenta outside of Spain, on its own and without any involvement on the Spanish company’s part, in a broader, "international" repertory. With the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, he recorded Enrique Fernández Arbós’s colorfully orchestrated suite from Albéniz’s piano cycle Iberia, together with Turina’s Danzas fantásticas: that monophonic LP achieved classic status, and after that Argenta’s discography was enhanced with music of Liszt, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy. Whether through Decca’s initiative or on his own, Ansermet took such an interest in Argenta, that he not only invited him to conduct his own OSR, but allowed him to record music of Debussy, with which the Swiss conductor’s own long and intimate connection went back to his acquaintance with the composer himself. In addition to the orchestras in Paris and Geneva, Argenta recorded with two of the big London orchestras, and if he had lived only three months longer he would have recorded the four Brahms symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Recording imageBy the time the CD replaced LP as the basic sound format, Decca no longer had access to Argenta’s Madrid recordings, but did bring out, at least three times, the contents of his all-round most stunning LP -- which is to say, the grandest combination of brilliant playing and outstanding sound quality: a clever program made up almost entirely of "Spanish music" by non-Spanish composers, with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was headed "España" (a title for that one LP itself, apart from the projected multi-volume "España" series from Madrid), and started off with the famous Chabrier rhapsody of that title; the other components of that program were Rimsky-Korsakov’s celebrated orchestral showpiece Capriccio espagnol; Moszkowski’s downright enchanting (if unaccountably neglected) Spanish Dances, orchestrated by Xavier Scharwenka, and, as the single truly Spanish item, the fifth of Granados’s Spanish Dances ("Andaluza"), in the orchestral setting by Juan Lamote de Grignon. 

This was, as Alan Sanders observes in his already cited note, Argenta’s first recording with "a truly virtuosic body." The LSO was at its fabulous peak in 1957, with Neville Marriner (second violin), Gervase de Peyer (clarinet) and Barry Tuckwell (horn) among the first chairs, and Decca’s legendary production team surpassed itself. There is no hyperbole in suggesting that, if a work as frequently heard as the Capriccio espagnol may be said to have had a single "definitive" recording, this would surely be the one. No wonder Decca has kept the Argenta/LSO "España" in its active catalog and kept remastering it over the years. Its final, and most impressive, appearance on a single CD was in the "Decca Legends" series, on a disc generously filled out with Argenta’s performance of Debussy’s Images pour orchestre with the OSR (466 378-2). 

Recording imageThe same material now constitutes the first of the five CDs in Decca’s set of all of its own Argenta material, issued five years ago (475 7747). Not everything on the other four discs is absolutely top-drawer, but the Albéniz/Turina from Paris is definitely worth preserving, and the recording of Liszt’s Faust Symphony, with the same French orchestra, has a certain historical/curiosity value in offering the work in the seldom heard version without the chorus and solo tenor. The set is certainly good value for money, and Alan Sanders’s quite exceptional biographical material is worth having in its own right.

But where does this leave all those recordings of Spanish music that Argenta made in Madrid? Decca apparently did not make a point of holding on to any of them, and no other "international" company seems to have done anything to restore them to circulation on CD. Apart from the indispensable Rodrigo/Falla in combination in stereo, there is a good deal of similarly valuable material -- starting with the contents of those two LPs of "España, Music of Spain," which were in fact nothing less than the most valuable of all of Argenta’s recordings of Spanish orchestral music without soloists. 

"España Volume 1" comprised Jesús Guridi’s ingratiating Ten Basque Melodies, the Albéniz/Arbós Navarra, and two brief gems by Turina: La procesión del Rocío and La oración del torero. Volume 2 was given over entirely to Ernesto Halffter’s pivotal Sinfonietta in D major, composed in 1925 and recognized as one of the most admired and influential Spanish orchestral works of the first half of the 20th century. Like the contemporaneous Sinfonietta of the Moravian master Leoš Janáček, it is by no means miniature or lightweight which that title might suggest, but a work of breadth, substance and imaginative coloring. To be sure, there have been other recordings of all these titles, but none of performances to match Argenta’s unfailing instincts and interpretive power. It is, therefore, one of the loveliest of surprises to be able to report that "Espana" Volumes 1 and 2 have turned up on CD. While their entire combined contents would have fit comfortably on a single disc, the material on the two LPs comes instead on two separate CDs, from different sources, but this treasurable material is none the less welcome for all that.

The music that constituted "España Vol. 1" (Guridi, Turina, Albéniz) now may be heard on Medici Masters MM034-2, which is filled out with other Argenta material: the Intermezzo from Granados’s Goyescas and six tracks of zarzuela material: the Preludes to La revoltosa, by Ruperto Chapí; El niño judío, by Pablo Luna; La gran via, by Federico Chueca; and La leyenda del beso, by Reveriano Soutullo; and the Serenata from En la Alhambra plus a Bolero de concierto, both by Tomás Bretón. The Chapí and Bretón pieces, performed by the Gran Orquesta Sinfónica, are in mono; all the other tracks on this CD were recorded in stereo by the Orquesta Nacional. The sound quality is variable, but adequate for the peerless realizations of the Guridi and Turina pieces.

Recording imageThe sound quality is a good deal more than merely adequate on a recent HDTT reissue of the Halffter Sinfonietta. This very significant landmark in the development of Spanish orchestral music is something we might have expected to be recorded many times by now, but there have actually been very few other recordings of it. The only one I’ve come across, in fact, is a 1998 recording by the Frankfurt Radio SO under Muhai Tang on CPO 999 493-2, which is filled out with two additional works by the same composer. It is perfectly adequate, but cannot be compared with what Argenta achieved in Madrid: a truly "historical" treasure, and sounding better than ever in the HDTT transfer. This CD (HDCD227) is filled out with two guitar concertos performed by Narciso Yepes, with the same orchestra under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos: Rodrigo’s Fantasía para un gentilhombre and the French composer Maurice Ohana’s Concerto, actually composed for and dedicated to Yepes. Fine transfers in every respect, and the disc is invaluable for the Halffter alone. But . . .

But, while the two concertos conducted by Frühbeck are of course attractive in their own right, one must wonder why HDTT didn’t fill out this disc with more Argenta. Actually, the full contents of "Espana Vols. 1 and 2" would have fit on a single CD. As already noted, however, Vol.1 has already been brought out on Medici Masters -- but Argenta’s stereo remakes of both the Concierto de Arnanjuez and Nights in the Gardens of Spain, which add up to only 44 minutes, could have been on the disc with the Halffter Sinfonietta, in a really great transfer. Perhaps, if this is not an impractical idea for one reason or another, HDTT’s Robert Witrak will consider this and still give it a shot. Perhaps Testament will take it on.

As a sort of supplement to these compelling reissues, it might be noted that Medici Masters has also brought out a disc of music of Manuel de Falla, from performances Argenta gave not in Madrid but in Paris, with the French Radio Orchestra. Soriano was once again his soloist in Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and the mezzo Teresa Berganza is heard in El amor brujo. Excerpts from La vida breve and The Three-Cornered Hat fill out the disc (MM025-2). There is also a live recording from a 1954 concert in which Argenta conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, Richard Strauss’s Don Juan and the Three-Cornered Hat Suite (Orfeo d’or 277 921) These may be worth investigating, but the material once offered here on Decca/London LPs qualifies as indispensable. 

. . . Richard Freed
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