Esteemed Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos once again brought with him to the Boston Symphony Orchestra music by a countryman; but unlike his recent programming, this music was largely unknown to orchestra and audience alike. For the last twenty years of his life, Manuel de Falla labored over what he envisioned to be his magnum opus: a cantata or oratorio that would recount the tale of the lost continent of Atlantis. When the composer died in 1946, the music was unfinished. Falla’s close associate, a disciple named Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989), attempted to finish the sprawling composition from the composer’s sketches with what appears to be modest success, and he premiered his version of the sketches in Barcelona in 1961. Further revisions resulted in another Halffter version in 1976. Frühbeck de Burgos has fashioned his own suite of excerpts from much of the music de Falla had actually completed – “…the most beautiful and important passages,” says the conductor. It was this some thirty-eight minutes of music that was presented in Boston this past week, and will be heard one more time in Symphony Hall this Tuesday, November 9. Anyone with an interest in de Falla’s music ought to hear this music, though the music will not sound much like anything one may have heard before by this quintessential Spanish composer. Why might this be so?
In his excellent program note, Hugh Macdonald writes: “Without the Spanish idioms which play so important a part in Falla’s other works, the style recalls the austere and dignified manner of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms or the choral works of Honegger and Milhaud.” This is a completely accurate statement. If I were to have heard this music and not known it were by Manuel de Falla, I would not have guessed the composer. The references Macdonald makes to Stravinsky and Honegger are dead-on. Much of the astringent and pungent dissonance that is part of Honegger’s and Stravinsky’s compositional vocabulary is quite apparent throughout, though there is also an occasional and particularly telling sweetness that somewhat offsets the more drier discourse. And there isn’t much more than a hint here and there of de Falla’s earlier “Spanish” music. Use of percussion, and in particular the large tubular chimes, are all that hearkened my ear back to, say, El Amor Brujo or perhaps Nights in the Gardens of Spain. But that was just about all. Having said this, was this “un-Spanish” music by de Falla successful and memorable?
Yes, and no, I’d have to say. I found the entire suite fascinating to hear, but I also found parts of it more emotionally moving than others. And I can now more fully appreciate the challenge faced by the true believers in this composer’s music in general and this score in particular: how best to present the essence of de Falla’s unfinished Atlàntida? Even in its truncated form, Frühbeck de Burgos’s suite of excerpts has its musical ups and downs. I can appreciate why he decided to include certain moments of the score – his love of de Falla is deep and loyal, and to omit anything “worthy” must have been hard for him. Of what’s “there,” to be sure, it is interesting indeed, but, sorry to say, not all of it is on the elevated plain that the better parts of the music inhabit.
The suite is divided into a prologue and three parts, and it presents a tangled web indeed. The vocal portions of the music are written in Catalan and derive from an epic poem by Jacint Verdaguer “whose desire . . . to boost the revival of Catalan culture equaled his sense of a glorious Spanish past and his Catholic piety,” Macdonald writes. In this poem one reads of the classic myths of Hercules, his ill-fated love of Pyrene the Queen of the Pyrenees, the Garden of Hesperides, a shipwreck from which the future Christopher Columbus survives, Queen Isabella’s dream in which she envisions a dove (colombe) and a bejeweled ring (the Indies), and ultimately the triumph of the Christian Church. To put it mildly, this is quite a rich brew, and it is not surprising that due to its depth and breadth, de Falla was surely challenged to write a score that could possibly contain so disparate a stew of ideas.
Since a concert reviewer’s goal is to assess a performance and not lecture, I would advise any reader who wishes to learn more about the impetus of this music to visit the BSO’s website here, where the reader will find an informative podcast written by Richard Dyer that I urge a listen-to. Now, as for what was performed…
I attended the Saturday evening November 6 performance, before which the BSO had given two prior concerts and an open rehearsal, so the performers were clearly on top of their material. It is always a pleasure to hear a concert under Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos’s direction. His direction is always completely clear to his players, and his “old-world” bearing and thorough knowledge of the music at hand commands their complete respect and attention. And, given this conductor’s total immersion in Spanish culture and his complete understanding of all of de Falla’s music, he is clearly the right man to bring this unusual score to life for us. In large, he succeeded.
The Prologue began with orchestra, chorus, and narrator and a sense of monumentality, quite dissonant and impressive, abounding with deep tam-tam strokes – music appropriate to the vision of a vast submerged continent. Its style was of vertical and undifferentiated counterpoint, columnar and marmoreal. The chorus sang in Catalan from memory, and its mighty exclamations were interspersed with the tale-telling of the narrator, baritone Philip Cutlip, singing from his score, and a child, touchingly sung from memory by boy soprano Ryan Williams, whom Frühbeck de Burgos had employed in his Elijah performances here last season. A solo from the back row of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was confidently sung by member Felix M. Caraballo. This broad and impressive introduction was to be one of the more memorable musical moments of the score.
The aria of Pyrene that followed was regally and soulfully sung by the contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, whose rich mahogany timbre was to inform elegantly all she sang this evening. And, the ensuing “Hymn to Barcelona,” the city Hercules was to establish on Spain’s coast was, in the hands of Frühbeck de Burgos and the impressively powerful TFC, defiant, declarative and triumphant. The “Llegada de Alcides a Gades” heard next was charming, though overwhelmed by its neighbors.
The true gem of this suite was the section drawn from Part III of the larger work, an excerpt entitled “Isabella’s Dream.” Stutzmann, here embodying A Lady of the Court, tells that Queen Isabella had a dream while inside the Alhambra. A little page, sung by Williams, further informs us that she held her head in her hands as she related her dream to Ferdinand. This was accompanied by the most ravishing and rich harmonies heard thusfar, elevated by elegant harp arpeggios beautifully stroked by the BSO’s new Principal Harp Jessica Zhou. Then it was time for soprano soloist Alexandra Coku to take the stage and sing Isabella recounting her dream. This Coku did with great beauty of voice, gracious stage presence, and dramatic aplomb. She seemed very much at home with this aria of an ecstatic vision, with Frühbeck de Burgos and the BSO truly simpatico accompanists. Here at last one began to recognize some of de Falla’s most characteristic gifts of orchestration, melody and harmony. The music and Coku’s performance were, for me, the most memorable music of the Suite, approached only by the following music for chorus and orchestra entitled “La Nit Suprema” – The Supreme Night. This began with a rich introduction ravishingly played by the BSO’s violas, and followed by music that was very different from what we had heard earlier. We were finally favored with a bit of imitative counterpoint played on muted strings by the entire string section, and this somewhat consoling music resulted in a very atmospheric and valedictory finale of great beauty and closure.
So, what ultimately can a listener make of Atlàntida? It was a rare privilege to hear virtually unknown music by a master composer so elegantly excerpted and presented. I would hope to hear the aria “Isabella’s Dream” again. And I feel fortunate to have been shown the outlines of what is surely an important work in the oeuvre of Manuel de Falla, with maestro Frühbeck de Burgos as a most informative and illuminating guide. It is concerts such as this one — challenging, unusual, something new to hear for a change — for which BSO patrons must surely be grateful.
The concert’s second half was occupied by a favorite “chestnut,” the Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 by Johannes Brahms. All of the Frühbeck de Burgos felicities were on display: sensitive, structure-revealing yet non-interventionist conducting, carefully considered, never overdone rubati at phrase endings, elegant phrasing of the famous ‘cello theme in the first movement, tactful pointing of the instrumental lines’ inner voices, very sensitive accompaniment to solos, particularly Richard Sebring’s horn in the first movement, rich, rounded, soft and generous ensemble sound, a hands-off and elegant approach to music-making — all these were evident. The finale, often driven, was given room to breathe, and though its initial fires were banked, they then were slowly encouraged to glow and finally blaze forth at the arrival of the movement’s coda. Throughout the symphony the well-parsed and thoughtful tuba playing by the orchestra’s Mike Roylance was a pleasure to hear and feel.
Note: This concert will be repeated Tuesday, November 9, at Symphony Hall.