Saturday 17 January 2015

A new release from Naxos brings Leonardo Balada’s Symphony No. 6, Concerto for Three Cellos and Orchestra and Steel Symphony revealing a composer whose works are full of invention, colour and interest

The composer Leonardo Balada (b.1933)  was born in Barcelona, Spain and studied at the Conservatorio del Liceu in his home city and the Juilliard School, New York. He studied composition with Vincent Percichetti and Aaron Copland and conducting with Igor Markevitch, later becoming an American citizen and Professor of Composition at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Some of his best known earlier works such as Guernica, María Sabina and his Steel Symphony were written in a dramatic avant-garde style. Since then he has blended ethnic music with avant-garde techniques, creating a very personal style with such works as Sinfonía en Negro-Homage to Martin Luther King (1968), and Homage to Casals and Sarasate (1975).

Balada has received several international awards and his works have been performed by the world’s leading orchestras under conductors such as Lorin Maazel, Mstislav Rostropovich, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Jesús López-Cobos, Lukas Foss, Mariss Jansons, Sergiu Comissiona and Neville Marriner.

The recipient of many commissions, Balada’s large catalogue of works includes chamber and symphonic compositions, cantatas, two chamber operas and three full length operas Zapata, Christopher Columbus and The Death of Columbus. Christopher Columbus was premiered in Barcelona in 1989 with José Carreras and Montserrat Caballe singing the leading roles. 

Balada’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Symphony of Sorrows’ dedicated to the innocent victims of the Spanish Civil War was premiered in 2006 by Salvador Mas and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. His Concerto for Three Cellos and Orchestra ‘A German Concerto’ was premiered in 2007 by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.

It is these two works that are coupled with his earlier Steel Symphony on a valuable new release from Naxos that features the two World Premiere Recordings.


Balada’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Symphony of Sorrows’ (2005) receives its World Premiere recording here with the Galicia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jesús López-Cobos . It is in one movement and, in the composer’s own words, blends avant-garde techniques with traditional melodic ideas. Balada uses elements of two hymns, Himno de Riego, the song of the Republican forces and Cara al Sol associated with the forces of General Franco in this symphony that depicts the physical and psychological drama of a tragedy.

There is a percussive opening that immediately gives way to a rhythmic orchestral motif taken up by various instruments, before a jaunty theme emerges through which a traditional tune appears. The music falls to a more reflective passage, soon overtaken by incisive phrases from the strings over which brass play, full of drama. Timpani underpin the orchestra before another popular tune appears. In some ways Charles Ives comes to mind though Balada subtly and individually weaves his own material around the popular themes. The music rises to a peak before falling back, as a solo cello plays a plaintive, mournful theme over a hushed orchestra, eventually blending the theme into the orchestral strings. Halfway through, the music speeds in a frenetic passage but the cello returns in an exquisitely orchestrated passage. Soon the music becomes livelier and gallops ahead with a brash hymn tune intruding. This is taken up by various sections of the orchestra, full of subtly inventive orchestral sounds between the more extrovert passages. Eventually a moment of tension is reached with hovering string. Percussion enter reinforcing the drama before the orchestra hurtles forward full of rhythmic dynamism with the feeling of triumph. However the basses alone slow the music, interrupted by clashing orchestral outbursts, as the music comes to an end.

The Galicia Symphony Orchestra under Jesús López-Cobos gives a very fine performance indeed. This is an excellent live recording with no obvious audience noise. The enthusiastic applause is kept in.

Dedicated to the three cellists on this World Premiere recording, Hans-Jakob Eschenburg , Michael Sanderling and Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt , the Concerto for Three Cellos and Orchestra ‘A German Concerto’ (2006) takes as its motif the German song Die Moorsoldaten (The Peat Bog Soldiers) composed in 1933 by an anonymous political prisoner and is intended as an emotional portrait of 20th century Germany. The three soloists are joined here by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Eivind Gullberg Jensen .

The lower orchestral strings open the concerto with percussion and brass adding colour. The three cellos appear high in their register revealing the German song that is the foundation of this work. Soon the cellos are playing alone in a wistful version of this theme before the orchestra rises again only to be left alone playing harmonics with just occasional orchestral interventions.  Slowly each cellist develops the theme becoming more anxious as the orchestra returns slowly bringing a motoric theme that comes and goes whilst the soloists play wistfully over a constantly changing orchestral backdrop. The motoric theme re-appears again before the cellos bring a rich theme lower in their register, full of angst, with the orchestra providing a hushed yet dramatic backdrop. Soon the cellos rise up ever more passionately as the mood slowly lightens, with the orchestra bringing a brighter sound. The orchestra slowly brings back the incisive motoric theme which the cellos pick up, growing ever faster as the mood again lifts, pointed up by percussion and becoming quite good humoured with Balada’s colourful orchestration. Eventually the orchestra brings a broad sweeping melody which the cellos take up, weaving around each other before swaying phrases on the cellos lead to a buoyant orchestral theme that one imagines will take the music to the coda, but the orchestra draws back as the cellos bring the music to a gentle coda.

This is an excellent performance and is very well recorded.

Balada’s Steel Symphony (1972) retains more of the composer’s more avant-garde ideas but is no less approachable on that account. Dedicated to the steel workers of the world it was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Donald Johanos in 1973. As with the other two works on this disc, it is in one movement and in the composer’s own words is a monument to the great industry and to the men whose rough work made it possible.  

The unconventional opening has the orchestra tuning before the music slowly emerges, led by brass before percussion are heard over a deep rumbling orchestra. Brass and tuned percussion weave an atmospheric sound swirling within the orchestra before slowly rising to a climax at which the tam-tam is sounded. There is tapping of bows before more swirling orchestral sounds with brass interventions. Soon the music becoming louder and frenetic with colourful orchestral sounds including upward swoops of whistles and strange string sounds. Tubular bells signal a more percussive section with shrill strings sounds before motoric rhythms return building more stridently.  

The music falls as strange orchestral sounds are pointed up by timpani, and brass echo a motif in a particularly attractive passage before the orchestra rises up with tapping bows, full of strange little orchestral details and with the motoric rhythm appearing through metallic percussion and other individual instrumental flourishes. The music slowly builds in drama with timpani beating the rhythm as the orchestral strings move the orchestra forward. There is a brief hush before sirens are heard and a cacophony of orchestral sound moves unstoppably forward, slowing to a steady pace, before speeding, then slowing again to a surprisingly quiet coda.  

Whilst this symphony inhabits a more avant-garde sound world and there are motoric rhythmic passages this is a colourful and varied work. The performance by the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra (Orquestra Symfònica de Barcelona I Nacional de Catalunya) conducted by Jesús López-Cobos is excellent as is the recording.

All of the works on this disc are full of invention, colour and interest. There are excellent booklet notes by the composer.

1 comment:

  1. Naxos always releases incredible works for their folks and here it goes with another perfect release. Their music is so reflective and yet most impressive. Best blog.