Monday 27 April 2015

Vocal works of much beauty and passion by Columbian composer Jaime León in committed performances on a new release from Toccata Classics

Little general information appears to be available concerning the Columbian composer, Jaime León (b.1921). I am, therefore, grateful to Patricia Caicedo whose excellent booklet notes for a new Toccata Classics recording of his vocal music give a good biographical outline. He was born in Cartagena de Indias, on the Caribbean coast of Columbia. He received early musical encouragement from his parents who later took him to the United States where he had private piano lessons from Leo Holtz. On their return to Columbia, León continued his studies with various piano teachers before entering the National University of Columbia Conservatory where he studied piano with Lucia Perez and Tatiana Goncharova and composition with composer Guillermo Uribe Holguin (1880-1871).

In 1941 he returned to New York to study at the Julliard School where he took advanced piano studies with Josef Lhevinne and Carl Friedberg. He went on to study conducting and composition at the Julliard School under Edgar Schenkman (1908-1993), Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) and Bernard Wagenaar (1894-1971). Whilst still studying he travelled back to Columbia to give piano recitals and later went on to become Director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Columbia.

In his capacity as Assistant Director of the American Ballet León travelled throughout South America, Europe and the Middle East. Alongside his many conducting engagements with orchestras, opera and music theatres, León pursued a career as a composer and an influential teacher.

A large part of his compositional output is vocal and it is this aspect of the composer that is highlighted on this new release from Toccata Classics  featuring soprano Sarah Cullens, mezzo-soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert , pianist Mac McClure with the choir Tonos Humanos , the Arcadia Chamber Choir and the Orquesta Sinfónica Universidad EAFIT  conducted by Cecilia Espinosa Arango 

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The first work on this new disc is León’s Missa breve (1980), receiving its first recording here. The Kyrie eleison has beautiful orchestral opening, soon joined by the choir, then mezzo soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert in this most affecting of settings that has a directness, simplicity and beauty. Later Coma-Alabert weaves some lovely sounds with soprano Sarah Cullins in a most lovely section. The orchestra and choir sound out loudly to open the Gloria before sections of the choir overlay the text in some very fine part writing and very fine contributions from soprano Sarah Cullins and Gemma Coma-Alabert. The Credo has a fine flow and much attractive invention with mezzo Gemma Coma-Alabert adding much to this fine setting. There is some lovely choral singing in the hushed passages, finely controlled, rising magnificently on the words ‘Et resurrexit.’

Soprano Sarah Cullins opens the Sanctus beautifully supported by some fine orchestral passages. Her singing is quite lovely as we are led to a finely controlled coda. The Benedictus brings mezzo Gemma Coma-Alabert and the orchestra in music where León provides some exquisite yet simple ideas. When the choir enter they weave a fine tapestry with the soloist and orchestra, rising in animation with some really fine choral singing. A cello leads the orchestra as the Agnus Dei opens rather sombrely. When the soprano joins it is against a gently shifting orchestral accompaniment, a quite exquisite conclusion.

Tonos Humanos and the Arcadia Chamber Choir are excellent with fine solo contributions from Sarah Cullins and Gemma Coma-Alabert. The Orquesta Sinfónica Universidad EAFIT conducted by Cecilia Espinosa Arango provide fine support. 

I found myself wondering why I had not heard of this composer before.

León’s cycle of six children’s songs,  Pequeña Pequeñita (1986) receives its first recording in its orchestral version. Pequeña Pequeñita (Little Girl, Very Little Girl) brings a light and airy feel with mezzo-soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert in fine voice, bringing out a childlike simplicity combined with moments of greater strength. Orquesta Sinfónica Universidad EAFIT reveals some moments of rich orchestration.  

Gemma Coma-Alabert recites the opening verse of Muñeco Dormilón (The Sleepy Headed Doll), as she does with later verses, along with an orchestra accompaniment, before singing the subsequent verse with something of the atmosphere and charm of a Joseph Cantaloube folk song arrangement. She shows herself to be a fine mezzo, characterising this setting to perfection.

Viaje (Journey) is richly orchestrated with a fine melody for mezzo-soprano, a song that should find itself in any mezzo’s recital, quite beautiful and here given a performance that is full of feeling.

Caballito de Madera (Little Wooden Horse) is more upbeat with a lovely rhythmic orchestral accompaniment, full of Latin charm and an expansive central section. La Tunda par el negrito (La Tunda for the Little Black Boy) is another very Latin, rhythmic song, as is the orchestration with Coma-Alabert ideal in this repertoire.

There is a beautifully expansive, flowing melody to El Columpio (The Swing). León never allows his music to be mundane or banal, always finding subtle ideas to add to and point up his melodic ideas.  

This is a very fine collection of songs, melodic, approachable and attractive in very fine performances from mezzo-soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert with Cecilia Espinosa Arango and the Orquesta Sinfónica Universidad EAFIT.

Soprano, Sarah Cullins returns for a selection of León’s Songs for voice and piano, accompanied by pianist Mac McClure. Aves y ensueños (Birds and Dreams) (1951) has a lovely piano opening before soprano Sarah Cullins enters and the music builds in passion. Cullins brings much feeling to the text finely accompanied by Mac McClure whose roll is much more than mere accompanist.

Cuando lejos, muy lejos (When far, very far) (1977) receives a first recording and brings more flowing, expansive writing, beautifully captured by Cullins and McClure, full of expressiveness and passion. Siempre (Always) (1982) is a lovely, quite wonderfully wrought love song sensitively performed here, rising to great passion on the words ‘the wrongs that hurt.’

Mac McClure introduces a gentle rhythmic opening for Serenata (Serenade) (1977) before Sarah Cullins takes the melody forward with such fine control and phrasing in this constantly changing setting, always flowing but with what must be difficult phrases to sing.

There is a rather skittish opening to Canción De Noel (Christmas Song) (1952) with Sarah Cullins rising terrifically to the challenge in this rather difficult setting showing León’s fine ability to shape his music to the text. Fine passion is brought to the concluding Algún día (One Day) (1980), a song that has more of a breadth and flow before rising to a lovely coda.

These six songs arguably bring more depth and passion and are given excellent performances here.

These works are well recorded though lacking the ultimate in clarity, perhaps due to the large acoustic. There are excellent notes in English by Patricia Caicedo together with full texts and English translations.

These really are works that deserve to be heard particularly in performances as committed as this. There is much beauty and passion here.  

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