Last September harmonia mundi released an album consisting primarily of Spanish songs entitled Encuentro. The title is the Spanish noun for “encounter;” and the encounter in question is between Manuel de Falla and Federico García Lorca. As the booklet notes by Yvan Nommick (translated into English by Charles Johnston) explain, Falla and Lorca collaborated on a variety of projects; so the album is concerned less with imagining the actual encounter between the two of them and more with exploring their shared interests in the folk origins of Spanish song. Those interests are underscored by having the songs on the album performed by a flamenco singer, Estrella Morente, rather than an “art song” vocalist. Since both composers wrote setting of these songs with piano accompaniment, Morente is joined only by pianist Javier Perianes.
Nommick’s notes begin with the fascinating observation that Lorca began as a musician and discovered that he had stronger talents as a writer, while Falla’s career path followed exactly the opposite direction. Falla was the older of the two; and, given the “crossing” of their efforts, it is not surprising that a partnership would ensue. That partnership grew out of a shared interest in the “roots” of Spanish song. In Lorca’s case those roots came from his own childhood, while Falla educated himself through published anthologies of source material from Andalusia, Murcia, Aragon, and Asturias. Lorca collected twelve of these songs under the title Canciones españolas antiguas (old Spanish songs), providing his own piano accompaniment. They were recorded for the first time in 1931, but they were not published (by the Unión Musical Española in Madrid) until 1961. (A thirteenth arrangement was published in 1964, but Encuentro includes only the original twelve.)
This Lorca collection, which concludes the album, complements the opening tracks of the much better known Siete canciones populares españolas (seven popular Spanish songs), which Falla composed in 1914. He was living in Paris and wrote them for a Spanish singer performing at the Opéra-Comique. There is some overlap between Falla’s sources and those used by Lorca; but it is very small. In the interest of this album, however, what matters is how Morente has conveyed the impression of these two composers “meeting” over a shared interest in the source material; and that makes listening to this album through from beginning to end a highly satisfying experience.
These two pieces are separated by Falla’s suite of piano arrangements of eight of the episodes from his score from the one-act ballet “El amor brujo” (love, the magician). Morente adds her voice to one of those episodes, the “Canción del fuego fatuo” (song of wildfire). This is original music, but it definitely reflects Falla interest in folk sources. Perianes gives the overall suite a deft account with a light touch that also seems to honor the folk style while also suggesting the darker qualities of the ballet’s scenario. Because this music differs in both intent and style from the two collections of folk sources, it makes for a useful “spacer” between those collections, which also happens to be engaging for its own merits.
There are too many situations in which efforts to evoke the “Spanish style” come off as sounding tired and/or clichéd. The presentation on this album is not one of them. The attentive listener will have no trouble recognizing the seriousness of purpose behind the efforts of both of the composers, and both of the performers are clearly determined to make sure that the results of those composers’ efforts are given the best possible listening experience.