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Isabel Leonard: "Alma Española"

CD Button Songs by García Lorca, Rodrigo, Lara, Falla and Montsalvatge. Sharon Isbin, guitar. Text and translations. Bridge 90404 94912

Recordings Isabel Leonard Cover 118
Critics Choice Button 1015

FOR HER LATEST RECORD, Argentinian–American mezzo Isabel Leonard has turned to Spanish songs. Raised bilingual, Leonard knows that this repertoire, however satisfying with piano accompaniment, cries for guitar. And so she has partnered with expert guitarist Sharon Isbin, who, with input from Leonard, presents most of the disc’s arrangements in world-premiere recordings (and also contributes two solo performances). The result gives much-needed attention to twentieth-century Spanish composers: according to the notes, this is the first recording of this repertoire by a native Spanish speaker since Teresa Berganza, with Narciso Yepes on guitar, more than four decades ago.

The vocal selections on this disc were written between 1914 and 1988; the two central composers are Frederico García Lorca (1898–1936) and Manuel de Falla (1876–1946). Both were influenced by their mutual love of flamenco music, resulting in prominent use of the Spanish scale throughout their compositions. García Lorca’s songs, performed in two sets, can be at times hymnlike and melancholic, at others fiercely patriotic; they tell tales of Moors, gypsies, bullfights and olive groves. Each is characterized by supple flourishes. 

A murky voice couldn’t handle this repertory, and if you’re not listening for the poetry, listen then for the technically savvy with which Leonard sings. All those Rosinas have given way to quick movements and grace notes performed with aplomb. Also praiseworthy is the way Isbin arranges the guitar parts, separate from but complimentary to the melody. (García Lorca, whom Franco’s forces murdered before García Lorca’s fortieth birthday, often didn’t write down his compositions, believing instead that the folk songs should be passed orally.) Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas (1914), one of the most performed sets of Spanish song today, center more on the typical theme of love—specifically, wretched love, wronged lovers and courting. “El paño moruno” is an intricate number about a stained cloth—an allusion to virginity. Leonard’s gradual ritard encompassing “Los mozos de Monleón” is gut-wrenching; her adoption of Spain’s interdental lisp (the –th that replaces the c in dicen) is prominent in “Jota.”

The most familiar selections on the disc are Agustín Lara’s “Granada”—Isbin’s arrangement infuses it with new life, giving dimension to a piece that is often over-orchestrated—and two selections from Montsalvatge’s Five Black Songs. Leonard sings the never-gets-old beauty of “Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito” with astounding delicacy. Unfamiliar to me was Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Aranjuez ma pensée,” intricate in melody and plot and packed with poignancy; the guitar’s low-lying notes create a heavy mood. It’s a welcome addition; the entire disc, in fact, is an excellent display of talent exposing worthy repertoire. Or is it worthy repertoire exposing the talent? —Maria Mazzaro 

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