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Arriaga: Los esclavos felices – Overture; Herminie; Overture, Op. 20; Air de Médée; Symphony in D minor

Berit Norbakken Solset; BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena (Chandos)

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Arriaga Los esclavos felices – Overture; Herminie; Overture, Op. 20; Air de Médée; Symphony in D minor
Berit Norbakken Solset (soprano); BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
Chandos CHAN 20077   68:09 mins


Sharing a birthday with Mozart wasn’t enough for Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga: the Spanish composer, from the Basque region, also shared Mozart’s first two baptismal names, his early death (in Arriaga’s case, in 1826, just shy of his 20th birthday), and prodigious early ability. Had he not caved in to tuberculosis or overwork while studying and teaching in Paris at the École royale de Musique, who knows what he might have gone on to achieve?

The musical evidence here, scintillatingly performed from critical editions established in 2006 by the conductor and harpsichordist Christophe Rousset, certainly suggest the potential for great things. Elements in Arriaga’s sole symphony might smack too much of the Conservatoire, but threaded throughout are airy pleasures, Spanish sunshine, and unexpected harmonic kinks – even bigger ingredients in this selection’s two overtures. The opening melody’s graceful flow in the overture from Los esclavos felices (The Happy Slaves) immediately gets the listener smiling, and throughout the album Juanjo Mena’s BBC musicians have little trouble keeping that smile in place. Pastoral woodwind solos, often featured, are especially winning. There are further delights in the fresh, pealing tones of the Norwegian soprano Berit Norbakken Solset, whether she’s suffering from fortune’s slings and arrows in the cantata Herminie, based on an episode from Tasso’s epic poem La Gerusalemme liberate, or shaking up another emotional cocktail in the operatic fragment from Médée. Mena conducts with the fervour expected from an Arriaga champion and a fellow Basque, and Chandos’s recording is wonderfully vivid. Buy and enjoy.


Geoff Brown