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ClassicsOnline Home » VILLA-ROJO, J.: Cello Music - Sonata 2 / Lamento / Oracion serena / Expresiones (Polo, Zipitria, R. Romero, Laguna)
Jesús Villa-Rojo is one of Spain’s most impressive contemporary composers, and writes masterfully for the cello. The taut, meditative Oración serena, with its expressive depth, is dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004. From the same year comes the seven-movement suite Expresiones for solo cello, a work that charts a narrative course between conflict and aching lyricism. Lamento is music of timbre-conscious colour, employing flamenco song forms in the subtlest ways, whilst the Cello Sonata moves through an intense emotional landscape ranging from a chorale to deep introspection. Cellist Asier Polo is closely identified with this music and is “as authoritative as could be”. (MusicWeb International on 8.570443.)
By David W Moore
American Record Guide
Jesús Villa-Rojo (b. 1940)
Music for Cello
Jesús Villa-Rojo, born in Brihuega, Guadalajara, on 24 February 1940, is part of the generation of composers to have achieved the most significant results in the field of the Spanish avant-garde during the last century. It followed in the wake of the Generation of 51, a group of composers who had begun to breathe new life into the somnolent and somewhat passive musical world of Franco’s Spain, which itself started to recede as the most committed artists gradually reached their own heights of creative freedom. Above and beyond his exceptional talents, Villa-Rojo is without doubt the composer who achieved the greatest degree of creative freedom at that time. Furthermore, not only was he the composer most in tune with the collective needs of society at that particular point, he was also willing and able to adapt to those that began to emerge as democracy established itself after the dictator’s death. A highly respected clarinettist, Villa- Rojo became even better-known when he created a performance group around and within the realm of socalled contemporary music, at a time when it had occurred to very few people in Spain, if any, that this was a matter of priority. He has led the instrumental ensemble LIM (Laboratorio de Interpretación Musical, or Musical Performance Laboratory), performing his own and others’ works, for the last 35 years.
Twice the winner of Spain’s National Music Prize, Villa-Rojo has also earned dozens of international garlands, as well as a list of other accolades and honours too long to include here. The Villa-Rojo featured on this disc is that same prize-winning composer, but something more as well, for in this new album for Naxos he presents the latest (or almost latest) works in his extensive catalogue. And while in essence these do not stray far from the guiding line around which virtually all his music has been conceived, constructed and turned into sound, they do act as a kind of crowning moment, having been generated from the totality of concepts established by Villa-Rojo as the impulses behind his music since his Opus 1 (1966). The decisions he makes are always of great significance, and are always related to the choice of material not as an individualised entity but as something with real potential to be turned into intelligible sound, into comprehensible sound structures. It may seem obvious, but it is nonetheless necessary to state this clearly, even if one possible though not explicit consequence of so doing is the critical revision of some of the music labelled as avant-garde: because, quite simply, such seemingly elemental concepts are not always handled correctly. Music and expressivity, music and sound, music and mathematics, classical music and modern music…Many people may feel that revisiting these and other such binomial pairings is pointless, yet they resurface in Villa-Rojo’s music and should be applauded. This fresh look should be a cause for rejoicing, like finding a golden needle in a haystack of trinkets. Why?
Because these are wonderful pieces of music! These are the products of a creative process based on an overwhelming logic: land for those who work it or, in this case, music for those who perform it. Villa-Rojo has always composed with a view to how, and how immediately, something can be transformed into sound, which is, after all, what music is. His work has always involved attempting to write something new; respecting the past rather than rejecting it, learning from it and appropriating the best of it for himself; using rigorous mathematics, devoid of external or internal errors; writing music for others, music to be heard, although the “speculative” element has played a part at times too; and, finally, considering whom and what it requires to transform it into real music—music to be heard in the concert hall or on a recording. Not only does this album reflect all of these concerns, it also provides us with another opportunity to listen to Villa-Rojo’s music being played by cellist Asier Polo, a blessing for music which needs an interpreter, in the strict sense of the word, in order “to be”.
There are four works on this album, two dating from 2004 (Oración serena and Expresiones), one from 2008 (Lamento), and the fourth, from 2009 (Sonata 2): new music, in other words.
Oración serena (Serene prayer), for cello and piano, is a kind of Lied, with the vocal line given particular prominence and entrusted here to the cello. Messiaen-like birds soar above a powerfully expressive discourse, its expressive nature being the result of an arduous search through reserves of human emotions that have to break out of our innermost selves. A journey into ourselves and back again: is this music as psychology? In any romantic sense, no, absolutely not; but in an existentialist sense, yes. The work took two months to write, in the period following the terrorist attacks on Madrid of 11 March 2004, and is a tribute to their victims.
Expresiones, for solo cello, is what its name suggests. These seven “expressions” are a musical response to some of the poetry of St John of the Cross: sound that surpasses verbal utterance. The first, Mis sentidos suspendía (He suspended my senses), is essentially unstable and unsettling, even escapist in feel. There is no melody, there are breaks, snatched chords and an ever-present sense of unease. In Con alegría y amor (With joy and love), the second of the Expresiones, irony softens the discourse, the bow glides without urgency, the rhythm is clearly marked. A radical change of atmosphere arrives with the third piece, En el corazón ardía ([The light that] burned within my heart). Villa- Rojo again looks inward, extracting fire with suffering, laboriously, haltingly, painfully. This is exceptional music, riven by conflict, whose emotional tone is extended into En la noche dichosa (On that glad night), the suite’s slow movement. Here the cello’s song soars up to the heavens; this is the mature Villa-Rojo’s voice, singing among serene shadows. Music of immense introspection, enigmatic at times, existentialist and multi-expressive, it touches on various dualistic aspects of thought and emotion: reflection and scepticism, sorrow and pain, love and solitude…By contrast, the beautiful Cuán manso y amoroso (How meekly and lovingly) is characterized by an absence of rebellion, by acceptance and humility. In Con su mano serena (With his gentle hand), the hand escapes and takes flight, as does the mind. This is the most speculative of all seven pieces, the most abstract, a real exercise in experimental tone, which is itself a form of expression. Expresiones comes to an end with Desnudez y libertad del espíritu (Nakedness and freedom of spirit), and does so with a kind of fight to the death for fantasy, imagination and for freedom as an inherent concept of creation itself. A finale of light to counter the shadows: the light of life, unique, shining out without external assistance. The light of individuality.
The first version of Lamento dates back to 1989 and was written in response to a commission by saxophonist Daniel Kientzy. Its starting-point is a recording of a debla (a flamenco song form, the word itself means “goddess”) by flamenco singer Rafael Romero, known as “El Gallina”. In “version B”, the cello replaces the saxophone and, more importantly, the vocal part is exhaustively developed. This adaptation for solo cello, four other cellos and voice was finished in 2008. In it, the flamenco voice is treated as one of the two solo elements and Villa-Rojo places particular emphasis on timbre, more so perhaps than on structural inquiry, usually a keystone of his works. The cello here initiates a dialogue with the voice in a kind of double quejío (a flamenco lament) above a layer of sound created by the four ensemble cellos. The cello’s lament gradually becomes an active cry, a cry of desperation, which has nowhere to run. At times a certain religious or transcendental tone is discernible, but the sound of the music, which ends up fading away into the whisper of the voice, remains pure and abstract. A little like what happens in Messiaen’s large-scale sacred works, in the end, mountains of existential doubts.
Sonata 2 for cello dates from 2009 and is, therefore, one of Villa-Rojo’s most recent works. It too is a monument to abstraction as a source of immediate emotion. Cast in three movements—Allegro impetuoso, Lento and Allegro scherzando—the sonata is pure music in a pure state. The first movement is marked by a strong rhythmic pattern, with great melodic plunges. The designs traced by both cello and piano become complex, and the melodic passages are interrupted time and again, in combinations of slurred and separate notes not now contrasting but with an extreme speculative power. At first hearing, it is reminiscent of Prokofiev at his most powerful and visionary. Continuing what we might consider an extended classical structure, the Lento develops a wonderful cello chorale, the piano adding vital accompaniment. Now we are reminded of the most radically transcendental Messiaen, he of the abyss above which his birds soar. This movement contains music full of truth, authenticity, but not security, for doubt becomes nihilism, and this in turn becomes rupture; the ending remains broken, with no hope of mercy. With its more formal, innocuous opening, the Allegro scherzando initially seems to offer some respite in the face of this bleak atmosphere, but the cello soon returns to its earlier solitude and, like the Lento, the movement ends abruptly.
Pedro González Mira
English translation: Susannah Howe
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