ESCUDERO: Illeta (Bilbao Symphony Orchestra/ Coral Andra Mari/ Juan Jose Mena/ Ricardo Salaberria) (Naxos: 8.557629)
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Francisco Escudero (1913-2002)
When Francisco Escudero died in 2002, Basque culturallife lost one of its most eminent artists. Composer,conductor and teacher, this distinguished musician spenthis life creating an exceptional and very individualcatalogue of works embracing almost all musical genres.
Escudero was born in San Sebastian in 1913 andbegan studying music with Beltran Pagola and Conradodel Campo in Madrid. In 1932 he travelled to France andGermany where he worked with Dukas, Le Flem andWolff, dedicating himself on his return to Spain tocomposing, teaching and conducting. The Frenchinfluence is discernible in his early works, such as theString Quartet in G, but much stronger is the essentiallyBasque element to be found in his sacred and stageworks, such as the oratorio Illeta and the operas Zigorand Gernika, as well as in the Concierto vasco parapiano. Later he tried out more modern techniques togreat effect in the Cello Concerto, and his final yearswere particularly prolific, producing the \Ultreia"Symphony, Sinfonia concertante and the ViolinConcerto, among other works. Escudero was awardedthe Gold Medal of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes deSan Fernando and the Spanish National Music Prizethree times. He spent most of his life in his nativeBasque Country, dying in San Sebastian in June 2002.
Escudero's artistic sensibility and imaginationstretched beyond purely musical considerations; hisstyle is principally characterized by a personal andabstract conception of traditional Basque music, theresult of much time spent studying and dissecting itsthemes and rhythms, and by a sound technicalbackground. This did not prevent his use of the boldestavant-garde sound effects, which he integrated into hisown harmonic system, with a kind of tonal freedom thatresulted in frequent and unexpected clashes. Never oneto refuse a compositional challenge, Escudero alwayscame up with incredibly effective solutions,demonstrating enormous skill in developing andorchestrating motifs to create a musical fabric rich ingesture and chromatic harmony.
His desire to portray the different aspects of theBasque character, evident in previous works, reachedthe heights of emotion in Escudero's Illeta, whichdepicts the reaction of his countrymen to death. XabierLizardi's poem Biotzean min dut (My heart is broken),which deals with the grief experienced on the death of aloved one, inspired him to compose this imposingoratorio sung in the first person by the soloist and thechorus, who, as the townspeople, join the baritone in hismourning for the final farewell: the wake, funeral andburial. Escudero provides vivid musical depictions of allthese, once again proving his mastery of a largeorchestra and massed voices in creating a deeplyspiritual setting as his response to the sentimentsexpressed by the text.
The work's starting-points are a five-note motif,reflecting the influence of Gregorian chant on traditionalBasque music, and a second theme introducedimmediately afterwards by the cor anglais, both ofwhich recur throughout the oratorio, acting as the linksbetween its different episodes. Illeta employs a widevariety of descriptive effects and devices: at thebeginning we hear the bells tolling for the grandmotherwho has died, and strident music representing cries ofgrief; in the second part we can hear the mournersrending their garments; and in the third part, the winterwind gusting at night in an extraordinary and disturbingorchestral interlude, and a tender, moving violin solo.
Escudero also successfully builds up differentatmospheres, such as the desolation of the townsfolk asthey intone the Lord's Prayer in Basque at thebeginning, and join in the liturgy with the Dies irae inthe third part. The play of different pressures and tonalcombinations helps clarify the soloist's range of feelings-- intense grief, emotional emptiness, tenderness andsadness -- culminating in a deeply moving finale on thewords "my heart is broken!"Santiago Gorostiza
English Translation by Susannah Howe"