Rodrigo, probably the most famous of Spanish composers after Manuel de Falla, had a lot more to say than Concierto Aranjuez, his famed guitar concerto written in 1939 — he kept writing into the 1990s. The piece most commonly coupled with Aranjuez, Concierto para un Gentilhombre dates from 1954, sure proof that he was a long-term figure upon the musical stage. His A la busca del más allá (In Search of Things Beyond) — included on some of the recordings I cite later in this post — was actually commissioned by the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1976 in the spirit of space exploration.
But back to Lliri Blau, a tone poem hearkening to a totally different era, based on a medieval Valencian Spanish legend of a king and his avenging sons. The sonics are cinematic in an early Hollywood sense, befitting a score written in 1934. The piece won Rodrigo one of his earliest recognitions as a composer and set the stage for his guitar concertante works which would establish him as a unique figure in Classical composition. At the time Lliri Blau was composed he was under the tutelage of Paul Dukas, who in his own way bridged the French traditions of Romantic and Impressionist. Lliri Blau could perhaps be thought of as a Spanish translation of Debussy and Ravel, but also predicting the neoclassical romanticism of Stravinsky, say, in The Fairy’s Kiss.
There are very few recordings of Lliri Blau, which is a shame; but as is often the case when a single work comes to dominate the public reputation of an artist (as much as I love Aranjuez) the performed and recorded repertoire suffers. Naxos has contributed a superb version in Vol. 6 of its complete Rodrigo edition, with the Castile and Leon Symphony Orchestra led by Max Bragado-Darman. (Bragado-Darman founded the orchestra in 1991 and now is M.D. in Monterrey, California; he also spent time in Louisville, and from the Monterrey programming continues to focus on 20th Century works.) The 2003 sound is rich and full, the reading dramatic and cinematic — but think Korngold and Erroll Flynn more than John Williams and Indiana Jones. The other version available on CD is Vol. 1 (interesting) from Sony’s 1997 European-only Rodrigo Edition, this time with the Valencia Orchestra and Manuel Galduf, more of an academic, who studied under Markevitch. The digital sound is comparable to Naxos, but the playing is notably more aggressive both in tone and tempi — clocking in a full two minutes under the Castilians. Despite the Valencian connection to Lliri Blau’s source material, the Castilians on Naxos make a clear choice.
As far as I can tell, the only version on vinyl is a 1983 EMI/Angel record from Enrique Bátiz and the London Symphony, available on CD today in a compilation. It is a let down in just about every way. Usually I’m fairly sypathetic to digital recordings on vinyl, but this one fits all the stereotypes my audiophile friends always rattle off: “dry,” no “space” around the sound, no “warmth” and so on. These qualities are absolutely essential for Lliri Blau, especially in its haunting primary motif. For all of the LSO’s cinematic reputation, it sure sounds like they were phoning it in on this record. (It’s also the slowest of all versions, dragging on in a probable lame attempt at romanticism.) The Gramophone devoted but a single expository sentence to the piece in its review at the time, and one can understand why.
It’s a real shame that no record exists of this piece from the legendary conductors of the music of its era: Ansermet in particular, must have programmed this at some point; Paray? Martinon?
Digging around on the Web it wasn’t entirely surprising that on YouTube the one standout performance of the piece comes from Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar orchestra, unfortunately in this case not conducted by Dudamel — I wonder whether he ever led them in it, or if he’ll try it with the LAPO; it would make a perfect fit. The performance here is dated 2013, and the conductor uncredited; among the two lonely comments one asks in Spanish who he is. The performance is very strong, and as always it is informative to see how the story unfolds in performance. While the quality of sound and skill is an obvious tick or three below the two Spanish orchestras on CD, the sense of musical line, of flow, which I consider one of Dudamel’s strongest suits — connecting the phrases in a way that makes paragraphs out of sentences — is perhaps better here, something he inculcated into this most remarkable of student orchestra. N.B. on YouTube one also sees a few wind orchestra performances of the piece. The composer did create a winds-only score, as this was apparently popular among Spanish community bands of the era.