C1971. ATALUFO ARGENTA Cond. Spanish National Orch.: Symphony #4 in d (Schumann); Till Eulenspiegel (Strauss); w. JACQUES THIBAUD: Symphonie espagnole (Lalo). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1231, Live Performance, 14 March, 1951, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Ataúlfo Argenta (1913–1958), like Guido Cantelli albeit perhaps on a lower plane, is one of the tragic might-have-been podium maestros who died all too young. Argenta had a particularly rough life. He contracted tuberculosis in his youth and remained sickly with recurring bouts of it for the rest of his life. During the Spanish Civil War he was arrested twice, once for desertion upon reporting back to his military duties late (he was enlisted on the Francoist side) and once on allegations of spying. His second child died only hours after birth; he was informed of his loss during the intermission to a concert he was conducting, but still had to go out and finish the program. During World War II he relocated to Kassel in Germany to pursue his musical career, and his home there was destroyed in a bombing raid. His fortunes improved in 1947, when he was appointed the assisting conductor of the Spanish National Orchestra, becoming its principal conductor in 1948, the same year in which he initiated a relation with the London Symphony. A similar liaison with the Paris Conservatory Orchestra began in 1950, as did what became a series of over 50 zarzuela recordings on the Alhambra label. Word of his exciting, vigorous interpretations spread, leading to international engagements and initial recordings for Decca, mostly of Spanish music and as a concerto accompanist. Then, on January 20, 1958, he died of carbon monoxide poisoning. According to the official account, upon returning home from a concert, Argenta (whose wife was then in Geneva) and a student found his study too cold and decided to stay warm in his car in the garage; the student survived. Obviously the circumstances raise questions, to which there are no further answers.
The performances on this release confirm Argenta’s podium reputation. The Schumann Symphony #4 receives a taut, driven reading, blessedly free from all stodginess and mannerisims, not dissimilar to that of Cantelli but to my mind more electric. TILL EULENSPIEGEL likewise indulges that character’s merry escapades with ebullience; if the orchestra lacks the polish and weight of the many major German ensembles that have so memorably recorded the work, its members still come off with considerable credit.
The item that actually prompted me to request this disc for review, the Lalo, is more problematic. Jacques Thibaud is of course well known for the series of 78rpm recordings he made, most with Casals and Corot, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I was not aware of any surviving post-war performances by him and was curious as to how he would sound. It turns out that the Symphonie espagnole was his late-period signature piece, with additional live performances extant with Ansermet (1941), Stokowski (1947), Winfried Zillig (1951 radio studio broadcast), and Martinon (1953, only months before Thibaud was killed in a plane crash). His interpretation is one of dashing elegance, with the lightest of touches and easy charm taking precedence over pyrotechnic display. Alas, Thibaud’s technique declined considerably with age, and unfortunately the first movement of this performance finds him in particularly poor estate, playing a good many badly out of tune notes. He obviously was aware of the problem during the performance, because he improves as the movement goes on and then pauses after it for extensive returning of his instrument, after which his playing improves markedly. Objectively, any of his other surviving performances is better played overall, but Thibaud’s inimitable style still works its magic, and of course Argenta and the orchestra are utterly in their element here.
In addition to Thibaud’s wayward opening movement in the Lalo, the one other caveat to note here is the somewhat brittle recorded sound. There is also a bit of wow and flutter at the beginning of the Schumann, though it is not major and disappears soon enough. The appeal, here, then, is to fans of Argenta and Thibaud, who will find this sufficiently rewarding to acquire. As usual, St. Laurent provides tray cards with photos plus tracking information but no notes.”
- James A. Altena
"Suave, debonair, and sincere, [Thibaud’s] art was an extension of his personality; therefore, while he had numerous pupils, he had no stylistic heir. Thibaud’s playing is immediately recognizable and he can be mistaken for no one else. He also had an air of belonging to an earlier time….Like his friend Georges Enescu, Thibaud had a vocabulary of slides and ways of sneaking up on a note that today’s virtuosos would profit from studying. These expressive devices contributed to an erotic quality in Thibaud’s playing that, paradoxically, is missing in our modern world of tawdry sexual display."
- Joseph Magil, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, May/June, 2004
"Relatively little-known today outside his native Spain, during his short life Ataúlfo Argenta did more than anyone to put Spanish music on the musical map, yet his life was dogged by cruel misfortune. In the space of only 20 years he was fêted as a national hero, almost executed by military firing squad, imprisoned (where he contracted typhus), and died bizarrely in his own car.
The son of a railway official in the northern coastal village of Castro-Urdiales, Ataúlfo Argenta was born on 19 November, 1913. As a child, Argenta showed considerable talent for the piano and was admitted to the Madrid Conservatory at the age of only 13. In 1931, he won the Kristina Nilsson Prize which enabled him to study piano in Belgium.
At the start of the Spanish Civil War Argenta was conscripted into the army, but somehow got himself arrested as a spy. Imprisoned, he managed (just) to establish his innocence and escaped execution, but the prison conditions left their mark, affecting his future health. In 1939 he returned to Spain, but making a living as a musician in that ravaged country was very hard. Life now decided to deal him another blow. He married and his wife bore him two children. At only a day old, the younger child died whilst the new father was giving a piano recital. Argenta was told during the interval but had to continue with the second half of the concert knowing that his child was dead.
In 1941, Argenta went to Germany, teaching piano at the Kassel Conservatory and studying conducting with the great teacher Carl Schuricht. Two years later, when the Allied bombing of Germany made life once again very uncomfortable, Argenta and his family returned to Spain, where he managed to get work as a keyboard player with la Orquesta Nacional de España. His conducting debut with that orchestra soon after was a spectacular success, and in 1947 he was appointed as their principal conductor and musical director. Over the next ten years, Argenta transformed the orchestra and became Spain's leading conductor, establishing music festivals at both Granada and at Santander, in his home province of Cantabia.
Argenta's international career was launched in London in 1948, when he was invited to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra. Subsequently he was a guest conductor of a number of European orchestras, including L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, where he earned the respect of its founder and conductor Ernest Ansermet, and both the Paris Conservatoire and French National Radio orchestras.
In the early 1950s, Argenta made a series of significant recordings of Spanish and French music. His recordings of about 50 zarzuela, with truly great singers, enabled the genre to survive at a time when its popularity was in severe decline. The zarzuela is a distinctive Spanish theatrical genre that involves spoken dramatic scenes alternating with songs, choruses and dances.
In the mid-1950s Argenta developed tuberculosis - his weakened state of health was a legacy of his imprisonment. The illness was brought on by his heavy performance commitments, and he was obliged to rest completely for several months. Having recovered, he began a series of magnificent recordings, the last of which, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique with the Paris Conservatoire, recorded only two months before he died.
On 21 January, 1958, Argenta's performing and recording career was cut short by his early and bizarre death, aged only 44. The Madrid police incident report stated that he and a student were sat in his car in the garage with the door closed and the engine running, apparently in an attempt to warm up. Argenta died of carbon monoxide poisoning; the student survived. Argenta's funeral was a national event, and a day of mourning held throughout Spain. He is buried at the Cementerio de la Almudena in Madrid; a monument to him stands in the Plaza de Los Jardines in Castro-Urdiales.
Argenta was succeeded as principal conductor of la Orquesta Nacional de España by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.”