CD Review: ‘Alma Española’

Sharon Isbin and Isabel Leonard perform Spanish art songs
August 13, 2017 Updated: August 19, 2017

“Alma Española” (on Bridge) is a beautiful new album of Spanish songs performed by guitarist Sharon Isbin and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.

While pairing a classical guitarist and an opera singer for this repertoire would seem a natural choice, this is in fact the first known recording of its kind in more than 40 years. The last one was “Canciones Españolas” by Teresa Berganza and Narciso Yepes.

Though there is some duplication of songs from the Berganza/Yepes recording, Isbin, with input from Leonard, worked out new arrangements to create 12 world premieres for the album.

The two artists, both multi-Grammy Award winners, identify strongly with the material. Native New Yorker Leonard has an Argentinean mother and grew up speaking Spanish and English. I have heard her sing in French, Italian, and English at the Metropolitan Opera. Her roles range from comic (for example, “The Barber of Seville”) to the tragic (“Dialogue of the Carmélites”), and from the bel canto style of Rossini to the style of contemporary works such as Thomas Adès’s “The Tempest.”

CD cover of
Cover of “Alma Española.” (J. Henry Fair)

On the album, Leonard has a gutsier sound than she usually employs in operas. While the tone is not as rough as true flamenco singers, she still manages to modulate her style depending on the material, whether songs of love or lullabies.

Isbin is a leading classical guitarist but also eclectic, having performed with Sting and Aretha Franklin, as well as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Larry Coryell. She has a strong connection to Spanish music, having studied with Andrés Segovia and had a friendship with Joaquín Rodrigo, a composer of one of the works in the album.

The album starts with a set of songs by Federico Garcia Lorca (1898–1936) from his “Old Spanish Songs” (“Canciones Españolas Antiguas”). The poet and playwright—who was executed at age 37 by the fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War—wrote and performed many songs.

Several of the Lorca songs deal with bullfighting. In “El Café de Chinitas,” a young man boasts that he will kill the bull by 4:30 in the afternoon—the Spanish equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to center field before hitting a home run. On the other hand, in “Los Mozos de Monleón” (The Lads of Monléon), it is the bullfighter who dies.

“Romance de Don Boyso” tells the story of a nobleman who discovers that the woman he is bringing back home to be is bride is in fact his long-lost sister. He ends dramatically by telling his mother, “instead of a daughter-in-law/I bring you your daughter.”

The rhythmic “Anda, Jaleo” (“Come, Clap Hands”) is a song that folk enthusiasts will recognize as one that the Weavers used to perform. Several of the pieces deal with love, either disappointed (“Zorongo”) or hopeful (“La Tarara”).

In between the vocal sections, Isbin plays solo pieces: “Andaluza” from “12 Spanish Dances” by Enrique Granados (1867–1916) and the “Capricho Árabe,” an 1892 piece showing the Moorish influence in Spain, by Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909), a composer and guitar virtuoso.  

Some of the songs show the Moorish influence as well, such as Lorca’s “Romance de Don Boyso,” in which the singer insults a young woman by calling her a “Moorish daughter of a Jewess,” and “Las Morillas de Jaén” about three Moorish girls who pick olives.

The song “Aranjuez, Ma Pensée” is set to the musical theme from the popular “Concierto de Aranjuez, for Guitar and Orchestra” by Joaquín Rodrigo (1901–1999). According to Isbin, who was friends with Rodrigo for 20 years, the composer consoled himself by playing this music when his wife, the poet and pianist Victoria Kamhi, was ill in the hospital. She recovered and wrote the words for the piece, which ends with the singer recalling the happy days when the lovers were 20 years old.

Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912–2002) wrote “Canción de Cuna Para Dormir a un Negrito” and “Canto Negro” as part of “Cinco Canciones Negras.” The duo performs Manuel de Falla’s (1876–1946) “Siete Canciones Populares Españolas,” as well as the flashy “Granada” by Mexican composer Agustín Lara (1897–1970).

The album comes with an essay by Allan Kozinn and the words of all the songs in Spanish and English.

Leonard and Isbin have no joint appearances scheduled, but the singer will be performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Aug. 19 and at the Metropolitan Opera in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” on Dec. 29 and Jan. 4, 10, 13, and 19.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.