Composer: Falla
Composition: La Vida Breve
Performers: Nancy Fabiola Herrera ms, Aquiles Machado t, BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
Catalogue Number: Chandos CHAN20032

La Vida Breve was the breakthrough work for Manuel de Falla; composed before he moved to Paris where none other than Debussy urged him to revise it for performance, smoothing the transitions from number to number. The combination of local Andalusian colour, dance and verismo social comment was very much of its time but the need for specialist performers, brevity and dramatic implausibility have kept it a rarity on the stage.

The plot concerns an infatuated gypsy girl called Salud who is jilted by the caddish Paco who marries for social advancement – Salud gatecrashes the wedding party and drops dead at his feet. The pacing is off-kilter, an expansive opening building the tension for the party scene with flamenco song and dance, but the final denouement is so sudden – blink and you’d miss it and then the curtain is down!

However, there is some memorable music to be found with some marvellous moments anticipating the composer’s mature style. This latest installment in Chandos’ survey of Spanish music makes a fine addition to the work’s discography. I admired Mena’s previous release of Falla’s masterworks so his refined ear and idiomatic flair pays dividends here, aided and abetted by superb recorded sound – the haunting opening with offstage men’s chorus ideally balanced and the anvils for once sound convincing.

The polished wind and brass of the BBC Philharmonic does justice to Falla’s marvellous orchestral effects although I would have liked a more brazen response from their rather buttoned-up strings. The imported chorus and Latin cast sound suitably authentic while sensible restraint governs the dance segments with minimal clatter. The flamenco singer may well be genuine but painful.

Nancy Fabiola Herrera made quite an impression in Australia a few years ago as Carmen and makes a fine Salud, her particular dark timbre ideal. A fine modern recording although the 1965 EMI release remains the benchmark.