New CD release & Reviews







One composer, three worlds: Plácido Domingo in rare excerpts from Don Rodrigo; exciting folk rhythms and colors of Argentina; Kafka’s passionate soul.

Gisèle Ben-Dor is “… a conductor who spectacularly proves her credentials”
“… one of the best things that has ever happened to music of the southern hemisphere.” LOS ANGELES TIMES




The Guardian, UK

Andrew Clements

Wednesday 9 March 2016 

Placido Domingo revisits a past glory

Dramatic intensity … Placido Domingo sings extracts from Don Rodrigo, in which he first starred in 1966.

The discs that have already appeared to mark the centenary of the birth ofAlberto Ginastera, which falls next month, mostly focus on the Argentinian’s flashier, better known orchestral scores. But this vocal collection is much more enterprising: alongside an orchestral arrangement of the early and unashamedly nationalist Five Popular Argentinian Songs there are two scenes from Ginastera’s almost forgotten first opera, Don Rodrigo, as well as the equally neglected cantata Milena, which sets extracts from Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena.

The opera was completed in 1964 and the cantata seven years later. They both belong to what Ginastera called his “neo-expressionist” period, in which he adopted a 12-note technique (though without ever really losing touch with tonality) and included aleatoric passages in his scores. The results are close to the world of Berg at times, and the highly wrought, anguished vocal writing of the opera – built around the character of Roderic, the last Visigoth king of Spain, who probably died at the hands of the invading Moors in the 8th century – certainly recalls parts of Wozzeck. Milena is, if anything, even more intriguing. From a collage of excerpts in Spanish translation from Kafka’s text, Ginastera created a patchwork of dreams and longings that he shaped into five movements and scored with amazing imagination, using his experience of electronic music to create a shimmering, enchanted orchestral sound world. It’s a strikingly beautiful piece – a real discovery – which fades away with echoes of the last song in Schubert’s Winterreise.

The performances have real authority. When Don Rodrigo received its US premiere at New York City Opera in 1966, the title role was sung by a young tenor then at the beginning of his international career. It’s a role that Placido Domingowas always keen to repeat, and though we only get him singing two sections of the opera here – the climactic rape scene from the second act, and the final scene of the third, when the despairing Rodrigo dies and all the bells of Spain spontaneously ring out – they are enough to show the dramatic intensity he must have brought to it 50 years ago. The demanding part of Florinda, Rodrigo’s lover, is taken by Virginia Tola, though she is even more impressive threading her silvery soprano through the textures of Milena.

Assembling this disc has clearly been a labour of love for conductor Gisele Ben-Dor. It has taken her 15 years with the Santa Barbara Symphony, and to judge from the recording details, it’s been a tortuous process. Ana María Martínez’s performance of the Popular Songs dates back to 2002, while Tola recorded Milena and her part in the Don Rodrigo excerpts in 2008, before Domingo added his contributions in 2011 and 2014.

You hardly notice the joins, though, and in any case much of the music is such a treat that it doesn’t matter at all.



DIAPASON,France – May 2016

May 2016
Andrew Farach-Colton
GINASTERA The Vocal Album

Plácido Domingo sang the title-role in the US premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo with the New York City Opera in February 1966, inaugurating the company’s new home at Lincoln Center. Domingo’s career skyrocketed from there – although, sadly, neither Ginastera’s opera nor the City Opera itself fared quite so well. Thus there is no complete recording of Don Rodrigo, the first of Ginastera’s three operas (only Bomarzo was recorded in full and even that never made it to CD), so we must be especially grateful to Domingo for paying homage to his youthful triumph with these excerpts.
Pirated recordings of those 1966 City Opera performances are readily available, however, and comparing them with this new account, it’s astonishing how fresh Domingo still sounds 50 years later. It’s all the more impressive, considering that Ginastera’s score is comparable to Berg’s Lulu both stylistically and in its extreme technical demands. In fact, Domingo sounds far more expressive and fearless here, navigating the precipitous vocal lines with ease.
Reviewing the City Opera’s landmark production, New York Times critic Harold C Schonberg praised Ginastera’s ‘compositional surety’ but lamented the ‘lack of anything touching the heart’. Yet, in this account, the passion is palpable and often profoundly moving. Domingo conveys Rodrigo’s compulsive, destructive ardour with conviction and, more importantly, compassion. Virginia Tola is somewhat aloof as Florinda, the object of Rodrigo’s obsession, but shows more of her emotional mettle in Milena, Ginastera’s harrowing monodrama based on Kafka’s love letters. Phyllis Curtin, who recorded this cantata in the ’70s (Phoenix), offers greater richness and variety of tone; but Ginastera set the text in Spanish and, ultimately, Tola’s fluency packs a stronger punch.
The programme opens with a setting of popular Argentine songs in colourfully effective yet respectful orchestral arrangements, and Ana María Martínez sings them with gusto and an appropriate feeling of bittersweet nostalgia. Gisèle Ben-Dor draws secure and characterful playing from the Santa Barbara Symphony throughout.


The London Times


     Plácido Domingo:

Ginastera — the Vocal Album

           Warner Classics

       Neil Fisher

June 3 2016,    The  Times


           It has taken a very long time, but at least Plácido Domingo’s celebration of Ginastera has made it    out for the 100th anniversary year of Argentina’s national composer. The Uruguayan-born conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor started planning The Vocal Album in 1999. Recording began in 2002, when Ana María Martínez laid down her very fiery take on the early Cinco Canciones Populares Argentinas, in a newly orchestrated (and slightly over-egged) version by Shimon Cohen.

            Various wrangles then meant that Domingo had to record his contributions to two chunky extracts from the 1964 opera Don Rodrigo without his duetting soprano, Virginia Tola, who also sings the 1971 cantata Milena. His parts were finished only in 2014, then another hiatus delayed the album’s release further.

            These complications don’t dent the expressive power of those late works, however. If the Canciones belong to Ginastera’s “nationalist” period, Don Rodrigo and Milena come from the part of the composer’s life when he drifted to European modernism. Don Rodrigo has the heated plot of a verismo firecracker by Montemezzi or Wolf-Ferrari — the eponymous king rapes a woman he has sworn to protect, loses Spain, but is redeemed by a divine bell-ringing miracle. Yet its music sounds more like Alban Berg’s, the violence delivered in grinding dissonances and jagged vocal writing.

            Domingo championed the same role at New York City Opera 50 years ago, and it’s remarkable enough that he came back to it. Some vocal tiredness doesn’t dilute his expressive force, and he skilfully judges the contrast between the two scenes, the first showing the king crazed by perverse passion, the second aged and spent. He is well partnered by the Argentinian Tola, and Ben-Dor conducts the Santa Barbara Symphony orchestra with plenty of heat.

        Milena is the most compelling work on the album, however. Here Tola superbly sings and declaims extracts from the letters that Franz Kafka sent to the journalist Milena Jesenská (her replies are lost, alas). They are not love letters by any traditional measure — the famously un-optimistic author writes at one point that “we are both married, you to your husband in Vienna, I to anguish in Prague” — and Ginastera responds appropriately.

        In alternating sections marked “Prose” and “Cantus”, he uses sepulchral colours and the eerie glint of electronic effects to create a chilling backdrop for the soloist to deliver Kafka’s paranoid angst. In the last section Ginastera quotes from the final song of Schubert’s Winterreise and then the music disappears into greyness.


From the Spanish press

Another composer whose centenary occurs in 2016 is Alberto Ginastera, probably the most important musical voice of Argentina in the Twentieth century.
The Warner label pays him homage with an album titled "The Vocal Album" , entrusted ,with very good judgment, to one of those American orchestras who are professional through and through but little favored by the promotional glamour: California’s Santa Barbara Symphony, under the baton of its conductor laureate Gisele Ben-Dor, of Uruguayan origins.

But if the album is titled "The Vocal Album", it is because the protagonist is the voice: that of the Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez in the Five Argentine Popular Songs Op 10 and the cantata Milena Op 37, and, above all, that of the great Placido Domingo, who returns to his tenor tessitura to leave a lasting testimony of recognition to Ginastera, recording, next to Argentine Virginia Tola, two scenes as a duo of what was his opera debut in New York :" Don Rodrigo, " Op. 31. Domingo participated in the world premiere of the opera as a very young man, and now, at the end of his career, remembers that moment.



Warner Classics, Press Release

“Ginastera – The Vocal Album” marks the centenary of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). In 1966, at the New York City Opera, the US premiere of his opera Don Rodrigo gave the young Placido Domingo his major breakthrough. Domingo performs excerpts from Don Rodrigo, while two sopranos – Ana Maria Martinez and Virginia Tola, respectively – sing Ginastera’s Cinco Canciones Populares Argentinas (Five Argentine Popular Songs), op. 10, in a World Premiere orchestral version, as well as cantata Milena, based on Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena. Gisele Ben-Dor, a notable champion of Latin American music, conducts the Santa Barbara Symphony.

It was not in an opera by Verdi or Puccini that Plácido Domingo made his major and decisive breakthrough in New York, in 1966 at the age of 25. It was in fact in a work by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), whose centenary is celebrated with this album of operatic excerpts and concert music for voice.
The performers on Ginastera – The Vocal Album are Domingo, the sopranos Ana-Maria Martínez and Virginia Tola (both past prizewinners in Domingo’s Operalia competition) and California’s Santa Barbara Symphony under its conductor laureate, Gisèle Ben-Dor. She is a native of Uruguay, one of Argentina’s closest neighbours, and a notable champion of Latin American music. In 2004 – in collaboration with Ginastera’s daughter Georgina – she staged the Tango and Malambo Festival in Santa Barbara.

In his autobiographical book My First Forty Years, Domingo – whose 75th birthday falls in January 2016 – recounts his experience with Ginastera’s first opera. “In New York I embarked on the double adventure of singing the title role in the North American premiere of Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo and, with it, the opening of the City Opera’s new home at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center … The opening night – 22nd February 1966 – was a special occasion and therefore received considerable attention … For the public it was an exciting evening: they had not seen a contemporary opera of that stature in a long time. For a young Spaniard to be able to sing, on such an occasion, the role of a Spanish king, and in Spanish, was an unforgettable experience. There was much praise for the work, for the production and, fortunately, for my singing. I did not realize at that moment what it all meant for my future.”

Don Rodrigo is set in Spain in the 8th century. The title character, also known historically as Roderic, is the last of the country’s Visigoth kings, and the opera – which, musically and structurally speaking, takes Alban Berg’s masterpiece Wozzeck as its model – recounts a gripping tale of pride, passion and downfall. As the New York Times wrote after its world premiere in Buenos Aires in 1964: “The music is powerful, direct, compell¬ing — at times almost over¬whelming in its dynamic in¬tensity.”
If Don Rodrigo can be classified musically as a piece of atonal expressionism, the Cinco Canciones Populares Argentinas, dating from some 20 years earlier and written as a response to political turmoil in Argentina, draw directly on the country’s folk music and are full of Latin colours and inflections. Ana-Maria Martínez, born in Puerto Rico, lends her rich and mellow vocal texture to their evocative lines.

The Old World is the focus of the dramatic cantata Milena, composed in 1971 and performed with characteristic intensity by Virginia Tola, who is from Argentina. The cantata’s text is a Spanish translation of letters that Frank Kafka wrote (in German) to Milena Jesenská, who was the first person to translate his work into Czech. Kafka and Jesenská – who was married – met only twice, but, in the course of 1919 and 1920, they conducted an intense relationship via correspondence. The cantata, which makes use of both sung and spoken text, is composed in an uncompromisingly modern style, but includes a haunting musical quotation from Der Leiermann, the concluding song of Schubert’s gloomy song cycle Winterreise.


Gisele Ben Dor featured in the January-February 2011 Fanfare Magazine



The Penguin Guide to the 1000 Finest Classical Recordings:

The Must-Have CDs 

Gisele Ben-Dor’s CD of music by Alberto Ginastera ( Glosses on Themes of Pablo Casals, orchestra and chamber versions, and Variaciones Concertantes, with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Chamber Orchestra ) is listed in this year’s

The Penguin Guide to the 1000 Finest Classical Recordings: The Must-Have CDs and DVDs

by Ivan March, Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton and Paul Czajkowski (Oct 12, 2011)  

“if you want to explore the full range of the composer's melodic invention and vivid orchestral palette, you could hardly better this superbly played and recorded coupling...First rate recording too.”

 Penguin Guide, 2011 edition




Ginastera: Popol Vuh - The Mayan Creation

Gisele Ben-Dor, conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra
BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Ginastera – Estancia, Panambi, Suite de Danzas Criollas (world premiere of orchestral version), Ollantay

See reviews: 

Fanfare Magazine


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