Spanish conductor Ataúlfo Argenta cheated death many times in his short life; during the Spanish Civil War, he talked his way out of execution by a firing squad, contracted typhoid in prison, and survived that in addition to its recurrence later in his life. Argenta's accidental death at 44, sitting in his car warming up in an unventilated garage waiting for the heat to come on in his studio, seems like a grim joke on the part of fate. Ernest Ansermet must have thought so, too; Argenta was suave, handsome, and authoritative on the podium, and Ansermet had been grooming him as his successor in l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Such was not to be; however, fate has not entirely robbed posterity of Argenta's extraordinary talents as evidenced by the five-disc set Ataúlfo Argenta: Complete Decca Recordings 1953-1957.
The best known of these recordings are, ironically, not ones where Argenta himself is the star of the show -- they are his Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Alfredo Campoli and his recordings of the two canonical Liszt piano concerti with the London Philharmonic and soloist Julius Katchen. The latter was already distributed extensively on behalf of Katchen, in the context of Argenta it is useful to note how these two artists seem to connect almost psychically with Liszt's music; wherever Katchen is, there, too, is Argenta. Argenta's Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique is instructive; whereas in a recording of this work made about the same time, Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic demonstrate an impressive architectonic design for the whole, by comparison Argenta's interpretation is characterized by its youthful verve, brilliance, impetuousness, and drive; it is an untamed, relentlessly exciting Symphonie Fantastique. Argenta's recordings of Spanish literature, including the dreaded España of Chabrier, but also the Danzas Fantasticas of Turina, were considered pioneering in their day, and account for Argenta's posthumous renown in his home country.
Argenta died just short of Decca's adoption of stereo recording technology, and he seldom led first-class orchestras in recordings -- the London Symphony was the only such group he conducted, the rest of his Decca work made with the aforementioned Suisse Romande and the Paris Conservatoire orchestras. The Suisse Romande lumbers ungainly into the opening Liszt's Les Préludes, with Argenta laboring to whip things into shape. However, once they are into the main tune, the Suisse Romande gets into gear and over the course of the remainder of the performance one can hear detail in Les Préludes seldom heard before. This is the standard scenario for some of performances here -- weak opening, better exposition, and raucous, electrifying ending -- although the Paris Conservatoire recording of Liszt's unfamiliar (at the time) A Faust Symphony goes quite well throughout. Perhaps this is what Ansermet saw in Argenta -- a leader who could get the Suisse Romande up off the floor, even when the piece had already started.
It appears the further one goes back to the 1953 end of this set, the more brittle and congested Decca's vaunted "full frequency range recording" is, but toward the later part of the '50s the sound is so good it almost could be stereo -- the Berlioz, although mono, somehow retains an element of three-dimensionality to it. Although it was more like a 100-yard dash than a marathon, Argenta made a good run as a conductor. Heretofore, Decca has done so little with its monophonically made recordings and it is heartening to hear this tribute to Argenta, whose extraordinary career is certainly valuable and worth documenting in a modestly priced package such as this one.