Naxos continues its series of two-CD Portrait: His Works, His Life collection, which includes composers such as Bartók, Shostakovich, John Tavener, and Arvo Pärt, with Joaquín Rodrigo. The set includes an 80-page book detailing Rodrigo's life, by Graham Wade, the composer's primary English biographer. The selection of pieces makes this an especially useful collection because it's not merely a compilation of the composer's greatest hits. It's a diverse and thoughtfully assembled assortment of pieces that span Rodrigo's long career and brings many of his lesser-known pieces to the public's attention. The performances are culled from Naxos' extensive catalog of works by the composer and are of a consistently high quality, even though they don't feature the high-profile artists who've recorded his most famous works. The collection doesn't have complete multi-movement works -- just one representative movement is included -- but the booklet directs the listener to the album from which the excerpt is taken to find the complete work.
The collection makes clear that there is not a huge range of variety in Rodrigo's work. Much of it has the characteristics that make his most famous works, particularly Concierto de Aranjuez and Fantasía para un gentilhombre, so beloved: a strongly Spanish character in melody, rhythm, and energy; a memorable lyrical impulse; gently quirky humor; formal clarity; and brilliant, transparent orchestration. (Even the earliest works, which Rodrigo wrote in his twenties and thirties, have many of those attributes, but the Spanish character is less pronounced. Those pieces have more of a Gallic, post-impressionist impulse.) For anyone who loves the Concierto and Fantasía, that's not a bad thing at all. It's pleasant to hear those qualities applied in his choral music, piano music, and chamber music. The pieces that stray most from Rodrigo's familiar idiom (such as the ambitious orchestral essay A la busca del más alla) tend to be more generically post-Romantic and generally less interesting. Naxos' sound is consistently first-rate. The collection should be of strong interest to anyone who loves Rodrigo's music, and to fans of Spanish-flavored music.