Jesus Arambarri (1902-1960) made a certain career for himself as a conductor and director of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra. He obtained the latter post in 1938, and that meant the end to his career as a composer. Thus, all the works on this disc are "early" - in fact, they all date from the years 1930-32. The Gabon Zar Sorginak prelude from 1930 is based on Basque folk music, and is a charming, spirited and boisterous affair, tuneful and moderately dissonant, well-constructed and finely scored. It is not a work you'll see in concert programs, but it is certainly worth hearing.
For many listeners, however, it is the gorgeous Ocho Canciones Vascas for soprano and orchestra that will be the main attraction here. As you may have suspected (and hoped), these eight warmly atmospheric songs sound exactly like runaways from Canteloube's Auvergne songs, with just a mild personal stamp added by the composer. They are absolutely lovely (especially the well-contrasted first four of them), poetic, joyous, wistful and radiant, exquisitely scored and marvelously sung by Maria Bayo. The slightly earlier In Memoriam (1930) for Juan Carlos Gortázar is inventive and stirring, though at eleven minutes perhaps just a few moments too long for its material.
The main bulk of this very well-filled disc is given to the ballet Aiko-Maiko. Consisting of three sections it lasts for a full fifty minutes, and despite many colorful and imaginative touches I am not sure the music wouldn't be more successful if it were pared down to a suite. Stylistically, Falla and Ravel are brought to mind, but these influences are filtered through a certain personal primitivism. There are nevertheless a wide variety of colors, moods and dance rhythms here, and even in its current complete form it is more than worth hearing through.
The performances are good, even though Mandeal's approach is a little detached - that works extremely well in the songs, but the ballet would ideally need some more energy and bite. The Basque National SO plays well, however, and overall this is a rewarding release of some pretty fascinating music. Some of it also exists on a Naxos release conducted by Juan José Mena, but I must admit to having missed that one, so I cannot compare. In any case, the disc at hand makes a good case for the composer and is recommended to anyone with a sense of adventure.