Both good and great composers steal from their great predecessors; the great composer puts his own stamp on his thefts and takes care to cover his tracks but the merely good composer leaves tell-tale signs of the theft. Andrés Isasi (1890-1940) is in the latter camp. He was a Spaniard, from Bilbao in the Basque region, who studied extensively in Germany, primarily with Engelbert Humperdinck, and whose music never quite left the Austro-German ambit even though he returned to a small town in Spain and lived there the rest of his life. He died virtually forgotten. It is thanks to the local Bilbao Symphony and their conductor, Juan José Mena, that we have this recording which is, if not of great music, still worth hearing.
The Second Symphony, written in 1930, is in the usual four movements. The first sounds a great deal like Richard Strauss, particularly in its inventive orchestration and side-slipping enharmonic maneuvers. The thematic material sounds like German folksong. The second movement Adagio is a dawn-song (or perhaps I should say an 'alborada'); the world awakens to a beautiful sunrise with lovely melodies in the silken strings and bird-calls in the winds. The third movement is a Brucknerian Scherzo that has the advantage of pianissimo lightness (Bruckner never quite managed that, I fear) at least partly from the use of pizzicato and col legno strings playing almost elfin music. The Trio is a languorous waltz with an undercurrent of the restless first section which then returns to conclude this graceful movement. The finale is a variation-rondo based primarily on the old German vagabond folksong, 'Muss i' denn' ('Muss i' denn, muss i' denn, zum Städtele hinaus, und Du, mein Schatz, bleibst hier' -- 'I must then go, must then go to town and you, my dear, stay here' [a tune, by the way, that Elvis fans will recognize as that of 'Wooden Heart']). Amusingly the booklet note-writer, Richard Whitehouse, mistakenly characterizes this tune as 'a melody of Russian liturgical cast.' Nothing could be further from the truth: 'Muss i' denn' is about as Schubertian as a tune can be! Isasi (and had you noticed that his name is a neat palindrome?) really wrings the changes on this simple tune and possibly the finale outstays its welcome a bit, although there are some really quite impressive polyphonic passages that necessitate a slight rewriting of the main theme. Although there are hints of Smetana, Dukas, Humperdinck, Strauss and others in the symphony, the primary influence here is Wagner. There is not even a hint of Mahlerian irony.
The CD concludes with eleven-minute, three-movement Suite No. 2 in E Major, Op. 21, which has an earlier opus number than the Symphony but sounds more advanced harmonically, less German, more French, reminding one at times of late Debussy or Roussel. The suite ends with an impressive fugue.
These performances are by a competent middle-level regional orchestra, the Bilbao Symphony, which has the advantage, in this music, of being the 'home team.' They are sensitively conducted by their regular conductor, Señor Mena. Obviously they are performing a service by resurrecting some of the music of one of their local composers. They have done similar service to another Basque composer, Jésus Guridi, their CD of whose music I have also reviewed here at Amazon.