Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

For the past five years or so I've posted reviews of classical music CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, in various places on the web: Amazon.com, iTunes and other sites. I'll collect those earlier reviews, and add four or five new ones every month.

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The perfect Ginastera centennial tribute

Alberto Ginastera's centennial year is coming along very well, I think.  I counted 36 concerts at InstantEncore in 2016, and nine CD releases so far on Amazon.com. The standard reputation model for a composer seems to be a slight drop in interest after death, and then a significant rise after the centennial. That's certainly what happened with Villa-Lobos, whose 1987 centennial was the cue for a huge increase in concerts, recordings, academic literature and overall popularity. Let's hope we see something like that with Ginastera, who has been very much under-rated for a long time now.

"I am no longer searching for a national style but a personal style," said Ginastera looking back on a career that is the perfect musical expression of Jorge Luis Borges' 1951 essay "The Argentine Writer and Tradition". "Our patrimony is the universe;" says Borges, "we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine." Though Ginastera famously divided his music into three periods, Objective Nationalism, Subjective Nationalism and Neo-Expressionism, the general move from simple folkloric works to a more international, avant garde style did not remove folklore from the equation. Indeed, the relatively late Guitar Sonata from 1976 is replete with Cuecha and Nambicuara melodies and what Ginastera himself (channeling his inner music reviewer, perhaps) called "the strong, bold rhythms of the music of the pampas.*" The Guitar Sonata is not at all a doctrinaire post-War twelve-tone work, but rather a work of syncretism. There's even a quote from Wagner's Meistersinger in the witty Scherzo. Writing a Sonata in 1976 was an act of independence; to include such a fun Scherzo even more so. One of the things I love about Jason Vieaux's performance, which is the best I've heard, is how he pulls out all the stops in this movement without any sense of losing control. Comedy is famously hard, and it's hardest of all to pull off in music. There's a lot of layers here: Vieaux carefully negotiates the complex technical logistics while putting across Ginastera's take-off of Wagner's not-as-subtle put-down of Sixtus Beckmesser. Vieaux makes the whole Sonata sound completely organic, and this fine performance only emphasizes the importance of this piece in the Classical Guitar literature.

It's a stylistic step back to the early (1937) Danzas Argentinas, op. 2, played beautifully by pianist Orli Shaham. I've commented before that Ginastera and Villa-Lobos moved in opposite directions. Villa perhaps was Benjamin Button in this scenario.
But in the late 1930s, the two were in sync with each other. Villa's Ciclo Brasileiro, written in 1936-37, shares the same pianistic textures, explores similar rhythms, also flirts with bi-tonality, and shares similar "Indianist" characteristics. While Ginastera has introduced modernist tropes into his music by 1947's Pampeana no. 1, op. 16, played here by Orli Shaham and her bother, the great violinist Gil, this music is not at all difficult on the ears. That's partly because of Ginastera's tendency to call back to 19th century virtuosi, especially Paganini, in much the same way Villa-Lobos quotes Puccini or Rimsky-Korsakov in the middle of otherwise very progressive music. It's also, as the excellent liner essay by Oberlin Conservatory Professor James O'Leary demonstrates, because Ginastera learned from his teacher Aaron Copland to temper modernism with the simple, open, honest music of "the common man". One of the most useful parts of O'Leary's commentary is the light it shines on the political aspects of these issues which seem at first purely musical. Ginastera's experience, like Copland's and Villa-Lobos's, had a political component every bit as fraught with difficulty, if not as dangerous in the end, as the experience of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Less so than the workmanlike Villa-Lobos Harp Concerto of 1953, Ginastera's 1956 Harp Concerto, op. 25, is an obvious star turn for the composer and for generations of grateful harpists. "He wrote our piece", says Yolanda Kondonassis in her introduction to the album.  It has a Bachian combination of erudite structure and joyful invention. Kondonassis, who has performed the work nearly 200 times, has mastered this music, and it shows in this completely secure but playful performance. She has superb support from the excellent Oberlin Orchestra under Raphael Jimenez.

This is really one of the most exciting recording projects I've come across this year. Everyone involved has connected to this marvellous music in a way that doesn't always get communicated to audiences quite like this. Kudos to the Oberlin Conservatory for providing both the academic foundation and sophisticated technical and marketing support for such an auspicious celebration.


* I recommend Charles King's excellent 1992 thesis "Alberto Ginastera's Sonata for Guitar Op. 47: an analysis", a very readable and useful study.

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