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APRIL 2016: Ray's Round-up

APRIL 2016: Ray's Round-up

Ray Picot Toasts the Centenaries of Granados and Ginastera with a Survey of Recent Recording Releases

One hundred years ago, the music world witnessed the tragic death of Enrique Granados and the birth of Alberto Ginastera. Two very different composers, who both have been subject to some degree of musical indifference, but with their centenaries upon us, hopefully now time for critical reassessment. The record companies have already started to release new recordings, so having now listened to some of these I am including the best in this first Anniversary review. It should not be forgotten that 2016 also marks the centenary of the Venezuelan composer, Antonio Estévez, who will be the subject of a separate piece later this year.

It is perhaps less well-known that Granados contributed actively to the growth of new music for chamber ensembles in Spain, both through his own music and also as a chamber pianist, in which capacity he attained international recognition. Hoping to settle in Madrid, Granados premiered two important new chamber works in January and February 1895, at the Salon Romero, which was responsible for the active promotion of chamber music. Whilst the Piano Quintet and Piano Trio did have mixed reviews, his supporters recognised his modernising approach to this nationally neglected genre. Granados considered it important for the new Spanish music to have a vibrant chamber music dimension, and he viewed the Trio as his best work to date. It is this work that opens Enrique Granados Chamber Music with Piano from the outstanding young Spanish chamber ensemble, Trio Rodin. This is their debut recording, also on a new label, Aevea (A6013) and I can report that it is outstanding. The four movement Trio is an ambitious piece written in the late-19th-century romantic style and has a strong vein of lyricism with characteristic writing for the piano, violin and cello. There are a few recordings of this piece but this version carries an additional stamp of authenticity, being based on the autographed manuscript, which was researched by the trio. They also turn their attention to the Violin Sonata, which is known as a single movement work, and was also written about the same time as the Trio. They offer us a convincing reading of the published single movement but also straight from the manuscript, the complete second movement, a scherzo, and wisely avoiding temptation at reconstruction, play all that was written down of the last two movements. This is a worthwhile enterprise and gives us a better idea of the composer’s intentions had he completed the Sonata. We also have other treasures revealed, in the Three Preludes for violin and piano, and four short duo pieces, Madrigal, Danza gallega, Tova and Romanza. These latter pieces exist in other settings but there is no doubting the composer’s skills in these chamber versions. The musicians’ attention to detail and clear affection for this music make this disc a joy from beginning to end and an essential purchase for connoisseurs of fine music.

The chamber disc is connected directly to the next one, (Naxos 8.573263), through the Danza gallega. In its original form the piece formed the second movement of the composer’s folk-music-inspired orchestral work (also receiving a world premiere recording) Suite sobre cantos gallegos (Suite on Galician Songs) of 1899, which also saw its premiere that year. Granados wrote little that was derived from folk sources, but this is an unaccountably forgotten work, with its transparent orchestral textures. Whilst it is aurally evident Granados was aware of the music of another nationalist, Grieg, and was influenced by the teachings of Pedrell, the music has an original quality and rarely outstays its welcome. This unfailingly tuneful suite draws its inspiration from the countryside of Galicia and incorporates typical dance rhythms and clever imitations of native instruments. It is winningly presented by the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra under the sure direction of Pablo González as the first disc in a planned series, which surely promises more rarities, as are the remaining pieces: March of the Defeated (1899) and the Torrijos incidental music of 1894, where the orchestra is joined by Cor Madrigal. There are some Wagnerian overtones to Torrijos which perhaps was not surprising as the young composers of the Catalan Renaixement drew inspiration from his music. Interestingly, Granados was writing for the theatre at the time, rather than symphonic music, which was not so popular with Spanish audiences of the time. This is the work of a confident young composer with interesting dramatic writing for the ensembles, indicative perhaps of the composer’s operatic ambitions. This CD may not contain music of the first order but it remains well-worth investigating, particularly at Naxos’ budget price.

The Spanish conductor, Juanjo Mena has already proved himself a very persuasive advocate of music of his countrymen in a brace of excellent recordings for Naxos, and more recently Chandos (watch out for his Albéniz disc later this month, too) particularly since he was appointed Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. His refined and well-focused approach pays dividends in this first of three projected discs exploring the orchestral music of Ginastera (Chandos CHAN10884) which includes the full ballet Estancia, Ollantay and Pampeana No. 3 (the first two were written for chamber duos). Estancia is perhaps one of Ginastera’s most popular pieces and I thoroughly enjoyed the vigorous outdoor atmosphere Mena achieved with excellent vocal contributions from the baritone, Lucas Somoza Osterc. The latter two works are cast in three movements and are highly atmospheric pieces, respectively conjuring up images of an Inca legend and the Argentine pampas. Whilst there are some excellent recordings already available for these three accessible works, notably by Gisele Ben-Dor, Gabriel Castagna and Jan Wagner, I doubt that you will be disappointed with this newcomer, which boasts rich orchestral sonorities with idiomatic interpretations and outstanding orchestral playing.

The next two discs of Ginastera’s music are connected by his operas, which is particularly interesting as there are no current commercial recordings available of any of his three operas. Firstly, running for 79 minutes, a well-filled mainly orchestral disc which duplicates Ollantay, but in a quite different and vibrant interpretation by Karl-Heinz Steffens and the Deutche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. The disc is released by Capriccio (C5244) and cleverly contrasts music from the composer’s acknowledged three periods of development. The disc opens with the early Overture to the Creole Faust, which is very closely connected to Estancia by its gaucho subject-matter and here is given a dynamic and involving interpretation, particularly in the closing ‘Malambo'. There is a marked contrast with the Variaciones Concertantes, written for chamber orchestra in 1953 which has retained a measure of popularity in the concert hall, its theme being beautifully presented by the harp over a solo cello based on the natural open guitar strings E-A-D-G-B-E. The reference recording for me is by Gisele Ben-Dor, but this newcomer is quite exquisite in its detailing, with the musicians responding superbly to the conductor’s demands for virtuosity and subtle phrasing during the many solo passages. The Pre-Columbian atmosphere of Ollantay provides an excellent contrast which steps up a notch when we enter the composer’s neo-expressionist period with the world premiere recording of the Bomarzo Suite. Bomarzo was the opera that was banned by the Argentine authorities in 1967 due to its content, but swept all before it following a performance in Washington DC. The conductor Julius Rudel pursuaded the composer to prepare a suite which could be more easily presented in the concert hall. Initially, Ginastera included choral pieces but the composer agreed to the conductor’s request to an instrumental piece, though retaining a single section for soprano, sung here most expressively by Maria Isabel Segarra. The opera is ambitious in its scope and expressive power and pulls no punches as it tackles the vicissitudes of its subject matter head-on, which is retained in this powerful suite, premiered in 1970. The music does not slavishly follow the action of the opera, and stands alone as an effective concert-piece (watch out for the sudden introduction of Dies Irae), as the composer intended, though rather like Berg’s Lulu Symphony. Without detrimental comparison the Berg piece seems to have been an unintentional influence, also written in an approachable serialist style with a solo soprano part. The new recording is outstanding and there is no doubting the commitment of the musicians who make an effective case for this bold 31-minute piece to return to the concert hall.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Warner Classics' centenary offering, Ginastera The Vocal Album (Warner Classics 0825646868308) as there is very little in the composer’s vocal output which qualifies this populist title. After listening, however, I’ve concluded it’s a gem of an album. It has been lovingly assembled by Gisele Ben-Dor with recordings and contributions going back to 2002, and released in time for the centenary, whilst she is busy giving the European premiere of Beatrix Cenci. Ben-Dor, who was born in Uruguay, has already established herself as one of today’s most trusted interpreters of Ginastera’s music, with a string of outstanding recordings to her name. The operatic connection on this disc is Ginastera’s first venture, Don Rodrigo, for which we go back to the world premiere of 1966, where Placido Domingo sung the lead tenor role, and he returns triumphant in this recording. This album contains two key arias where he is partnered by Virginia Tola, in what is clearly a superb collaboration between conductor and singers. Domingo seems to have been very keen to reprise his role and claims to add a strong degree of authenticity through his strong recollections of the composer’s rehearsals, where flexible interpretation held sway of strict technical aspects. The only regret is that more of this is incredibly vivid music was not included. The disc opens with the well known Cinco canciones populaires argentinas, for which the conductor has a long-time affection going back to her childhood, and wanted to have an orchestral version to bring to the concert hall. In this she turns once more to Shimon Cohen, who so memorably arranged the Suite de Danzas Criollas, for Maestra Ben-Dor’s Naxos recording of Popol Vuh. Whilst it is hard to see how one could improve on the original for soprano and piano, this version has been lovingly brought to life and sung with great passion and spirit by Ana María Martínez. Finally, Virginia Tola returns for an idiomatic reading of the extraordinary Milena cantata for soprano and orchestra, inspired by the letters of Kafka to Milena. This was a very important work for Ginastera, who said of the piece: "…this cantata…had been on my mind for decades. I composed the work in 1971, after a silence of more than three years, which was broken when my wife, the cellist Aurora Natola, entered my life”. The barely-suppressed passion and emotion overflows in this vivid new recording, which Tola’s silvery soprano blends with the shimmering orchestral textures, developed by the composer through his knowledge of electronic music. For me this recording surpasses the 1989 Brian Priestman/Phyllis Curtin/Denver Symphony recording and represents an essential purchase. The Santa Barbara Symphony shine throughout this disc and they are very well recorded too, and there is no doubting Ben-Dor’s inspired advocacy of this music.

We return to more familiar ground with a wonderful two-disc (budget priced) anthology of all Ginastera’s piano music by the Italian pianist Mariangela Vacatello for Brilliant Classics (94736). Do not be fooled by the glamorous photographic portrayal of the pianist in the booklet; this a musician who has an amazing technique and a very clear understanding of the composer’s changing styles which developed throughout his life. The recording has been critically well received, and rather like Fernando Viani’s excellent traversal on Naxos of this music (also including the two solo organ works), the music unfolds chronologically. Viani is acknowledged in this recording as is the pianist and pupil Hugo Aisemberg, who contributes a touching memoir of the composer in the booklet. With 15 single/groups of pieces represented, it is amazing that the whole project is carried off with such consistency and aplomb. Ms Vacatello is not phased by the virtuoso demands of the two big Sonatas and shows a keen empathy of the South American dance rhythms. The interpretations retain individuality with an understanding of the typically quixotic manner in the way the music’s temperament often changes, to which the pianist responds with sheer virtuosity and obvious delight. Whilst I am sure we will all have our favourite interpretations, this traversal is outstanding and illuminates passages that I’ve not always noticed, aided by a very natural recording. One can get a good impression of her approach by sampling the Danzas argentinas, Doce preludes americanos, and three Sonatas. Whilst we may be graced with more recordings this year, this will remain an outstanding recital that deserves the widest currency.

Granados: Chamber Music with Piano / Trio Rodin / Aevea A6013
Granados: Orchestral Music Vol. 1 / Pablo Gonzalez, Barcelona SO/ Naxos 8.573263
Ginastera: Orchestral Music Vol. 1 / Juanjo Mena, Lucas Somoza Osterc, BBC Phil./ Chandos CHAN10884
Ginastera: Modern Times / Karl-Heinz Steffens, Maria Isabel Segarra, Deutsche SPR / Capriccio C5244
Ginastera: The Vocal Album / Gisele Ben-Dor, Placido Domingo, Ana Maria Martinez, Virginia Tola, Rafael Sardina, Santa Barbara SO / Warner Classics 0825646868308
Ginastera: Complete Piano Music / Mariangela Vacatello / Brilliant Classics (94736)



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