Ginastera: Orchestra Works, Vol. 3
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In his final year as BBC Philharmonics Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena completes a highly-acclaimed Ginastera series with this third volume. Like in his previous series La Musica de Espana, Mena brings the composers creative genius to a more deserved fame, showcasing here three works that belonged to three different periods of his compositional life. While the Concierto Argentino is the most significant score of his early years, drawing directly on Argentinian folk music and full of youthful exuberance, the Variaciones Concertantes (more a concerto for orchestra than a set of variations) assumes a more personal and abstract form in accordance with the development of his harmonic ideas in the later stage of his life. The rhythmic energy and magic scoring of the neo-expressionist piano concerto (as Ginastera defined the third phase of his life) is faithfully expressed by the highly technical and virtuosic playing of Xiayin Wang, widely praised for her recent solo recording of piano works by Enrique Granados.
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Ginastera is one of those composers who was careful to suppress his juvenilia, so we're lucky that the Concerto argentino of 1935, written when he was only 18, is still around. There's a grand, reckless abandon to this music, and the young composer's abundant melodic gifts are clear, even if the piece tends to occasionally slack off, and then move off in another direction in lieu of developing what's happened before, like a young hound who loses and then catches again what may (or may not!) be the scent. He could easily have been under the spell of Villa-Lobos's contemporary folkloric works, if not his more modernist piano works of the 1920s, though if there's an influence really apparent here, it's George Gershwin. This is slight music, but fun, and worth a listen.
We're in a different world with the Variaciones concertantes of 1953, both in terms of quality and of the first layer of abstraction that comes with Ginastera's move from "Objective" to "Subjective Nationalism" as a compositional style. I'm always uncomfortable with the term "orchestral showpiece", since there are musical reasons other than showing off compositional, and by extension instrumental, virtuosity, in this kind of brilliant concerto for orchestra. Look closely at a Velasquez painting and you'll see stupendous feats of virtuoso painting, but it's the overall effect of the work, and not the shiny bits, that really count. Kudos to the players of the BBC Philharmonic for their polished presentation of all the ingenious bright passages, but also to conductor Juanjo Mena for keeping them on task in the presentation of a vital and interesting musical journey.
The 1961 Piano Concerto no. 1 is the real masterwork on this disc, and it receives a stand-out performance from Xiayin Wang and the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. It's the first of Ginastera's works from his third "Neo-Expressionist" phase, which began with his move from Argentina to Europe. While his new music shows a certain pulling away or abstraction from folkloric content, Ginastera uses the sophisticated compositional tools of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg to intensify his emotional responses to the same rhythms and landscapes of the pampas and the streetscapes of Buenos Aires that always drove his music. This is among the greatest of all American concerted works with piano, to go along with Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 3 and his Choros no. 11 and a certain work called Rhapsody in Blue.