Carlos Chávez Piano Concerto
- CDR 90000 140
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Rarely heard in concert or on disc, 20th-century Mexican composer Carlos Chávez’s spectacular Piano Concerto, completed in 1940, receives an insightful and compelling performance from Mexican-born pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, with his native country’s flagship orchestra, the Orquestra Sinfónica Nacional de Mexico and its music director, the dynamic young conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto.
Chávez (1899–1978) wrote “extraordinarily varied works of Mexican character,” notes Grove Music Online. In addition to Chávez’s epic concerto, Osorio plays three works for solo piano on the new CD: Chávez’s early Meditación; Mexican nationalist composer José Pablo Moncayo’s Muros Verdes (Green Walls), from 1951; and contemporary Mexican-born American composer Samuel Zyman’s Variations on an Original Theme (2010).
This is Osorio’s fifth recording for Cedille Records. His Cedille label debut, Piano Español, with works by Spanish composers Falla, Albeniz, Soler, and Granados, prompted the Chicago Tribune to declare, “Move over, Alicia de Larrocha.” According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “choosing one highlight over another is impossible in a recording of such sustained excellence.” About.com called Osorio’s Mexican Piano Music by Manuel M. Ponce “a remarkable collection” performed “with clarity and conviction.” Américas magazine enjoyed Osorio’s “warm and insightful reading of these delicate Ponce creations.” The Toronto Star said “Osorio’s playing is faultless” on his Cedille recording of Debussy and Liszt piano works. Fanfare called his 2012 Cedille release, Salón Mexicano, “a delightful recording that confirms Osorio's outstanding artistry.”
Peter Burwasser Fanfare Magazine
"an excellent, and clearly under-appreciated, addition to the repertoire, delightfully exotic, [that] fortunately ... receives a crisp and concentrated performance by these forces."
Phillip Scott Fanfare Magazine
"Osorio is a pianist with a forceful technique... The blend of speed and weight in his playing is remarkable. He is sharply and cleanly supported by the Mexican National Symphony Orchestra under Prieto..."
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Carlos Chávez Piano Concerto and Solo Piano Works by Chávez, Moncayo & Zyman
Notes by Elbio Barilari
Only one composer compares in home-land stature to the larger-than-life image projected by Carlos Chávez (1899–1978), and that is Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959). The Mexican Chávez and Brazilian Villa-Lobos dominated the musical scenes of their respective countries in a way comparable only to Wagner in Germany. They were multifaceted individuals with titanic personalities. As composers, conductors, educators, and musical organizers, they also coexisted and compromised with authoritarian political regimes (another similarity to Wagner).
Nobody, of course, denies Villa-Lobos's and Chávez's immense creative talent or that they were dedicated to promoting music education and building music institutions that have had a lasting, positive impact on Latin American cultural life. Nonetheless, both were polemical personalities whose inheritances are today viewed as a mixture of light and shadow; and so thorough was their musical domination of their countries, that the visibility of other, not-less-talented composers has been blurred and delayed for generations.
With the exception of his lovely Sinfonía India, Chávez's music — after some years of intense international popularity — has been relatively dormant outside Mexico. While some of his chamber pieces, including Toccata para percussion and Xochipilli, have been rescued in recent times by enthusiastic younger ensembles, his other five symphonies and his two monumental concerti — one for violin and the piano concerto on this CD — have been studiously avoided by symphony programmers in the United States (a fate that Villa-Lobos's music shares).
The two Chávez works included on this album represent quite different moments in his creative life and shed light on his evolution as a composer.
The solo piano work, Meditación, was composed in 1918 and usually receives cursory notice as a romantic, youthful product. A more alert listening reveals that its romantic garb hides a very original structure. The 19-year-old composer maintains a remarkable musical discourse in which the right and left hands are often independent. The notes may sound romantic but the behavior of both hands is clearly modern.
The piece begins with a short call, beautiful but also unconventional. A quick look at the score shows that, in a counterintuitive way, the phrase starts on the last beat, not the first, of a 4/4 bar. Very soon, the language evolves into what can be described, in 20th-century musical jargon, as two different layers. The right hand plays a motive and reiterates it without developing it as a 19th-century composer would have done. Meanwhile, the left hand plays imaginative rhythmic games, at times opposing the contemplative nature of the themes described by the right hand. It is tempting to think that Chávez, very familiar with the music-play of native Mexicans, attempted to replicate the way in which performers simultaneously play a flute in the left hand and a drum with the right, with a fascinating independence for each line.
Jorge Federico Osorio mentions that "Chávez had a predilection for the low register. When he conducted me during a concert in Brussels, he was very attentive to the low part of the orchestra and demanded that the low instruments needed to be clearly heard."
Three-quarters of the way into the piece, some echoes of Debussy appear like white clouds in the middle of clear skies. Those echoes function as extrapolations in the musical flow, underscoring even more the idea that we are presented with something more novel and fresh than a youthful meditation produced by someone still under the spell of the prior century.
Far from conspiring against the tightness of the piece, a total of eight modulations in just 58 bars help create the illusion of a length greater than its five short minutes. By building an expanded psychological time into this delightful piece, the young Chávez accomplished a very mature musical feat.
The work is an early product from a composer who deliberately did not take composition lessons. He did take piano lessons from the great Manuel M. Ponce, but not a single composition class. Chávez did not want to submit to the trends imposed by any teacher — he wanted to be open to all styles and influences, and to make his own artistic choices. At that time, very few composition teachers were available in Mexico, and Chávez considered their doctrines "a weak reflection of French and Italian 19th-century music." It must be said that he was not fully justified in his outright dismissal of such talented and original composers as Candelario Huízar, Julián Carrillo and, especially, Manuel M. Ponce.
By his own choice, Chávez fed from direct sources, voraciously collecting and studying all kinds of scores and manuals in a critical way. Given how doctrinaire and confrontational composition teaching had become by the first decades of the 20th century, his was probably a wise decision.
Concierto para piano
The Concierto para piano was com-missioned in 1938 by the Guggenheim Foundation. Involved in many other projects and duties, Chávez did not finish the concerto until December 31, 1940. For the premiere, American pianist Eugene List (1918–1985) was the soloist and Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall on January 4, 1942.
The work was subsequently premiered in London, on September 6, with soloist Tom Bromley and Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Orchestra. On August 13, 1943, the concerto was at last heard in Mexico. The great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau was the soloist and Chávez himself conducted the Sinfónica de México. This is a work of extreme complexity. Its difficulties for the pianist as well as the orchestra are enormous. 1940s critics loved the piece; The New York Times and Modern Music, among other media, published enthusiastic reviews. Audiences, however, found the piece "cacophonic."
Cacophony is a feature often present in Chávez's music. As a modernist composer, Chávez was aware of cacophonies produced by different composers using various techniques since the beginning of the century. He was always up-to-the-minute with different compositional schools and tendencies, and had no empathy for composers who — out of what he termed "laziness" or "provincialism" — were not as alert to new developments. On the other hand, he was extremely vocal in his calls for a Mexican way of using those technical devices; he was aggressive in his diatribes against romantic nostalgias and copycat pieces modeled on trendy creations by European composers. Chávez's music is, at once, austere and extraordinarily energetic; cosmopolitan and up-to-date, while being completely and unequivocally Mexican.
The Concierto para piano is a great example of Chávez's modern nationalistic music that combines local traditions with "universal" resonance — which to him meant (as it still does today) predominant trends in the metropolises of Europe and New York. The Concierto is also a magnificent ex-hibition of the proficiency in composition and orchestration that Chávez had reach-ed in the fourth decade of his life.
The standard procedure still applied by music pundits to Third-World composers — trying to compare us with convenient examples of European or U.S. composers — gives rise to great frustration when applied to Chávez, who is sometimes likened to contemporaries such as Stravinsky, Bartók, and Copland.
To begin with, a less superficial analysis would indicate that Copland was likely more influenced by his friend Chávez (and also by Silvestre Revueltas) than the other way around. Further, the techniques and devices Chávez used were hardly related to those of his Russian and Central European colleagues. Aside from an "ethnic" accent and strong rhythms, similarities are very rare. The non-Western European scales and modes Chávez tends to use come from Mexican native cultures, not The Rite of Spring or Bartók's Romanian dances.
Chávez's rhythms are indeed as "wild" or "exotic" as those of the other composers, but the sources for them can be found in his own country's indigenous culture. Chávez's complexity relies on two concepts: independent layers and abrupt blocks. If we must relate his music to something European, we would depict these as further development of Debussy's work, which Chávez revered, rather than as a docile "Mexicanization" of Eastern European models.
Chávez was born in Mexico City but he spent his summers and other holidays in Tlaxcala. This highly traditional small town lies in the middle of a heavily native region and feels like a 16th-century community even today. So Chávez was familiar since childhood with the music he would use as his main source of inspiration.
The concerto's monumental first movement is an exhaustive sample of Chávez's mature musical language: sharp angles; strong rhythms; abrupt changes from one block of sound to another, often without any transition or preparation; and the use of native scales, grooves, and timbres — especially the intensive use of percussion and flutes with accents on the piercing sounds of E-flat clarinet and piccolo.
Chávez occasionally quotes indigenous or popular melodies, as in his popular "Obertura republicana" Chapultepec. More often, he uses tradition as a reference but not in a literal way. Rather, he recreates Indian soundscapes in a free manner — another trait he shares with his peer, Villa-Lobos.
In this first movement, the sonic tissue is so dense that it is more natural to explain it in terms of textures and layers rather than as an extreme case of contrapuntal complexity. This perception is reinforced by the rhythmic independence of the voices and by the way Chávez uses different sonic "events" and groups of pitches in registers far removed from each other.
The instruments of the orchestra, more than accompanying the piano, seem to be challenging or even fighting against the soloist. At other moments, the piano functions as a voice that is answered, commented on, or contradicted by the community of the orchestra, not unlike the tumultuous music of an indigenous Mexican ritual.
The second movement presents the extremely rare case of a loud adagio. Normally a Molto lento indication, especially after a first movement of devastating power, would prepare the listener for a sweeter mood or at least a melancholic, nostalgically beautiful melody. Chávez, instead, offers a chamber-like sound with the piano striking strong chords in the lower register and the harp echoing those strokes. The double reeds introduce a short theme associated with indigenous sounds. What happens after that is very minimalistic: a skillfully played game among these few elements and a progressive crescendo that dissolves into nothingness without offering the easy relief of a resolution.
Despite its apparently calm title, the last movement, Allegro non troppo, ranges from nervous to frenetic. It is not as demanding in its proportions or instrumental chemistry as the first movement. Even so, its whimsical nature, with passages at breakneck speed, demands a display of uncommon virtuosity which, if realized, will awaken the audience to an ovation that shakes the walls of the most massive orchestral hall.
In his most often-quoted phrase, Chávez asserts: "A masterpiece is an experiment that succeeded, the proof of which only time can provide." This assertion applies 100 percent to his piano concerto.
Jorge Federico Osorio calls this work, "the most dramatic Mexican concerto." For this pianist, the gargantuan first movement has a visual quality: "It is like contemplating a mural by Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, or José Clemente Orozco . . . a big work, a big picture also full of small details." "The second movement," Osorio says, "starts almost in a void. Slowly, more sounds start coming, almost like the growing sounds of a volcano, with everything moving toward the eruption in the third movement."
Osorio approached the concerto for the first time "when I was 15 or 16. After that, I didn't try again for many years until I finally performed it at the Festival Cervantino. A few months later I recorded it live with the Sinfónica Nacional." Asked if his conception of the piece has changed over the years, Osorio says: "Perhaps my general view of the piece has not changed, but I think my attention to the details has changed. Today I approach this work with more interest in its polyphonic nature, perhaps not so focused on the piano because this is really ‘concertante' music where the instruments of the orchestra are as important and often as demanding as the part of the soloist." Asked what he considers the most remarkable characteristic of the piano concerto, Osorio answers categorically: "¡La energía!"
José Pablo Moncayo (1912–1958) was exactly what Chávez was not. A loner, very shy, and an outdoors person addicted to mountain-climbing. Trained as a percussionist and also a fine pianist, Moncayo kept a low profile. He is often portrayed by contemporaries as haunting the populous cafés of the Mexican capital quite alone, as though lost in his own thoughts.
This very private individual is also the author of the most popular piece of Mexican classical music: the famous and omnipresent Huapango, written in 1941. Together with Chávez's Sinfonía India and Arturo Márquez's Danzon No. 2, the Huapango is one of the three pieces that American orchestras typically program when it seems time to wink at their neglected constituencies of Mexican origin.
Born in Guadalajara in 1912, Moncayo began his music education at the relatively advanced age of 14. After only one year of piano study, he was considered ready to enter the Conservatorio Nacional, where he studied composition, analysis, and orchestration with another luminary of Mexican music, Candelario Huízar (1883–1970). Moncayo also took composition and conducting with Carlos Chávez, who, despite his refusal to take composition lessons from anyone else, saw no reason to refrain from teaching composition to others.
In 1931, due to Moncayo's unusual skill at sight-reading, Chávez accepted him for his famous and exclusive composition workshop. By then, Moncayo had premiered a composition in a student concert and had become a member of the percussion section of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México. Soon after, the orchestra hired him as a pianist. Moncayo also worked as a teacher of piano and basic music theory in the public schools. Over the years, the ubiquitous Huapango became a mixed blessing for Moncayo. Thanks to it, he became one of Mexico's most beloved composers; but also due to it, his other pieces — including a symphony, a sinfonietta, an opera, several major orchestra pieces, and no-less-interesting chamber, vocal, and piano pieces — have been all but forgotten.
The 1949 symphonic poem Tierra de Temporal, the viola sonata (1934), and Muros verdes for solo piano (1951) were the tips of an iceberg: praised and adored by composers, performers, and other informed listeners who knew that Moncayo's music comprised more than just the Huapango. Finally, in 2012, the Mexican Council for Culture and the Arts (CONACULTA) published a remarkable seven-CD set of Moncayo's complete works and simultaneously published several books containing all of his scores.
Chávez was an influential, proactive, and even generous professor. Several of the most brilliant composers of subsequent generations were, as students, under his care, influence, and personal spell. Chávez's disciples included, among others, Moncayo, Silvestre Revueltas, Blas Galindo, Daniel Ayala, Salvador Contreras and, later, Mario Lavista. Starting in 1942 and thanks to Chávez, several young Mexican musicians, including Moncayo and Galindo, were able to travel to the U.S. and attend the Berkshire Music Festival organized by Aaron Copland and Serge Koussevitkzy.
One can detect or identify in Moncayo's music elements from his teachers Chávez and Copland. It is more important, however, to see how the composer built his own very strong and original musical personality. Like Chávez, Moncayo is a vigorously rhythmic composer; but he comes up with his own rhythmic devices, such as his beloved 5/8 grooves or his series of quadruples superimposed on 3/4, 6/8, or even 5/8 time-signatures. His favorite structural form is a spiral: a succession of expositions and recapitulations interwoven in a manner unique to Moncayo.
Like Chávez, Moncayo can be anti-romantic, angular, mechanical, and even "scientific," but he also can jump into a folkloric melody or invent a haunting theme among the most beautiful produced by a mid-20th-century composer — in Mexico or anywhere. In short, Moncayo is a major composer who reached popular fame through his Huapango but still awaits a richly deserved recognition for the other, more interesting part of his work.
Muros verdes ("Green Walls") was composed in 1951. The title relates to a park and forest preserve in Mexico City known as Viveros de Coyoacán. A lover of nature, green spaces, and open horizons, the composer liked to take long walks in the Viveros. The piece is dedicated to his second wife, Clarita, formerly one of his harmony students. Wrongly analyzed as an example of late impressionistic writing, the work constitutes, instead, an original experiment — a successful one, as Chávez would say — in Moncayo's composition techniques.
The piece unfolds in four parts, each with very specific characteristics but "mysteriously" attached to one other. The last part is as long as the first three combined, which is typical of Moncayo's taste for symmetries, mathematical proportions, and other formal resources of a speculative nature.
The composer opens Muros verdes with an abundance of soft thirds that evolve into a more crisp language with the fourth as the predominant interval. In western music, the mention of fourths immediately evokes Paul Hindemith. Moncayo's fourths, however, don't sound "Hindemithian" but rather anticipate, by more than a decade, the jazz-piano language of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea. Moncayo's modal scales (often pentatonic scales of native-Mexican origin) and "suspended" chords in this 1951 piece prefigure the modal jazz of the 1960s and 70s.
Osorio has paid periodical visits to Muros verdes since his 20s. As Osorio plays fragments of Muros verdes in one of the two pianos that inhabit his living room not far from Chicago, he describes the various sections of the piece with adjectives like "crystalline" and "diaphanous." As the piece progresses from a beginning that Osorio considers "almost naïve" to the most intricate regions of the fourth section, the changes in the pianist's facial expressions reflect the inner tensions built into the piece — as though Osorio were discovering for the first time the musical loveliness that Moncayo gradually reveals in this short piece, like a jewel-box full of hidden gems.
Variations on an Original Theme
Samuel Zyman was born in 1956 in Mexico City. He studied piano and composition at the Conservatorio Nacional before attending the Juilliard School of Music, where he received his degrees in composition. Currently, he is a faculty member at that institution and mantains an intense career as a composer.
Zyman's Variations on an Original Theme is a post-romantic tour de force that concentrates an amazing variety of techniques and presents intense demands even to high caliber pianists. About the piece, Zyman says:
I wrote my Variations on an Original Theme for solo piano in 2007 for the terrific Argentinian pianist Mirian Conti, who gave the world premiere at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York City on June 6, 2009. This work is the first set of variations I have ever written. The composition is played as a single continuous movement that consists of the theme, four variations, and a return of the theme, each of which is clearly perceived by the listener. The theme, Largo espressivo e rubato, is slow and introspective, highlighting the contrasts between the low, middle, and high ranges of the piano. Variation I, Allegro molto agitato, is indeed fast, extremely rhythmic, and agitated. By contrast, Variation II, Tranquillo. Rubato e molto espressivo, is slow and plaintive. Variation III, Allegro molto, is even more agitated than Variation I and contains a loud climactic section. Variation IV is slow and mostly written as two contrapuntal lines happening simultaneously, the one in the left hand being a subdued version of the theme. Bringing the theme back at the end is intended to close the circle, as it were, and to show how the theme feels changed after hearing the four variations.
Zyman's theme is quite long and dramatic: 26 bars marked Largo espressivo e rubato. Such triple markings are not an exception; 95 bars into the piece, we run into Tranquillo. Rubato e molto espressivo. With a suggested metronome marking of quarter note=58, the theme is also considerably slow and highly chromatic. One more requirement: the mp molto espressivo dynamic marking (which appears along with the Tranquillo. Rubato e molto espressivo tempo marking) emphasizes the work's link to the romantic tradition of the instrument. In the score, indications of all kinds abound, in addition to carefully notated dynamic markings and tempo changes.
The variations offer a kaleidoscopic vision of the original material. The use of diverse syncopations, tuplets, irregular rhythms, augmentations, accent displacements, and frequent rubati give the piece an impromptu character—a carefully crafted impromptu character, one has to say.
The valiant and non-apologetic con-nections to tradition, along with Zyman's obvious command of "contemporary" 20th-century procedures and structural devices, place him clearly among a particular group of recent Latin American composers. Since the 1980s, these have been re-evaluating, questioning, and re-shaping their role as composers and their relationship with various musical traditions (not just the Western classical tradition), and braking away from the restraints imposed by avant-garde and "experimental" orthodoxies.
After a vertiginous voyage to a variety of different sonic landscapes, the piece does not conclude with the customary pyrotechnic grand finale. Zyman instead decides to end in a more introverted way: he returns to the original theme, restating it verbatim. The musical journey ends when the ship comes back to port and is moored to its familiar pier.
Uruguayan-born composer Elbio Barilari moved to Chicago in 1998. He hosts the internationally syndicated radio show Fiesta! on the WFMT radio network. Barilari also is Artistic Director of the Latino Music Festival and Professor of Latin American Music at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).