Carlos CHAVEZ (1899-1978)
The Complete Symphonies:-
Nos. 1 (Sinfonia de Antigona); 2 (Sinfonia India); 3; 4 (Sinfonia
Romantica); 5; 6
Symphony Orchestra/Eduardo Mata
CDX 5061 (2 discs, DDD) [135.01] £9.99
I just love Vox Boxes! Perhaps I should quickly
add that this is not a deeply considered critical opinion, but an emotional
hangover from my youth - those (regrettably long-gone) halcyon days
when absolutely everything was new, fizzy-fresh, and infinitely
exciting. It all started when, as a junior school-boy, I would zip out
of the local sweet-shop clutching in my grubby mitts a "lucky bag"
that had cost me the princely sum of 3d. (yes, three denarii
- proper pennies!). My pals and I would sit and rummage through our
treasure troves, scoffing the sweets (though God knows what they contained)
and noisily comparing notes on the tatty trinkets we found in the bags.
We were probably being robbed blind, but that didn't matter in all the
excitement and fun of discovery. In my early teens, a similar situation
held as I clawed my way into Music, only now the "lucky bags"
came in the form of cheap LPs (at 9/11d. a throw), the music was gobbled
down with the same uncritical approval as those shoddy sweets, and also
doubled as the discovered trinkets (indeed, most of it was inevitably
unknown to me). Then a pal of mine got a summer job at the town library,
and started bringing these sets of LPs from the record department. They
usually contained rather more exotic fare, with composers of whose very
names we'd never even heard - the archetypal "musical lucky bags":
Vox Boxes. The difference was that these were not daylight robbery,
and the contents were not usually likely to induce gippy tummies!
After CD booted LP into touch, we (members of the class
of impecunious, or simply tight-fisted, record collectors) found ourselves
forcibly removed from our utopian bargain-basement adventure playgrounds
and deposited in a posh - and horribly expensive - department store.
The affordable thrills of Vox Boxes and their ilk perished in parallel
with the LP market. I can still remember my dismay, having only a year
or two previously bought a DG Privilege double LP of Mravinsky's Tchaikovsky
Symphonies Nos. 4-6 for under a mere two quid, at finding that
the CD remastering would set me back over £28 - for a flamin' reissue,
mind! Nearly twenty years on and the thing's still in the catalogue
at full price - is this some sort of record?! Fortunately, the cold,
dark night of deprivation was short, as first came Pickwick, then the
meteoric rise of Naxos. The game was back on, and was eventually capped
by the re-emergence of the good old Vox Box, managing to look on CD
as reassuringly cheap-and-cheerful as ever it did on LP! Take a look
at the cover on this one, so basic that it makes your mouth water in
anticipation! Open the box - curiously enough, not a slim-line, but
one of the old-style bulky ones (maybe Vox got hold of a huge job-lot?)
- and take out the booklet. It's printed, in plain black-on-white, on
paper that's only half a step up from newsprint (i.e. the ink stops
short of actually blackening your fingers). Ah, but open it and you
find, behind the front cover, fully seven pages of notes, and there's
none of that infuriating multi-linguality - every word is in English!
What's more, the essay itself, combining notes by Gloria Carmona and
Julian Orbon, is sufficiently detailed and erudite to satisfy a fair
range of punters. Maybe the focus on the formal aspects of the music
is too much at the expense of the elaboration of the expressive, but
that's a piddling quibble - these are, when all's said and done, supposed
to be symphonies. There's more to "quality" than eye-catching
colour print on glossy (and damnably dazzling) paper, and I reckon that
on quality this booklet scores where it really matters.
I haven't mentioned the music yet, have I? Sorry, I
got a bit carried away on a nostalgia trip. Right - Carlos Chavez. He's
hardly been in consistent demand on "Housewife's Choice",
has he? Yet RB in his review of Chavez' own recordings of the First,
Second and Fourth Symphonies, observes that "These
recordings are significant documents in 20th century music", and
if you look him up you discover that Chavez himself is one of the most
significant figures in Mexican music - not only as a composer, but also
as a teacher, educational administrator, conductor, promoter, and publisher.
He wrote a considerable amount of music, including lots of orchestral
and solo piano music, ballet, band, an opera, incidental and chamber
music, vocal and choral music, and (believe it or not) a Partita
for Solo Tympanist ! Chavez was also instrumental in establishing
a national identity for Mexican music, frequently drawing on the pre-Hispanic
culture. In passing, I can't help but observe how we Europeans seem
to have been in the habit of muscling into a country and annihilating
the natives, then dutifully preserving and exalting their "lost"
cultures. Ah, well, better late than never.
The booklet starts with an absorbing discussion of
why the Symphony hasn't really ever been taken up by Spanish/Latin American
composers, which boils down to their natural flair being for variational
rather than motivic developmental forms. This of course provides us
with an exceedingly subtle clue as to what makes these symphonies by
Chavez, along with those of Villa-Lobos, so important. Apparently,
his obsession with motives was such that his scores of Brahms' symphonies
and the symphonies and quartets of Beethoven were peppered with annotations,
encrusted in layers of ever greater detail until there was hardly a
pair of notes that wasn't traced back to some earlier motive, and thence
to one or another of the main themes. However, to be told that he was
"into" motivic score analysis seems to me to beg the question:
what we really want to know is what set him off along this congenitally
contrary trail. Maybe he was "influenced"? Apparently not:
he followed no-one, trusting instead in his own judgement and analysis,
and of those composers he did particularly befriend - Dukas, Varese
and Copland - only the last was anything like that way inclined. In
any case, before he'd even had the chance to be "influenced"
by anybody, as a mere slip of a 15 year old the largely self-taught
Chavez was already writing a symphony (sadly, not numbered among those
in the present "complete" set - now, that would have been
a real treasure to find in this Vox "lucky bag"!),
having only ever heard a symphony orchestra play just once in his life!
Tracking back, I discovered that at just 12 he swallowed whole Albert
Guiraud's "Traité d'Instrumentation et Orchestration".
I've not read it myself (nor am I likely to!), but it might be a fair
bet that the symphonic spark came courtesy of M. Guiraud's treatise,
don't you reckon? If so, it's one of those happy accidents that occasionally
enriches our world. On the other hand, it was to be fully 15 years,
plus a bit of exposure to outside influences, before he rolled up his
sleeves for his Symphony Number One proper.
Of these six symphonies, the only one that's even remotely
well-known is the Second, the Sinfonia India. Like many
other folk, I came across - and was bowled over by - this in Bernstein's
electrifying performance on a CBS recording of the 1960s. If your only
knowledge of Chavez is this luscious amalgam of pulsating rhythms and
reworked Indian melodies, succulently scored for a ripe romantic orchestra
positively bristling with exotic Central American percussion, you could
be forgiven for concluding that Chavez had set off hot-foot along the
path of Nationalism, as Dukas had encouraged him to do. That is my own
conception, or it was until as recently as a couple of years ago when
I heard an excellent Batiz recording including Symphonies 1 and
4 (ASV CD DCA 1058). In no uncertain terms, that kicked my conception
into a cocked hat. With all six symphonies to go at, the shock value
of the present set is even greater, throwing the Sinfonia India
into sharp relief as a one-off. Although it is atypical of Chavez the
symphonist, this is mainly down to cosmetics - behind its gaudy "nationalist
front", the processes at work are every bit as symphonic as those
of the other five.
The First Symphony, Sinfonia de Antigona,
appeared in 1933, hot on the heels of, and apparently drawing on materials
from, his incidental music for the Sophocles drama. Its generally slow-paced,
polyphonic, classical austerity is leavened by occasional dance-like
episodes, and throughout by colourful, imaginatively differentiated,
almost pointillist orchestration (even experienced purely as
sound, it's utterly riveting!). For orientation, you could, just about,
pitch it between the Stravinsky of Orpheus and a Satie Gymnopédie,
although with growing familiarity you soon become conscious of a warm
heart beating within its cool flesh.
After the Second (1935), there was a gap of
16 years before the Third Symphony appeared (1951). During this
period, his talents as an arts and education administrator cost him
more and more time, leaving less and less for composition. Eventually,
he even had to give up his position with the Orquesta Sinfonía
de México. Perhaps, then, it's less than entirely inexplicable
why his Third should set off with such towering anger! There
is the same "warm-hearted austerity" of style that characterised
the First, but the classical Greek coolness is here supplanted
by much grittier sonorities. Gradually, through the inner movements,
the clouds withdraw and let out the sun, and in the finale, emerging
from gloom through ferocious agitation comes a hard-earned victory.
In 1952, he rearranged his life to make more room for composing!
The last three symphonies, tumbling out in relatively
short order over the next 8 years, were all commissioned by organisations
in the USA (Louisville SO, Koussevitsky Foundation, and NY Lincoln Centre
respectively). Perhaps that's why the Fourth contrives to work
in a memorable melody in the "Mariachi" manner, as a sort
of musical "greeting card". Heard in isolation, you might
have trouble squaring the Romantica title with the form and content
of the symphony, but in the context of the set "it ain't so hard".
The style, as ever, retains the now-accustomed polyphonic severity,
but elements of melting lyricism and more overt fervour (on top of that
cheerful tune in the finale!) are now cracking the crust and bubbling
through (dare I say, "like hot lava"?).
Symphony No. 5, by way of contrast, takes us
right back to the Concerto Grosso style of J. S. Bach and company.
I say the "style", because this is no piddling pastiche -
the content remains thoroughly in character. By scoring it for strings
alone, Chavez frees himself to concentrate more fully than usual on
his beloved motivic processes, producing a stream of invention that
will make the "pattern solvers" among you as happy as pigs
in muck. I hasten to add that colour is by no means neglected: Chavez
seems to be as alive to the potential of string sonorities as ever was
Bartók. It's worth noting that, in the 1920s, Chavez was instrumental
in promoting the music of such as Bartók, Les Six, Stravinsky,
and even Schoenberg and Varèse in Mexico - he may not have "followed"
anyone, but he sure as heck didn't ignore what was going on in the musical
world around him!
In a way, the Sixth Symphony stands as a culmination
to his life's work, even though he had a good number of productive years
still to come. As the booklet says, the "urge to experiment is
absent, unless the experiment here consists in accepting the challenge
of the great classical forms in all their immutable majesty". I'd
probably go along with that, apart from that "immutable" bit.
Certainly, the symphony's opening, robust, open-air, and optimistic,
has the quality of a composer at the height of his powers and at ease
with himself. That it also has overtones of Copland about it is entirely
apposite: Copland was after all his friend, and the work was written
for his friend's home town. Mind you, there's also an elusive flavour
that at first teased me rotten, until with a shout of triumph I caught
on: Ives' Second Symphony of all things - I wonder if Chavez
ever came across it? His main challenge was the finale, a massive passacaglia
that he must have known would invite comparison with Brahms. Suffice
it to say that Chavez, utterly unfazed at this prospect, stuck to his
guns and produced an imposing edifice, growing out of the gruff tones
of a solo tuba and culminating in a vast, cumulative fugue. Awesome!
Here I must issue a warning: if you're expecting from
this set five more "takes" on the Sinfonia India, stay
well clear! Chavez is, at heart, a very serious symphonist. It might
have been Mahler who originated the wholesale use of polyphony in the
symphony, but Chavez takes it even further, generally adopting a thorough-going,
"severe" style very similar to that of J. S. Bach. Yet, like
that great contrapuntal master, Chavez creates music that is at once
"cerebral" in its complexity and exciting to listen to. If
you enjoy unravelling contrapuntal knots, you'll be in your element.
If not, you'll find the music simply knotty - but don't despair, because
Chavez also has textural ingenuity in full measure: the sounds he can
draw from an orchestra are stunning, and (again like Bach) the more
you listen the more "heart" you discover. It can be tough
to get "into", but once "in" you'll find it just
as tough to get "outof"!
The performances are conducted by Eduardo Mata, who
is now tragically lost to us. This recording stands as a fine testament
to his talents. A Mexican himself, he did an enormous amount to further
the cause of his own "local" music. If you ask me in what
way Chavez sounds "Mexican", I would have to say, "Chavez
sounds Mexican in the same way that Copland sounds North American".
Mata, who was himself a composer, has the same blood running in his
veins as does Chavez, and boy, does it show! The orchestra though, is
British (although I can't vouch for the provenance of its individual
members), yet to my ears they sound thoroughly idiomatic - no doubt
Mata saw to that! Their playing is terrific, other than a very few places
where I felt the odd twinge of strain but, as this probably reflects
more on the demands made by Chavez than the capabilities of the players,
I'm not about to quibble about it: the performances, which are well
up to the standard displayed by that ASV disc I mentioned, "feel"
right, and that's what matters.
Finally, coming full circle, one of the things about
the old Vox Box LPs was that they often sounded like "stereophonic
MW radio". No such worries here: the sound is perhaps a nadge on
the dry side, with the ambience a bit recessed, but it is pretty full
and warm right across the spectrum. The stereo spread is wide, with
instruments in pin-sharp focus. I am especially pleased to report that
the percussion are not "subtly" balanced - you can (as is
often not the case these days) actually hear them! The over-riding
impression is that the engineer (Bob Auger) was well aware of the composer's
contrapuntal complexities, and did all the right things to maximise
the all-important clarity of the sound-picture. Now, that's "cheap
and cheerful" for you, and no mistake!