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Manuel MARTÍNEZ-SOBRAL (1879-1946)
Cinco piezas características y una romanza (1903-1919) *
Five Characteristic Pieces and a Romance): Mazurka in A flat major; Gavota in D flat major; Mazurka in A minor; Gavota in G major; Minueto in a major; Romanza sin palabras (Romance without words)
Sonata para dos pianos (Acuarelas chapinas) (1903/1922) * Ī: La parada (The Promenade); Misa mayor (High Mass); La hora del cocktail (Cocktail Time); En la ventana (By the Window)
Cuatro series de valses autobiográficos (1910-1939) *: (Four Autobiographical Waltzes): Deja que cante al pie de tu ventana (Let me sing by your window); María Teresa; Lejana juventud, edad de ensueño (Distant youth, age of dreams); Otoño (Autumn)
Suzanne Husson, piano *
Michel Bourdoncle, piano Ī
Recorded at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, England, January 2002
Guatemala, Volume 5
MARCO POLO 8.225188 [69:26]

This is the fifth and final recording that Marco Polo is devoting to the works of Manuel Martínez-Sobral whose music is said to be a blend of Mozartian classicism, Chopinesque romanticism and French impressionism. Suzanne Husson is the one constant in the three works of Volume 5. She was born in Buenos Aires to French parents and started studying music at the age of five; her first public performance was just three years later. Husson eventually moved to Europe to study with esteemed teachers including Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. She now lives in Geneva and performs solo concerts as well as being a member of chamber ensembles. Her recorded legacy up to this point includes recordings for Fonè, Erato and Marco Polo.

The pianist Michel Bourdoncle joins Husson for "Acuarelas chapinas". His credentials include first prizes in solo and chamber competitions, study with Dominique Merlet and Jean Hubeau, and a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire.

Well, I have been avoiding the main issue which is the quality of Martínez-Sobralís music. After intensive listening over the past few weeks, I have yet to work up any enthusiasm for the three works of Volume 5. The composer certainly knows his architecture, but I cannot detect any significant degree of musical inspiration.

In essence, Martínez-Sobral gives us a retread of the Chopinesque style and salon-type music not of the highest order. A basic problem is the complete lack of any memorable tunes or themes. The salon music of a Poulenc or Satie sticks in the memory, but Martínez-Sobralís music vaporizes once heard.

Emotional breadth is almost non-existent, as most of the pieces are merely pleasant and innocuous. Even the rather nostalgic "Romanza sin palabras" from the "Cinco piezas" which is a delicate and loving tribute to the composerís mother refuses to plumb any depths. Also, not a single piece or passage contains a kernel of excitement and the pianists do nothing to alter the situation.

Extensive repetition is also one of Martinez-Sobralís calling cards. I have a little test I employ when it seems that repetition is over-cooked. I keep fast-forwarding every twenty seconds or so to hear if the phrasing changes significantly, and this music often doesnít change in the least as phrasing, flow, and note clusters are generally stagnant.

The best I can report is that the recorded sound is rich and detailed. I had hoped that continued listening would lead me to revise my initial opinion, but it has only served to galvanize my lack of appreciation; the music cannot handle intensive listening. Each piece on its own conveys a degree of pleasure, but hearing the disc in one sitting is a mind-numbing experience. The performances may not be exceptional, but I doubt that any pianist could lift this music to a recognizable level.

In conclusion, the lack of variety, contrast and inspired music-making mandates a recommendation to pass on the recording which wouldnít even be a worthy acquisition at budget price.

Don Satz

see also review by Gary Higginson

Message received

Posted by Xavier Beteta on February 24, 2004,

In response to the reviews posted by Gary Higginson and Don Satz on “Guatemala Volume V” I would like to clarify some aspects regarding the Guatemalan composer Manuel Martinez Sobral (1879-1946). The works by Manuel Martinez Sobral were discovered by the composer Rodrigo Asturias in 1989. For a long time Martinez Sobral’s music remained unpublished and unknown and to some extent it was considered lost. Before 1989 only two works were fairly known of all Martinez Sobral’s output and they were published by “Gallet et fils” in Paris, 1955.

From different perspectives I would say that Manuel Martinez Sobral occupies a special place in Latin American musical history. As a matter of fact, almost all serious music composed in Latin America between 1850 and 1950 has a strong folkloric influence. In some sense this “folklorism” could be considered the “musical epidemy” of that époque in the region. In this sense, Martinez Sobral remained neutral to this tendency, developing a particular musical personality, being profoundly Latin American (specifically very Guatemalan) but not falling in the excesses of folkloric references.
He could be compared to Edward Macdowell who was educated in Europe, but developed his own “american” musical language without being folkloric.
Martinez Sobral’s music is full of tradition. In his music prevails the balance and the concept of the classical forms. He was also influenced by Chopin but by any means he could be considered an imitation of the great polish composer. For example, Martinez Sobral does not present the “fioritures” or ornaments so characteristic of Chopin. To some extent Martinez Sobral created his own personal “impressionism.” His musical language is so particular that it cannot be labeled under any traditional style.
It is also known that his personal musical library is still intact. From that we know that he knew very well the music from Bach to Liszt. Apparently he never heard or had any contact with the works of the post-romantics and the nationalistic movements of the early XX century. It is less possible that he had any reference of the French Impressionism.

His musical craftsmanship was very strong as it is shown in pieces like the Acuarelas Chapinas, the final movement of the Piano Sonata, the first piece of the Evocaciones or the Vals Brillante de Concierto (based on a ternary form A-B-A combining rondo form and variation form). This only gives us a sense of to what extent Martinez Sobral approached the real problems of composition and musical creation.
His musical language shows great spontaneity, being concise, flowing as a necessity and focusing on a direct aesthetic pleasure. It is never redundant or of “bad taste” and his harmonies and musical ideas present a particular refinement. His melodic language has some relation with the musical forms of the époque. That gives as a result, memorable melodies so easy to recognize. Of this type I would mention Hojas de Album, piezas como Danza, Tempo de Vals Lento, Mazurka and Berceuse. Even, the first movement of Acuarelas Chapinas presents a memorable first theme that will be recapitulated at the end simultaneously with the no less attractive second theme.

Unfortunately Martinez Sobral had to quit composing at age 42 to dedicate himself to his other profession, law. Now we know that the musical scene in Guatemala of that time made him to take this decision. There was a lack of interest in musical culture in the Guatemala of the 1920’s where dictatorships were taking place one after another destroying any form intellectuality and artistic sensibility.

Composition, Musicology and Theory Division
College Conservatory of Music
University of Cincinnati

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