Marco Polo’s Guatemala series has been grinding
on now since Volume 1 was recorded in 1994 so you could be forgiven
for having lost track of it.
On that first volume is the four movement suite
‘Acuarelas chapinas’ translated I should say as ‘Four symphonic
scenes’. These were composed originally for solo piano c.1903
then orchestrated in 1907. The version for two pianos was arranged
as late as 1922 significantly and surprisingly becoming the first
music written in central America for that combination.
It has been interesting to listen to the two
versions side by side, although the Moscow Symphony Orchestra
under Antonio de Almeida (on Marco Polo 8.223710) plays as if
sight reading and that with their eyes shut. This beautifully
prepared version for pianos becomes, mostly, a much more pleasurable
experience. Basically the orchestral version is the same except
that the third movement is enlarged which I feel is beneficial.
Obviously the orchestra offer more variety although both pianists
find some wondrous piano colours from time to time. Despite the
fact that much of it is in little more than salon style it is
called Sobral’s masterpiece. We are told by Rodrigo Asturias who
has written the quite detailed (possibly over detailed) booklet
notes that it is symphonic in scope and form as far as tonality
and contrast is concerned. The four descriptive movements take
you through a typical Sunday in Guatemala City. 10.30 a.m. in
the park. 1 p.m. High Mass, 2 p.m. Cocktail hour, 5 p.m. (Dusk
in that part of the world) ‘At the Window’ including a particularly
memorable opening idea which develops into one of Martinez-Sobral’s
favourite styles – the waltz.
The waltz gives its name to another work the
‘Four Autobiographical Waltzes’ written at different times in
his life. I have to say however that there seem to be no secrets
hidden here that are in any way noticeable. These are salon waltzes
which Johann Strauss would have been proud of. The final waltz,
appropriately named ‘Autumn’, was the composer’s last instrumental
piece. It is the most memorable.
The ‘Five Characteristic Pieces and a Romance’
which opens the CD, consists of two Mazurkas, two Gavottes, a
Minuet and then the final Romance. These are romantic pieces neatly
assembled with thought for key contrast and logical development.
They were "put together" in 1920 but mostly pre-date
World War 1. The opening Mazurka and some aspects of the two Gavottes
easily bring to mind Chopin. The light-hearted second Mazurka
brought to my mind at least Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944).
I know that it is the house style Marco Polo
(to justify top price?) but the simple charm of these pieces is
unnecessarily deeply analyzed in the booklet notes where the most
appropriate response to this music is to sit back and let the
tunes flow over you. Only rarely do I think analysis unhelpful
and unnecessary but here I do.
The elegant pianism of Suzanne Husson seems ideally
suited to this easy-going music. She recorded another disc of
his piano music in the late 1990s (Marco Polo 8.225104) and so
understands what it takes to get the best out of it. She is most
ably assisted by Michel Bourdache in the best music on this mostly
unmemorable CD the ‘Acuarelas chapinas’.
The delightful if somewhat abstract cover photograph
is of a painting by Arlette Asturias who is perhaps related to
the writer of the notes?
also review by Don Satz
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
Sobrals music remained unpublished
and unknown and to some extent it was
considered lost. Before 1989 only two
works were fairly known of all Martinez
Sobrals output and they were published
by Gallet et fils in Paris,
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 Sobrals 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
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
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 1920s 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