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Manuel MARTINEZ-SOBRAL (1879-1946)
Piano Music: Cinco piezas caracteristicas y una romanza (1920); Sonata para dos pianos- Acuarelas chapinas - 1922 version for two pianos; Cuatro series de valsas autobiograficos (1910-39)
Suzanne Husson with Michel Bourdouche (piano)
Guatemala Volume 5
Recorded January 2002 at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk
MARCO POLO 8.225188 [69.26]


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?

Gary Higginson

see also review by Don Satz


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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