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Carlos CHÀVEZ (1899 - 1978)
Complete Chamber Music Volume 1

Invention #1 for piano solo (1958) [21.52]
Gayle Blankenburg, piano
Invention #2 for string trio (1965) [12.14]
Christine Frank, violin; Jan Karlin, viola; Maggie Edmonson, cello.
Invention #3 for harp solo (1967) [6.57]
Amy Wilkins, harp
Daughter of Colchis - Suite for Double Quartet (1943) [24.29]
Dorothy Stone, flute; Stuart Horn, oboe, Jim Foschia, clarinet;
Leslie Lasinsky, bassoon; Christine Frank, violin; Agnes Gottschewski, violin;
Jan Karlin, viola, Maggie Edmonson, cello.
Southwest Chamber Music/Jeff von der Schmit
Upingos for Oboe (1957) [2.51]
Stuart Horn, oboe
Recorded between 26 May 1999 and 15 May 2002 at Los Angeles, California, USA.
Notes in English. Pictures of the composer and a photo from the ballet Dark Meadow.
CAMBRIA CD8850 [68.43]

 

In the booklet there are six portraits of Chàvez by different artists and photographers. No two look anything alike. At least one of them looks hauntingly like Samuel Barber in profile.

When I first got this disk, I very much looked forward to hearing it. I was familiar with Chàvez’s Symphonies and the Toccata for Percussion; but this music was so startlingly different, it almost frightened me. I was afraid of this disk, afraid to listen to it again. Well, my mind must have been accomplishing something in the interim because when I recently listened again, the familiar friendly face of a composer I had known looked out at me, and I found myself entranced. It’s the only situation where Aaron Copland and I agree, for Copland was a good friend and admirer of Chàvez. Lou Harrison said, "...[Chàvez] will probably be more important than Stravinsky..."

Chàvez is a good example of what Vaughan Williams in an essay referred to as "...the non-Germanic school." Other non-Germanic composers are William Byrd, Edward Elgar, Dvořák*, Liszt, Mayuzumi, Glazunov, Messiaen, and, of course, Vaughan Williams. Some of Debussy doesn’t qualify**, the West Franks and the East Franks have never been as far apart as they would have you believe. I don’t remember whether Vaughan Williams actually used the following image in his essay or not, but it has always been associated with my memory of the essay:

A stone drops into a pond. The splash produces ripples. Each ripple is centred on the stone, yet they move further and further away and never return. The Germanic school insists that the ripples must re-coalesce into the original splash and catapult the stone back into the air, that is to say, sonata form with a recapitulation. But in the non-Germanic musical aesthetic, the ripples continue out until they break as waves upon the shore.

When he was invited to give the Norton lectures at Harvard University in 1958 (Stravinsky had done so in 1940 {in French}, but Leonard Bernstein wasn’t invited until 1971), Chàvez titled one of them "Repetition In Music" which I suspect dealt with this same aesthetic concern.

The name Carlos Chàvez is so common in Mexico that in Anglo-Saxon countries he might as well have been named ‘John Smith’. In a country filled with a mass of anonymous poor people, a man with an ordinary name must be obsessed with the need to be uniquely himself, and Chàvez has achieved that brilliantly. Even compared to Villa-Lobos, many think he is the greatest composer Latin America has yet produced. Mexico — like Brazil — is officially a Catholic country, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see where the sympathies of the population lie. In downtown Mexico City the national Catholic cathedral, a huge dreary grey building about as interesting as a taco stand faces an excavated Aztec Pyramid site about twice as big decked out in brilliant colours.

The Invention I for solo piano reminds me a lot of the Berg Piano Sonata, except that I think the Chàvez is a better work overall. One’s first reaction to both works, of course, is of someone randomly pounding on a piano. With a little careful attention this resolves into fascinating patterns and motions.

The resemblance to Alban Berg, both in style and quality, is even greater in the Invention II for String Trio. This is not twelve tone music although at times it sure sounds like it; but we never leave a sense of attraction to a tonal centre. This work will come as a real shock to those who, like me, are familiar with Chàvez’s other more ethnic sounding scores. At one point the violin quotes his own more popular style and the other instruments react in mock horror for a nice musical joke on himself.

The Invention #3 for solo harp was a birthday present to Nadia Boulanger. Besides the fact that Berg never wrote a harp sonata, this work is closer in feeling to Chàvez’s earlier music but still deliciously abstract, almost spooky at times.

The Suite for Double Quartet in five short movements was originally intended as part of a ballet "The Daughter of Colchis" commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for Martha Graham, and is more conventional in style. There is nothing the slightest bit "Mexican" sounding about it. It could easily be taken for music by Cowell or Barber. After a classic imbroglio, the music was at first rejected, and then later successfully re-choreographed and presented as "Dark Meadow."

Upingos for [solo] Oboe is hauntingly like some of Chàvez’s Indian style music. Beginning solemn and elegiac in mood, it moves into a dance evocative of a shepherd’s pipes.

I for one can hardly wait to hear Volume 2!

The trendy packaging is one of those where you are supposed to force the disk back into a tight fitting cardboard sleeve guaranteed to scratch the playing surface; my advice is that you store the disk in a protective envelope in the centre pocket along with the program booklet.

*Dvorak copped out and wrote a Germanic symphony, #9 in e, "From the New World." But it is actually the most old-fashioned of all his works.

**Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faun is arguably in sonata form.

Paul Shoemaker



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