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Carlos CHAVEZ (1899-1978)
The Complete Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 Sinfonia de Antigona (1933-35) [10.53]
Symphony No. 2 Sinfonia India (1935) [12.41]
Symphony No. 3 (1940) [30.57]
Symphony No. 4 Sinfonia Romantica (1953) [21.54]
Symphony No. 5 for strings (1953) [23.43]
Symphony No. 6 (1963) [34.28]
London Symphony Orchestra/Eduardo Mata
Rec. London, 1981. DDD
CD1 symphonies 1, 3, 4; CD2 symphonies 2, 5, 6.
VOXBOX CDX5061 [63.58 + 71.03]


Don't think for one moment that just because Chavez is a Mexican his music will be alive with the sort of nationalistic colour we derive from Copland's El Salón Mexico. His music is tougher than that.

The First Symphony is adapted from incidental music he wrote for an intended stage Jean Cocteau's Antigone. It is Stravinskian; harsh with a mix of Greek modes and raw Indian material. There are some moments of remission. It's a compact symphonic statement. The harshness of Antigone carries over into the even more imposing and poignant Third Symphony with its brilliant, bounding and galloping allegro. This is followed by a scherzo with a wind solo-dominated introduction. Petrushka and Prokofiev are very much to the fore. It is most beautifully played and recorded. The finale returns to intimations of the chasm and of catastrophe. There is little consolation or reassurance in this music; only the promise of seething violence. The Sinfonia Romantica was a Louisville commission and the composer conducted that orchestra in the premiere on 4 February 1953. This single movement work uses music soaked in the kindly warmth of summer. It is quite unlike its harsh companions. Its romanticism is the stuff of Copland and Randall Thompson and this does not exclude some explosive and grittily-recorded moments. At the end there is a whirlwind of general celebration all delivered with deafening confidence.

Sinfonia India is another work of chattering action. It rattles and rasps with native percussion instrumentation. It work was completed on a trip to New York. This is the closest Chavez came amongst his symphonies to the jungle power of Villa-Lobos. The symphony ends in another vehement and exuberant assault.

Fifth Symphony for strings is a big-boned lanky work for a massed string orchestra. The music is exhilarating and fulsome and can be loosely corralled with the Fifth symphonies of Persichetti and Schuman. Think also of Ginastera's Concerto for Strings. Unusually for Chavez it even radiates some humour as shown by the trudging double bass pace [12:17]. some commentators have this down as a neo-classical work; not to these ears. It in fact leans towards a lean romanticism - almost Barber-lite. The glassy stratospheric cycling iteration of the violins is both memorable and affecting. I must concede that the pounce and dynamism of the allegro con brio is neo-classical. It does however plumb more emotive depths and comes to resemble the gambolling and cavorting of Herrmann's and Waxman's sinfoniettas for strings. The work ends in a spasm of energy. Once again this is most resonantly recorded.

The Sixth Symphony was written between 1961 and 1963. The premiere was given by Bernstein with the NYPO on 7 May 1964. The Chavez trademarks are now much more evident. His gruffly assertive brass contrast with coursing lightning-fast strings. The adagio central movement alternates Bergian ambivalence in the singing strings with a suavely blooming chorale carried by the penitent and respectful brass. The finale is a Passacaglia con anima: 43 variations on a six bar subject. It is the biggest of the six at approaching 35 minutes and at its roaring peroration reveals one of the finest moments in twentieth century music; comparable in greatness with the rolling alleluias of Rosenberg’s Fourth Symphony and the crooning tragic melancholy of Pettersson 7. That long Chavez finale does however have some Brahmsian longueurs but its leave-taking has you forgiving all. Chavez declared this work to be a symphony he had written ‘within classic limitations’.

The recordings were produced by Harold Lawrence and Bob Auger; red and vibrant in tooth and claw.

The notes are by the composer Julian Orbón and by Gloria Carmona. They could hardly be more detailed and only let us down in giving us very little biographical background on the composer and denying us the dates of these resolutely twentieth century symphonies.

An impressive clutch of serious and vigorously-driven symphonies from Mexico. They are resoundingly recorded. Shame about the double-width box but celebrate the bargain price tag.

Rob Barnett

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