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Federico IBARRO (b.1946)
Piano Sonatas: No. 0 (c.1965) [5:00?]; Sonata No. 1 (1976) [11:07]; Sonata No. 2 (1982) [8:57]; Sonata No. 3 Madre Juana (1988) [13:51]; Sonata No. 4 (1990) [11:44]; Sonata No. 5 (1995-6) [13:49]; Sonata No. 6 (2001-2) [10:30]
Cecilia Soria (piano)
rec. Studio Guy Fallot, Lausanne, 4-5 December 2004. DDD
DORON DRC 5024 [74.04]
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Federico Ibarra is one of Mexico’s leading composers but I must admit that until this CD plopped onto my doormat I had never heard of him. His CV is impressive. He has written symphonies, cantatas, songs, these six piano sonatas and other solo sonatas, several concertos, operas, ballet and incidental music. His music is often performed throughout the Hispanic world. Since 1998 he has been professor emeritus at the University Autonoma de Mexico.

These six piano sonatas span almost a lifetime.

The first sonata is actually a brief ‘Sonata 0’ written as a student at the Escorial Nacional de Musica. No date is given in the CD booklet so I would guess c.1965. It is reminiscent of Prokofiev and at four minutes duration this simple Allegro tells us nothing about the composer. The first sonata proper dates from almost ten years later and is a somewhat curious affair. As I decided to listen to the works in chronological order and not the order presented on the CD this put me off the composer early on which was unfortunate. The anonymous booklet notes call it a "bold experiment employing random techniques". As you can gather therefore it is typical of its period. Ibarra goes in for various effects, such as playing inside the piano and on the sounding-board. The score is marked ‘Nervoso-Calmado’ and although it is in three sections it plays without a break.

I can’t say that I went much on the Second Sonata either although it does have a better sense of structure. Also in one movement, it divides into two tempi markings and three sections: a powerful Lento which lacks memorable material and later an Allegro. Sadly it is presented in a single track.

After that I tackled the Third Sonata with a certain circumspection but then started to warm towards Ibarra. I began to wonder about the logic of a composer having recorded works - i.e. the first two sonatas - which do not necessarily reflect his most representative efforts, just for the sack of ‘completism’. And it was at this point that I especially noticed the brilliance of pianist Cecilia Soria. She is also Mexican. The biography in the booklet tells us that she is "dedicated to the study and dissemination in Europe of Mexican 20th Century piano music". I assume from that, that she did not learn these works especially for the CD. Indeed she sounds confident and at home in them, as if she has performed them in public. This sonata proved it for me using material from Ibarra’s successful opera Madre Juana of 1986. Here we have some fascinating sonorities which are played with sensitivity and understanding. I also found myself wondering if the composer composes at the piano. I suspect so as that may be how he has found some of the unusual sounds he conjures from the instrument which in his - and Soria’s - hands one can quite often forget is a member of the percussion department. The sound-world of this work, especially the tense and mysterious opening, which contrasts an occasional repeated bass notes against high treble chromatics, is reminiscent of ‘atmosphere music’ you might well find in orchestral scene-setting in an opera. I must however add at this point that the ‘boxy’ studio recording does not help either the performer’s subtleties or the composer’s special, often very quiet, effects. From that point of view it is therefore quite a disappointment.

The Fourth Sonata uses material from his next opera Alicia. Like Tippett, Ibarra seems to need to explore the idea of relating works by using up material which he feels could go further. This sonata, based around repeated Gs again plays without a break, falling into a fast-slow-fast pattern. It is austere, even harsh but hits home and it made me feel that from that point onwards the composer had definitely found his personal language.

The last two sonatas are in many ways more conservative.

If you are the kind of listener who likes to start at the beginning of a new CD and work methodically through, or one who asks for a sample in a shop which always begins with the first track, then you will first encounter the three movement Fifth Sonata. This is fortunate because this is probably the most approachable of them all. It has the atmosphere and soundworld of the Fourth but also an exciting scherzo-like and virtuoso middle movement. The Sixth Sonata continues in the same vein. This is in two movements with a long and pounding Presto finale. There at last the listener realizes the composer’s indebtedness to the piano writing of Ginastera or indeed of fellow Mexican Carlos Chavez (1899-1978) especially a fiery, rhythmic work like the orchestral Sinfonia India.

I find quite difficult to do a sensible summing up. With restricted shelf-space I have come to the conclusion that I probably will not keep this disc as it does not have enough of interest to make me want to play it very often. On the other hand these are well-crafted pieces, superbly performed and conceived. Each sonata approaches the form in a slightly different way and it is interesting to witness the composer’s development if you play them from 0 to 6. Anyway you’ve read the review so now it’s all down to your curiosity.

Gary Higginson



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