Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals for Orchestra, Op.48 (1978) [17:45]
Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23 (1953) [24:23]
Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals for String Quintet and String Orchestra, Op. 46 (1976) [16:15]
London Symphony Orchestra/Gisèle Ben-Dor (Glosses)
Israel Chamber Orchestra/Gisèle Ben-Dor (Variaciones)
rec. January 1995, Abbey Road Studios, London (Glosses); July 1994, The Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv, Israel (Variaciones). DDD
NAXOS 8.572249 [58:46]
Every so often it is good to listen to music by a composer that one does not know. In this present case, I have not heard these pieces before, nor can I recall having consciously heard any music from Alberto Ginastera’s pen. As an Argentine composer, he is generally outwith my usual comfort zone – British Music. Yet I have long enjoyed the Spanish music of Albéniz and Granados so it is not a huge leap of faith to encounter the works of a man born in Buenos Aires, the son of a Catalan father and an Italian mother. Furthermore, any reader of this review will easily perceive my lack of knowledge of the life and works of this composer, yet, on the positive side, they will surely realise I have no axe to grind: I have so to speak an innocent ear!
My strap line is this: A great CD – showcasing three (two?) brilliant works that demand to be in the mainstream repertoire. It is a learning curve for me and I guess a few others!
A great place to start with this superb disc is the ‘early’ Variaciones concertantes. This piece was written in 1953 and was first performed in Buenos Aires on 2 June of that year. It comes from the so-called ‘Subjective Nationalistic’ period in composer’s career.
The theme is followed by a set of eleven variations which are typically scored for small combinations of instruments. The full weight of the orchestra only finally reveals itself in the stunning final ‘malambo’, which is an Argentinean folk-dance. The programme notes gave a good description of this traditional ‘gaucho’ jousting in action. Brian Reinhart, on MusicWeb International, has written that this piece “sounds like a richly varied chamber epic” and that the “different textures and colours never grow old.” It is a good description. I find the Variaciones strangely moving, especially some of the intimate quiet moments that permeate this work.
For listeners who do not know the music of Ginastera (like myself) I guess there can be no better introduction to his music. If I were asked to suggest a comparison, it would be to Copland’s Appalachian Spring: not in any detailed way, but quite simply in its effective evocation of the American landscape, its character and mood – in this case Latin-America.
The main event on this CD is the Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals. The original work was scored for string quintet and string orchestra and was completed in 1976. Two years later, the composer rewrote (and largely reconceived) this music for full orchestra. It is with this latter version that I began my exploration of this piece. It was composed in Geneva as a joint commission – as a celebration of the centenary of Pablo Casals’ birth and the Bicentennial of American Independence. Casals is well known as being the finest cellist of his generation, but it is perhaps less common knowledge that he was also a composer. Many people will have heard his Song of the Birds but fewer will know his choral work Prayer to the Virgin of Montserrat and his Three Poems of Love (see also review of El Pessebre). Ginastera makes many allusions to the cellist’s music in the Glosses. In Ginastera’s notes attached to the Glosses he wrote the following:-
“I still have in my mind a very clear, almost photographic, recollection of him sitting on the beach of San Juan with his inseparable umbrella, looking at the sea beyond the horizon as though he were trying to reach with his eyes the opposite shore. A distant smile, enigmatic, mischievous, somewhat poetic, somewhat bitter, lighted his face at times and one knew that his thoughts were over there in his native Catalonia. And I have kept from that time certain of Casals’s imaginary memories which I have tried to bring back to life with love and friendship through his own musical themes.” It is a good précis of the mood and tone of this work.
The Glosses is written in five movements. The Introduction musically alludes to an old Caribbean Legend; the second movement is a Romance which is really a musical description of a landscape. Sardanes is based around a scattering of fragments of half-heard dance tunes. A Sardana is one of Catalonia’s national dances. The fourth movement, Cant, nods to Casals’ best-known composition and encore piece with night-time atmospherics and bird-song. The final movement is an extravagant ‘sardana’ that brings the piece to a riotous conclusion. It is here that we realise Ginastera’s enthusiasm and indebtedness to Igor Stravinsky.
The original version (for string quintet and string orchestra) sounds very different to the later revision. In some ways it is rather like hearing a totally new work. The texture is leaner and it is possible to deconstruct more of the musical architecture. I would suggest listening to this after the orchestral version and ensuring a good gap between them. However, it is not a question of one being ‘better’ than the other: both works are demanding and ultimately satisfying.
This CD is a re-release of an old KOCH album (Koch International Classics 3-7149-2; 1995) and it is a welcome addition to the list of Ginastera’s works currently available. I have not the heard the Arte Nova and the Elan editions of the Variaciones nor the Naive and Chandos recordings of Glosses by way of comparison. However, I enjoyed the dedicated and sympathetic playing by the LSO and the Israel Chamber Orchestra under their Uruguayan-born conductor, Gisele Ben-Dor.
The programme notes by Rudy Ennis are helpful and give a good introduction to the composer and the works on this CD. Without them I would have found this review impossible to write.
One last thought, Brian Reinhart, in the review noted above, seemed to be a little unsure about the wisdom of coupling the two versions of the Glosses on the one CD. He wrote that the “rest of the music [the Glosses] on this album is not as immediately appealing” and the “repetition...will be a cause for hesitation for some buyers...” However, I disagree. I think it was a fantastic idea to couple these two pieces on this CD. To all intents and purposes they are two separate works and have a different impact on the listener. These are both masterpieces and require our attention and study.
Finally, I noted above that this is the first Ginastera CD that I have heard. Based on these three works he is certainly a composer whose music I will seek out. It is at one and the same time, exciting, moving and interesting. He is surely one of the great (largely) undiscovered geniuses of our generation.

John France
Surely one of the great and largely undiscovered geniuses of our generation ... see Full Review