I won’t beat around the bush. This is a really
excellent disc in every regard. Mozart Camargo Guarnieri has been
one of my most pleasurable discoveries of recent years via the
cycle of symphonies released on BIS featuring the really excellent
Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paolo under John Neschling
). But perhaps this should have come as no surprise
to me given that Aaron Copland, returning from an extended goodwill
tour of South America in 1941 wrote; “Guarnieri is the most exciting
talent among Latin American composers … what I like best about
his music is its healthy emotional expression … he is the most
authentic musician of the continent.” Who am I to argue with that!
This is quoted by James Melo in his extremely informative and
lucid liner-note which provides the icing on a disc for which
I have nothing but praise. The music itself is instantly appealing
without being superficial, the soloist Max Barros plays with total
technical command and stylistic aplomb. On this form the Warsaw
Philharmonic sound world class tackling the rhythmic complexities
of the scores with real panache and flair under the clearly skilled
hand of conductor Thomas Conlin. Add to that a recording rich
in detail but set in the generous acoustic of the Philharmonic
Hall Warsaw it allows the cutting brass and oh so important percussion
to impact in a thrilling manner. Having recently had a run of
discs where the orchestra involved sounded under-rehearsed and
technically stretched how good to encounter music – by definition
unfamiliar to the players – performed with such skill. Available
at Naxos’ bargain price this is simply too good to miss.
This is the second volume of piano concertos by Guarnieri from Naxos and with this disc the cycle of six concertos is complete. Guarnieri’s compositional arc can be traced through these concertos. Numbers 1-3 on the earlier disc are ultimately simpler and direct in their manner – the performances on the earlier disc
are every bit the equal of these. By the time he came to write the 4th
concerto in 1968 Guarnieri was seeking ways of combining native Brazilian elements – all the melodies are his own but the folk influence is clear – with contemporary compositional techniques such are 12 tone serialism. But he was selective with the parts of that rigorous technique he chose to use; they are more structural than tonal: the form involves themes, retrograde themes in the exposition, inversions and the like. The real talent of any composer is to use these forms without the listener being painfully aware that he is attending some kind of public composition class – and that is the case here. If I had to characterise it at all I would say its along the lines of ‘Mr Bartók’s Holiday in Brazil’. Across the three concertos there are certain recurring features. The outer movements burst with joyful muscular energy. If you respond to Ginastera and his powerfully athletic and rhythmic earlier “Objective Nationalism” this will be for you. The opening movement of the Concerto No.5
[track 4] encapsulates all the many virtues of the music, performance and engineering – fantastic big horn and brass playing interspersed with unbuttoned thwacks on the timps. Across all six concertos Guarnieri runs the distinct movements together creating unified works. The central movements tend to be simpler and more song-like than the equivalent movements in Ginastera. The latter composer is extraordinary in his creation of strange haunted night-scenes strong on atmosphere. Guarnieri prefers a more directly lyrical approach which is equally effective. That being said the central Sideral (Astral)
[track 5] of the Concerto No.5
is beautifully sparse and cool – a lovely flute solo over chilly string chords and numb piano at 4:30 and a stunning solo violin at about 7:50 demonstrating yet again the quality of both music and performers. Guarnieri has a real ear for orchestral colour too – it is not just a case of layering on unusual percussion and syncopating! Interestingly the liner tells us that this central movement was the first composed; would it be too much to see it as the heart of the entire disc? – marvellous in every respect. As before there is no break into the concerto’s finale – I love the way as the slow movement disappears into outer space the percussion creep in like industrious ants quickly drawing the rest of the orchestra into their restless toccata titled Jocoso (playful)
By the time Guarnieri completed his final concerto in 1987 he had passed his eightieth birthday. Originally titled Three Moments for Piano and Chamber Orchestra
this is by some way the most condensed of the six works. Yes he does revert to a simpler more open style but it would be quite wrong to see this as a slackening of the creative drive. Far from it, the upper strings in particular have some very demanding passage-work – hurdles which the Warsaw players negotiate with seeming ease. Again the heart of the work is the central Calmo, muito sentido
which does have the feel of a reflective backward musing. The final movement – scored as with the rest of this concerto just for strings and percussion accompanying the piano – is appealing but somehow lacking as much personality as in the earlier works.
Taken individually these are marvellous works and collected together on this disc they are an essential addition for anyone with an interest in 20th
century piano concertos or South-American music in general. A small observation is that listened to sequentially, although the style evolves, there is a degree of sameness that might lessen the overall impact of each work when heard in isolation. But clearly, Guarnieri is seeking to use the form of the piano concerto to develop certain compositional ideas so why should we expect radically different solutions? These are in effect six branches from the same tree. I notice from the liner-note that pianist Max Barros has founded a publishing company and the back cover indicates that this same company provide the editions performed here. Clearly Barros’s commitment to the cause of South-American music in general and Guarnieri in particular goes way beyond learning some works because he was asked to. But this degree of identification and passion for the music oozes from every pore of this and the earlier disc – clearly a labour of love and one that should be applauded. It is also worth noting that each of the six concertos was recorded at different sessions over a period of three years. The continuity achieved by performers and engineers is first rate but again reflects an extended commitment that I for one am very grateful for. The liner mentions another four concertante piano works by Guarnieri – surely we can expect them from this team. Apparently he wrote two violin concertos too … come on Naxos what are you waiting for!
On what might seem a different tack; has any Guarnieri been performed at the BBC Proms? I cannot find a comprehensive list of Prom repertoire but it strikes me that this is exactly the kind of music that deserves that kind of stage – exciting, involving, instantly appealing – the Piano Concerto No.1
with its Gershwinesque echoes is a perfect ‘Prom Novelty’ and more appropriate to a concert series like this than ‘Sondheim at Eighty’ (and that’s coming from someone who has spent his performing life in the theatre!). Better still, bring this entire team of performers over to play it – I for one would go a long way to hear the Warsaw Philharmonic and Max Barros in this kind of form. Collectors who already have this composer’s music on their shelves will not hesitate. For those new to his work any of the symphonies or these concertos will provide an excellent point of entry depending on an individual’s preference. However the Naxos price advantage makes this disc and its companion irresistible.