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Manuel PONCE (1873-1945)
Chamber Music for strings
String Quartet [32:05]
Duo Sonata, for violin and viola [13:44]
Petite Suite dans le Style Ancien, for violin, viola and cello [10:07]
Robert Lehmann (violin); Jennifer Elowitch (violin); Kimberly Lehmann (viola); William Rounds (cello)
rec. Port-media, Kennebunkport, Maine, USA, 9, 27 April and 11-27 May 2009. DDD
CENTAUR CRC 3064 [55:58]

Experience Classicsonline

Manuel Ponce, perhaps Mexico's first composer of international importance, wrote relatively little chamber music: this disc by US label Centaur contains three of his most significant works in the genre. It is in direct competition with a CD released on Mexican label Urtext in 2007 (JBCC 149), on which the Cuarteto Latinoamericano celebrated their 25th anniversary not only with these three works, but also Ponce's excellent String Trio and a minor work, the Four Miniatures. On the face of it, therefore, this is not as good a deal - the disc is undeniably on the short side.
On the other hand, the Urtext release gave the world premiere recordings, astonishingly, of both the String Quartet and the Duo Sonata, so there is plenty of room on the market for the very able competition brought by American soloists Robert and Kimberly Lehmann, Jennifer Elowitch and William Rounds.
According to New Grove, Ponce's string quartet was written in 1929, but the booklet states that it was begun in 1935 and finished the following year: obviously they cannot both be right. The liner notes are unauthored, so it is difficult to know how much faith to have in the handful of discrepancies with New Grove over dates: according to the latter, the Duo Sonata was written in 1939, but the booklet says 1935; and the Petite Suite is dated 1933 in New Grove, and only listed as an orchestral work, whereas the booklet says the chamber work was written in 1935 and then arranged for string orchestra.
The four-movement Quartet is dedicated to Ponce's teacher, Paul Dukas. Lehmann and co. play out the first movement over nearly 15 minutes, whereas the Latinoamericanos whizz home in under ten - as the other movements have broadly similar timings, this recording presumably includes one or more repeats; certainly Lehmann and co.'s allegro moderato tempo seems appropriate. The Quartet is neither particularly Mexican nor French; perhaps it most resembles some of Heitor Villa-Lobos's third-period quartets (the Seventh onwards), with the earlier of which it is roughly contemporaneous - and Villa-Lobos also met Dukas and others in Paris at around the same time Ponce was there. It is an inventive, serious work, clearly influenced also by Schoenberg, but approachable for all that, and quite undeserving of its almost total neglect by string quartets.
The dazzling counterpoint of the first movement of the Duo Sonata keeps the soloists so busy that there sometimes seems to be a third bow at work. The sarabanda second movement is an odd but lovely neo-Renaissance meets neo-Baroque concoction, whereas the brief finale is a lively Hispanic dance.
The Little Suite in the Ancient Style, in four concise movements for violin, viola and cello, is neo-Baroque too, but this time with neo-Classical leanings, not unlike Stravinsky's Pulcinella music occasionally. Ponce's counterpoint is once again masterly, and why this audience-pleasing little gem has not found its way onto chamber programmes across the world is a mystery. Nevertheless, the four soloists do their best - which is very good indeed - to make a persuasive case for this and the rest of Ponce's marvellous music.
Sound quality is generally very good. There are one or two points in the String Quartet, in the first two movements, that have the quality of editing joins, but it is hard to be sure without a score. The detail in the booklet is brief but sufficient.
A short disc, but sweet - delicious, in fact.

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