Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
Cello Concerto No.2 Op.50 (1980) [34:32]
Cello Concerto No.1 Op.36 (1968 rev. 1977) [34:18]
Mark Kosower (cello)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Lothar Zagrosek
rec. Bamberg Congress Hall, Bavaria, Germany, 21-25 April 2009 (Concerto No.1), 17-18 March 2010 (Concerto No.2)
NAXOS 8.572372 [68:58]
Naxos have slowly but surely built a catalogue of music by the Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera. Their recordings have a strong claim to be definitive. Ever since a youth orchestra encounter with his dances from Estancia I have been a great fan. He is the only composer whose music has made it into both of my last two ‘discs of the year’ selections. This is why I was delighted to have the chance to make a first acquaintance with these two major orchestral scores. Each runs to over thirty-four minutes and makes full use of the large, percussion-rich, orchestra that Ginastera often favours.
Cellist Mark Kosower was the player on the well-received Naxos disc of the complete Ginastera chamber works for cello (8.570569 - not reviewed here). I have not heard that disc but on the strength of his performances here he is a powerful and compelling advocate of Ginastera’s art. Central to the importance of these relatively late works is that Ginastera married a cellist, Aurora Nátola-Ginastera in 1971, dedicated the second concerto to her as a tenth wedding anniversary gift, and revised the first concerto for publication with her playing in mind. Ginastera’s compositional career is often broken down into three phases; as I wrote before in my review of the magnificent three string quartets (8.570780): "Objective Nationalism" (1934-1948), "Subjective Nationalism" (1948-1958), and "Neo-Expressionism" (1958-1983). These phases chart a gradual move away from an overtly Nationalistic/folk-based style to something more personal although with clearly Latin-American roots. As with many composers there is a clear sense of a refining of the musical palette, removing the extraneous and glib and simply leaving the very essence of the music’s fibre. Not that these are austere scores as such. At one level Ginastera uses the orchestra with an almost profligate confidence, but at another there is a clear intellectual rigour here that requires repeated listenings even to begin to get a sense of the riches on offer. These are not the archetypal cello concertos with the rich baritone voice of the soloist singing away in the midst of an admiring orchestra. Very often I got the sense that the soloist was an intruder in an often unsettling or at least unforgiving orchestral landscape.
Naxos have chosen to place the first concerto second on the disc but I will deal with the pieces in compositional order. The Cello Concerto No.1 Op.36 [notice how small Ginastera’s catalogue of acknowledged works is] was commissioned in 1968 but was revised for publication in 1977 and first performed in the new definitive revision by the composer’s wife. To what degree the work changed between composition and revision the otherwise excellent note by Susan Wingrove does not make clear. However, she does explain that the work was written in the aftermath of Ginastera’s notorious opera Bomarzo. The opera dealt in quite graphic terms and at length with the violent and lascivious life the 16th Century Duke Pier Francesco Orsini. Violence is an abiding impression of the concerto too. Sometimes the cello seems to plead for some form of reconciliation between warring factions; at other times he seems only too eager to lead the affray. As so often in Ginastera sequences of ‘night music’ proliferate but even here, when marked to be played with extreme quietness, the impression is one of latent fear-streaked darkness with a thuggee lurking in the shadows. This is deeply unsettling music - not at all what one might expect coming from a senior composer in his twilight years having recently found his new great love. Wingrove points out that Ginastera makes use of motivic cells in both works - for example B.A.C.H. is used in the first concerto’s first movement. I have to say without the benefit of a score this has yet to leap out at me by dint of the music alone. As a whole these are some of the knottier works by Ginastera that I have heard. On the kind of superficial acquaintance that a first-hearing review like this must represent the music is stronger on its use of instrumental colour, texture and motivic development than on melody per se.
As mentioned before the Concerto No.2 was written expressly for Aurora Nátola-Ginastera and one imagines the piece embodies both her playing and their relationship. Night in all its facets dominates again. Although, in the first movement Ginastera makes play of his wife’s first name Aurora to write music that represents the transition from night to day - the concept of metamorphosing darkness to light is given musical form. Again Ginastera uses pre-existing themes as a backbone of the work. In this instance the cello solo from the third movement of the Brahms Piano Concerto No.2 but once again it would be hard to say that in any way this dominates the score. Again, the abiding initial impression is one of instrumental organisation and orchestral colour over memorable instant melodic invention. Wingrove in her notes makes the point that Ginastera worked as a composer of film scores for some years in the 1950s when he was out of favour with the Peron regime. Certainly, from this experience it is not impossible to extrapolate forwards to this work where mood and atmosphere are so key to its overall effect. I did find myself wondering once or twice how rewarding it is (or isn’t!) for a soloist to have to perfect such complex writing which ultimately makes its impact through effect rather than engaging the listener’s heart. The concluding Finale Rustico is near to one of his earlier exciting toccatas. As often in the past he uses obsessive percussion-led ostinati to create a sound-world of riotous celebration.
The writing for the soloist in both concertos sounds terrifyingly hard so ever more credit to Kosower for total command of instrument and idiom that he displays. A particular skill is the way in which he is able to link sequences of notes together which range across the entire cello seamlessly. At a technical level this is extremely hard but is vital to allow the listener to perceive such seemingly disjointed lines as melodic. The effect of this style of writing is to give the music a striving expressionistic quality. Because this is not music of instant easy beauty it requires from all the players a style of playing that is almost super-lyrical. It might sound counter-intuitive but music like this requires a fusion of steely precision in terms of rhythm and technical accuracy but hyper-romanticism in regard to its expressivity. Kosower has this aesthetic balance off to a tee. He plays on the borrowed Starker Nebula - Janos Starker is one of his teachers. It is an instrument ideally suited to this music and his playing. The tones are guttural and dark from the lower strings yet are able to cut through the complex textures during the extended passages in alt. To play these pieces with such conviction is the result of many hours of concentrated and dedicated work.
Praise too here for the engineering and production of the disc. Ace producer Michael Fine and his engineer Wolf-Dieter Karwatky have created a disc of demonstration quality. There is a wealth of orchestral detail - including extended ‘ethnic’ percussion and a vast dynamic range all of which has been captured without excessive spotlighting of instruments. Add to that the need to integrate the solo line believably into the sound picture and the fact that the second concerto was recorded live - not that one is aware of any extraneous sounds or fallible playing for an instant - and you can see that the scale of what they have achieved is very impressive indeed. The same can be said of the playing of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Lothar Zagrosek. It says something about the stature of Naxos as a label that established performers of such stature appear here as a matter of course.
This is one of those slightly curious discs that one admires very much indeed without necessarily liking it a lot. That I put down to my current superficial understanding of the music. Ginastera was too fastidious and sophisticated a composer for his music not to deserve extended study. There is a full-price version on Pierian of Aurora Nátola-Ginastera playing these works which I have not heard. This disc must bow to that by dint of its authority alone but I cannot imagine it being better played by soloist or orchestra or better engineered. The Naxos disc in any event enjoys a huge price advantage. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that this is one of the finest concerto discs from Naxos that I have heard. On the strength of his performance here I will look forward to hearing more from cellist Mark Kosower.
A disc that one admires very much indeed without necessarily liking it a lot - certainly one of the finest Naxos concerto discs that I have heard.