Mozart Camargo GUARNIERI (1907-1993)
Dança Negra (1946) [3:28]
Dança Brasileira (1928) [2:23]
Dança Selvagem (1931) [1:55]
Ponteios Book I (1931-35) [20:44]
Ponteios Book II (1947-1949) [18:12]
Ponteios Book III (1954-1955) [18:06]
Ponteios Book IV (1956-1957) [20:29]
Ponteios Book V (1958-1959) [20:06]
Suite Mirim (1953) [5:31]
Sonata (1972) [15:54]
Max Barros (piano)
rec. Oktaven Studio, Yonkers, New York USA, 23-24 May, 1 July, 25 September, 23 October, 8 November 2011
NAXOS 8.572626-27 [64:48 + 62:00]

I had forgotten just how much I like the music of Mozart Camargo Guarnieri. Almost by accident the other day I re-encountered his piano concertos and really enjoyed them all over again. The pianist there is the same as on this pair of discs and he proves to be a perfect guide: technically gifted, at one with the music's idiom and a wholly committed and passionate advocate. 

"Guarnieri suggests elements of Brazil's traditional music without resorting to verbatim quotation." Liner-note writer, James Melo sums up the composer's style with brilliant succinctness and although this quote relates specifically to the Sonata which closes the programme it is equally valid for all the music here. With the exception of the fifteen minute Sonata what we are given are miniatures albeit collected into larger works. Of the 57 pieces/movements only one lasts longer than four minutes and 31 are sub two minutes. For all their brevity these are jewel-like works. Guarnieri does not try to achieve too much in any individual work; instead each encapsulates a single musical mood or idea that is explored with little effort expended in formal development.
The programme opens with three separate works dating from different years. Each has been given the title Dança. Thanks again to James Melo for pointing out that these three dances are not intended as folk-dances but instead are "suggestions of choreography and mood". The third, Dança Selvagem is the most overtly dynamic and recalls the style of Ginastera. Pianist Max Barros then presents the five books of Ponteios written over a period from 1931 to 1959. Each book contains ten pieces. None of these has a descriptive title other than an often evocative tempo indication:Nostálgico [Book II No.18] or Confidencial [Book V No.48]. Ponteios is a term coined by Guarnieri and derives from a prelude played by traditional Brazilian guitar players as they tune and prepare their instruments prior to performing a piece. As such, Guarnieri has appropriated the concept to create often fragmentary works which he sought to embody "styles, techniques, and references to the musical soul of Brazil".
Great credit to Barros for conveying the kaleidoscopic range of the pieces so effectively. Clearly, it makes sense to sample these works perhaps a book at a time rather than at a single 'sitting'. Within each group there is a wide range of styles and moods although there is not a huge amount of stylistic progression over the twenty-eight years of their composition. The range of styles encompassed goes from gently impressionistic tone poems to jazz-inflected swaying dances. Harmony is clearly tonal but fluid and the keyboard textures are kept articulate and effective. Guarnieri was by all accounts a considerable pianist and improviser in his own right. These works exude a beguiling directness and spontaneity that is very charming. These are clearly not simple works yet they need to be performed with a certain insouciance - again this is where Barros strikes me as ideal. Much the same can be said of the Suite Mirim which we are told is one of four suites composed by Guarnieri concerned with childhood but again this is from a standpoint of being charmingly naive music. The closing Cirandinha is a perfect example of the composer taking 'local' inspiration - in this case dance patterns from North Eastern Brazil- and producing an original work of considerable appeal. This is not intended to be music that breaks or defines boundaries in music. Taken in its own right as a celebration of a moment or a passing musical thought they are as delightful as they are understatedly sophisticated.
As mentioned previously, the Sonata is the largest work offered here. Even then it lasts just over the quarter hour. It is also the latest work written in 1972. From the opening bars this evokes a quite different, more intense and rigorous musical world. Guarnieri shows his range and skill as a composer because although the time-frame is still condensed - just four minutes for the opening movement Tenso - this has a clearly defined structure that the more fluid, sometimes impressionistic Ponteios lack. The central movement is marked Amargurado - which translates from the Portuguese as bitter or acrimonious. This was the first music composed for this work and at nearly seven and a half minutes the longest piece in the current collection by some distance. The level of dissonance in the entire work is several steps higher than any of the other pieces presented here although nothing that could be termed overly modernistic. It is the chilled atmosphere evoked that resonates in the memory as well as the juxtaposition of barely simple passages and craggily etched block writing. Again, I must acknowledge Melo's insightful liner for rightly pointing out the Stravinskian vigour of the closing movement. Guarnieri's skill as a pianist allows him to write for the keyboard effectively and idiomatically. The work closes somewhat elusively albeit with a final assertive chord.
One must assume a volume two will follow - containing one expects - the eight sonatinas and three other suites referred to in the liner amongst any other works. The nature of this type of set is as a work of collective reference rather than a 'concert programme'. That being the case any accusations of similarity or stylistic repetition are somewhat redundant. As previously mentioned Barros is a fine guide to this little-known music. The Naxos recording is close and detailed and as such perfectly acceptable without being demonstration class. For those yet to discover the delights of Guarnieri I would direct you to the concertos on Naxos (review review) or indeed the superb symphonies on BIS (review review review) as a first port of call. That said, without doubt this set is an important and valuable expansion of the recorded repertoire of this fine Brazilian composer. Volume two will be eagerly awaited. 

Nick Barnard 

Music as delightful as it is understatedly sophisticated. 

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