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Carlos CHÁVEZ (1899-1978)
Piano Concerto (1940) [36:32]
Meditacíon (1918) [5:09]
José Pablo MONCAYO (1912-1958)
Muros Verdes (1951) [6:36]
Samuel ZYMAN (b. 1956)
Variations on an Original Theme (2007) [16:12]
Jorge Federico Osorio (piano)
Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México/Carlos Miguel Prieto (concerto)
rec. Sala Nezahualcóyotl, Centro Cultural Universitario UNAM, Mexico, 7-11 March 2011 (concerto), Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio, 98.7 WFMT, Chicago, USA, 24-25 October 2012 (solo piano works)
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR 90000 140 [64:50]

A disc to make me wonder all over again quite why music of this quality by Latin American composers, accessible yet complex, impressive and individual, is so rarely programmed by orchestras and performers around the World. Liner-note writer Elbio Barilari is a Uruguayan composer now based in Chicago who promotes Latin American music through his professorship at the University of Illinois and directorship of Music Festivals. He puts it rather neatly: there are “three pieces that American orchestras typically program when it seems time to wink at their neglected constituencies of Mexican origin.” Barilari specifies Mexican music because that is what is offered here, but it could equally apply to music from any of the South American countries. Even Villa-Lobos, once one factors out his two or three “pops” has been represented in the concert hall - as opposed to on disc - with near shocking irregularity. Take the three composers on this disc - between them they have managed two pieces - both of which are part of Barilari’s list of three - in the entire history of the UK’s famed Proms which are in full swing as I write. Chávez has not been played there since his one performance in 1943.
So I am especially grateful to the performers here and especially pianist Jorge Federico Osorio for producing a disc which - in one fell swoop - must be considered as near-definitive as will make little difference. This is Osorio’s second recording of the Chavez concerto and having played it since the age of fifteen that goes some way to explaining why everything feels so ‘right’. This is an interpretation of a work that has been developing over many years, maturing and refining.
All praise too to Chicago-based label Cedille for releasing such an excellent and well produced disc which is unlikely to have a very wide constituency. Again, I question why that should be. It strikes me that this music - the concerto was first performed in 1942 by Eugene List and Dimitri Mitropoulos (there is a recording of List with the composer conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra in the work) - chimes perfectly with our current age; angular and athletic, tart harmonies and brilliant orchestration. Barilari quotes Osorio who when asked to name the concerto’s most remarkable feature answered “la energía!” … and so it proves. Yet this is not some cosy regurgitation of nationalistic musical clichés. For sure the music audibly is a product of the artistic influences of its homeland but it speaks with a convincingly individual voice. Likewise it fuses the spirit of a 19th Century ‘display’ concerto with the aesthetic of the mid-twentieth century. At first glance it would appear front-end heavy; the first movement playing four minutes longer than the total of the other two combined but this is not how the work feels. In part this is due to the extraordinary variety of mood and texture Chavez crams into the first movement. The music starts with no preparatory gestures - almost like walking into a room where music is already playing - with a slow but flowingly contrapuntal passage which lasts for nearly a minute and a half before suddenly dissolving into a poundingly motoric toccata. Osorio played under the composer’s baton and in the liner recollects how particular he was to ensure the lower lines of the orchestration were clear. It is not clear what piece they performed together but Chavez’s predilection for the firm underpinning of the musical structure is clear in this concerto too. The unrelenting passagework of the next three minutes for the soloist - Osorio is a model of clarity and articulate power. Especially impressive is how he handles the transition in to the next sequence - the keyboard all but alone - in a slower but far from static passage. I can do no better than quote Barilari here; “the instruments of the orchestra, more than accompanying the piano, seem to be challenging or even fighting against the soloist… [the soloist] is answered, commented on, or contradicted by the community of the orchestra, not unlike the tumultuous music of an indigenous Mexican ritual”.
This sense of tumult is powerfully evoked here - helped greatly by the clarity of the Cedille recording - not the most naturally balanced disc I have ever heard but one that allows the myriad details of Chavez’s scoring to be heard - and the energetically engaged playing of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México under Carlos Miguel Prieto. With less polished playing I could easily imagine this descending into something unappealingly chaotic. Chavez crams his score with a great deal of music both vertically and horizontally. As the movement draws to its close the ‘rate’ at which this information is supplied reduces and before the unwary listener realizes it another skillful transition leads without a break into the central Molto Lento. After the machismo energy of the opening movement this is pensively minimalist in its utterance - often just a single orchestral instrument offering a comment or accompaniment to the far simpler piano part. Chavez makes no attempt to offer the listener an obvious tune or easy texture but this is very beautifully lyrical writing. From around the seven minute mark it starts to build to the one relative climax in the movement before sinking back to a questioning silence. As presented on the disc the finale is played all but “attacca” and it returns to the unrelenting pace of the opening - which somewhat contradicts the Allegro non troppo marking. Barilari rightly characterizes it as more whimsical than the large-scale opening of the work. This is not just simply a question of length - the musical material is shared around the orchestra - there is less conflict between soloist and orchestral group. I am not yet completely convinced by the ending of the work - a brass fanfare figure that has come as a surprise each time I have listened. So much of the preceding work is so fine that I am sure it is simply a question of time and assimilation before that fits into my comprehension of the overall piece too.
The disc is completed by three solo piano works. The first is a very assured Meditación written in 1918 when Chavez was just nineteen. Unsurprisingly the influences of Albeniz tinged with Debussy are fairly apparent but equally what shines through is the sheer quality and appeal of the writing. Likewise his control of the musical material and the pacing of the work is mature beyond his years. The piano used for these solo recordings in Chicago is a mellower instrument than the slightly clangorous Steinway used for the concerto. Not that the concerto instrument is in anyway poor but the warmer sound and acoustic for the solo works suits the mood of those pieces very well. The second solo work is José Pablo Moncayo’s Muros Verdes. This translates literally as “Green Walls” which refers a forest and park preserve in Mexico City - the Viveros de Coyoacán. Barilari dismisses any suggestion that this is a late example of impressionistic writing. Instead he points out the predominant use of chords based on intervals of the 4th anticipate the jazz harmonies of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. This impression is further reinforced by Moncayo’s use of modal scales derived from pentatonic scales of native-Mexican origin. All of which results in a piece which - as with the Chavez - clearly of its time and place but not slavishly dependent on either. Again, I have nothing but praise for the sheer skill of Osorio’s performance - limpid or athletic in turns - this is wonderfully exciting playing but never does it descend into the keyboard thrashing that can result in the hands of lesser players.
Although none of this repertoire is exactly common, only the final work; Samuel Zyman’s Variations on an Original Theme is receiving its premiere recording. Zyman is a native of Mexico City who trained and now teaches at the Juilliard School of Music. This is a substantial and impressive work too. Written as recently as 2007, it is immediately accessible and greatly enjoyable. Barilari characterizes it as having “valiant and non-apologetic connections to tradition” which I suppose is a way of saying it does not sound overly contemporary. I’m really not sure why that should be an issue for supporters of either style. By its own frame of reference it has nothing to ‘fear’ in comparison to any similar work.
Each of the Theme, Four Variations, and a return of the theme are clearly definable even at a first listen. Zyman has contributed a very useful note on the work. Simply put Variations 1 & 3 are fast and in extreme contrast to the chillier landscapes of Variations 2 & 4. Zyman makes no mention of this but I did wonder if some of the writing is as a clear homage to other composers - surely Variation 3, with its passing reminiscences of DSCH acknowledges a debt to Shostakovich while Variation 1 has more of the flavour of Zyman’s Latin American roots. The return of the theme at the close has a dual function; it gives the work an obvious and appealing cyclic form but also, to quote Zyman; “bringing the theme back at end is intended to close the circle, as it were, and to show how the theme feels changed after hearing the four variations”.
So a fascinating and greatly rewarding end to an admirable disc. Aside from the excellence of his technical playing Osorio impresses with his utter absorption into the differing idioms of each work. A quick scan of the catalogue would imply that there is room for a collected edition of Chavez’s solo piano works from this artist and label whilst more of Zyman’s music would be warmly welcomed too. Which brings me rather neatly back to my opening comment - why on earth do we not hear more of this wonderful music? 
Nick Barnard