Mexican Piano Concertos
Samuel ZYMAN (b.1956)
Concierto para Piano y Orquesta [23.36]
José ROLÓN (1876-1945)
Feast of the Dwarfs - Symphonic Scherzo Op.30 (1914 revised 1925) [7:57]
Concierto para Piano y Grande Orquesta Op.42 (1928-1935) [25:57]
Claudia Corona (piano)
Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra/Gregor Bühl
rec. Musiksaal in der Kongresshalle, Nüremberg, Germany, February 2013
TYXART TXA13024 [58:33] 
Another disc which reinforces the impression that there is an awful lot of very fine Latin-American music that is little-known and indeed neglected outside of that Continent. Yet both piano concertos offered here are vibrant, full of appealing orchestral colour and exciting rhythmic impetus. Making a convincing case for both of the main works here is the Germany-based Mexican pianist Claudia Corona. Clearly she is on something of a crusade since, as well as performing these works in concert, she revised and edited the orchestral parts for the Rolón concerto to create a practical performing edition. Both of the concertos are receiving their premiere recordings on this disc depending on which version of the works are considered.
I encountered the music of Samuel Zyman for the first time only recently as a coupling for the Chavez Piano Concerto (see review). The liner-note here gives sadly scant detail about the composer or indeed the work - even his publisher Theodore Presser illuminates little. Their site does mention a performance of the concerto by Corona given in 2005 but does not elaborate as to whether this was a first performance or not. It seems that this is the symphonic (expanded strings?) version of the work called Concerto for Piano & Chamber Orchestra. The score can be followed on the Presser website where it appears to be exactly the work on this disc.
Although born in Mexico City Zyman is now based in New York and has taught at the Juilliard School for some years. The musical syntax Zyman uses is clearly contemporary without being overly modern. The particular skill is in the clarity and general economy of the writing which springs from the light orchestration; just one of each woodwind plus one horn and a timpanist. From the first bars where the argument is plunged into with no preparation or introduction, this demonstrates itself to be pleasingly energetic joyful music without ever descending into cacophony. A trait of Zyman’s seems to be to pitch solo instruments from the orchestra briefly against the piano. They engage in playful dialogue before returning to the main ensemble. Most listeners would assume some Latin-American heritage - in the first movement most of all - but this moves way beyond simplistic musical pictorialism. The music is built from rhythmic and melodic cells rather than developing “tunes” in a traditional - or even post-modernist - style. The slow movement has an appealing Bartókian modal pastoralism which again allows solo instruments within the orchestral group to feature strongly. This time there is an extended orchestral introduction. When the pianist does enter, nearly three minutes into the movement, this is some of Corona’s most poetic and impressive playing on the disc. I like the way Zyman allows the music to develop an ominously pounding timpani-led march-feel. Against this orchestral soloists try to recover the pastoral innocence of the movement’s opening before the piano soloist finds reconciliation. Corona’s pianism lacks nothing in technical accomplishment but I did wonder if a fraction more abandon and muscularity might not have suited the music even better in the athletic music of the outer movements. The same is true of the very neat and accurate playing of the Nuremberg Symphony under Gregor Bühl who are utterly unphased by the complexities of these unfamiliar scores. Perhaps I would have appreciated just a little more sense of danger and edgy abandon. This is ever so slightly well mannered. The concerto closes with an impressive Presto finale which demonstrates Zyman’s skill and delight in the use of counterpoint. Overlapping ostinato rhythms and pedal harmonies give the music a riotous carnival feeling. There is another quite beautiful pastoral reminiscence led by a solo bassoon before the piano drives the music back to the helter-skelter of the Presto marking and the work reaches its assertive exciting climax.
This really is a very impressive work indeed - and one that would fit extremely well in concert programmes of chamber orchestras looking for a work of Mozartean dimensions and scoring but an utterly different approach. Therein in lies much of the work’s skill and fascination; Zyman makes no outrageous technical demands of his players - yes it is hard but there are no bizarre technical requests. The orchestration is literally that of an 18th century orchestra if not smaller yet the resultant work could only be of our modern time.
The music of José Rolón is more elusive. This is my first encounter with his name let alone his music. Presuming that might be the case for other music enthusiasts too perhaps a little biographical detail might be appropriate. Rolón, although he was born and died in Mexico, had his main musical education in Paris in two distinct phases. From 1903 to 1907 he studied with Moszkowski (for piano) and Gedalge for composition. He then returned to Guadalajara for twenty years before a second Parisian study period (1927-29) with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas. He then returned to Mexico where he was instrumental in improving musical education in the country. To quote the liner: “his musical vision was to blend formal, harmonic and melodic elements of European music with the idioms of Mexican folklore so as to enrich both styles.” Crucial to this is an avoidance of cliché Latin-Americanisms whilst at the same time ensuring that his writing was clearly of its time and place. The concerto’s very opening is a perfect example where the simple inclusion of a guiro ‘places’ the music in Latin-America for all the Neo-Classical material that surrounds that single unique sound. Even with Corona’s correcting hand and guidance from Boulanger and Dukas - the work was started during Rolón’s second Parisian sojourn - the orchestration is both heavier and thicker than the Zyman and not always to the music’s benefit. This is where one notices that the disc’s engineering is good without being exceptional with detail being obscured and the solo writing sometimes submerged in the substantially more opaque scoring. There is a slightly ‘tubby’ quality to the recorded sound that works against the work’s complex scoring and rhythmic drive. However, it has to be said that for 1930-ish the idiom must have sounded quite a bit more modern than Zyman does in the 21st century … if you think that matters.
The central Poco Lento is a most beautiful distillation of a gently swaying and distinctly Latin rhythm within the framework of a standard concerto slow movement. This seems to me to be Rolón’s most successful fusion of Western tradition and Latin-American indigenous music - to the benefit of both. It is interesting to compare this music to that of say Villa-Lobos who was also in Paris at the same time as Rolón and in 1930 embarked on his own Western/Latin American fusion with the Bachianas Brasileiras. Rolón is not as individual as Villa-Lobos but that does not mean this music does not deserve an audience. After the limpid beauty of the slow movement the finale is something of a disappointment - the melodic material is appealing enough but again it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that there is just too much going on with too many instruments. Perhaps Bühl and Corona are slightly to blame here for not encouraging the orchestra to find more light and shade - it is somewhat unrelenting - some really hushed held playing would help no end. However, without a score to follow perhaps Rolón did not write any. In fact the finale rather outstays its welcome with the soloist playing uninterrupted for much of the time. It ends feeling simply noisy rather than satisfying. That said, it is important to stress that this is a valuable work and one that it is good to have the opportunity to hear. Again it is hard not to conclude that this is music and a composer who deserves far greater dissemination.
Completing the disc - rather short playing time coming in under an hour - is a quirky orchestral work by Rolón. It is called Feast of the Dwarfs but it is the sub-heading ‘Symphonic Scherzo’ that rather gives away the influence. For that is the same secondary title given to Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Without a shadow of a doubt this is Rolón’s homage to his teacher’s earlier work - even the ending mimics the formers surprise “pa-pa-pa pah” conclusion to a tee. Apparently the score includes three Mexican folksongs but the abiding impression is of the French influence. It was originally conceived in 1914 and was then incorporated into Rolón’s Symphony in E minor before re-emerging as a separate piece again in 1925. I cannot help but wonder whether, in other more sensuous hands than Bühl’s, this might emerge as a more impressive work. Here it seems singularly lacking in the very atmosphere which the colourful orchestration and fluid rhythms would suggest lurk within. Hard not to conclude that this is a good orchestra’s competent run-through but again I am grateful for the opportunity to hear the work.
Regardless of my relative hesitancy over the general execution of this disc - never less than competent but rarely inspiring or viscerally exciting - my initial premise that there is much great music waiting to be heard from the Latin-American countries is reaffirmed.
Nick Barnard  

Reinforces the impression that there is an awful lot of very fine Latin-American music that is little-known and indeed neglected. 

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