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Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
Concerto for strings, op. 33 (1965) [24:17]
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Suite for strings (1912) [16:34]
Bachianas Brasileiras 9 (1945) [9:09]
José EVANGELISTA (b. 1943)
Airs d’Espagne (1996) [14:29]
I Musici di Montreal/Yuli Turowsky
rec. L’Eglise de la Nativité de la Sainte Vierge, La Prairie, Quebec; 17–23 August 1995
CHANDOS CHAN9434 [64:59]
Béla BARTÓK (1881–1945)
Divertimento, Sz 113 (1939) [24:13]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854–1928)
Idyll (1877) [24:02]
Suite (1878) [18:55]
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra/Iona Brown
rec. Eidsvoll Church, Norway; 18–20 November 1998
CHANDOS CHAN9816 [67:21]

As you can see by the recording dates and catalogue numbers, these are not new recordings, nor are they re-issues. The Ginastera/Villa-Lobos recording appeared on The Classical Shop’s hourly special, and the Villa-Lobos pieces, especially the Suite, an early work which I hadn’t heard, were enough to make me overlook my lack of enthusiasm for the presence of the Ginastera. This recording then led me to the Bartók/Janáček via the “Customers who bought this album, also bought ...” link. Given that they both contain 20th century music for string orchestra, and have not been previously reviewed on this site, I felt it was worth noting down my thoughts in a double review.
While I can appreciate the compositional skill of Ginastera, the frequent dissonances are sufficiently ugly to deter me. Yet among them, there are moments of great beauty and much rhythmic excitement. This concerto was premiered in Philadelphia by Eugene Ormandy, which emphasises the importance of the composer. It comes from a decade where Ginastera had embraced atonalism and serialism, so I expected to not like it at all. That proved to be not the case, though I won’t be adding it to my Desert Island list. The opening movement - Variazioni per i solisti – is brilliantly constructed around the theme and four variations: each section is essentially a mini-concerto, each for a different string instrument. The scherzo is nightmarish, full of glissandos and dissonance, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. The most approachable movement is the adagio, while the finale is indeed furioso, full of pulsing rhythms and absolutely no melody. Overall, a better outcome than I’d expected.
The Villa-Lobos Suite is one of his earliest orchestral works, and I daresay you could win “who wrote this work” quizzes with it, because it bears little of the V-L stamp. To me, it could derive from the English pastoral school. The first two movements are peaceful, the third a gentle dance. It is pleasant company for its relatively short duration. Bachanias Brasileiras No. 9, the final one of the group, is also the shortest, and quite possibly the most Bachian. If you don’t know it, you are missing a little gem.
José Evangelista is a Spanish-born Canadian resident. Airs d’Espagne is a set of fifteen Spanish folk tunes, set simply and effectively for string orchestra. In the booklet notes, the composer describes his intention was “to emphasise the melodic character of this material”. Evidently, it is a common thread in his work, as another work of his, Spanish Garland, reviewed here, also uses folk-derived material.
The Bachianas is the standout work here; the other three are interesting in their own ways, with my reservations about Ginastera still in place, though perhaps not so firmly.
The performances by I Musici di Montreal, one of the chamber orchestras used very often in the 1990s by Chandos, are excellent. I could only compare them to others in the Villa-Lobos works, and they were the equal of the Sao Paulo Symphony on the much-lauded BIS Bachianas set.
Moving across the Atlantic to central Europe, I admit to having struggled in the past with both composers on this recording. Recently though, Bartók is beginning to win me round. I heard the Divertimento performed by the Sydney Symphony at a concert this year, and enjoyed it greatly. I was equally impressed by the viola concerto, as performed by James Ehnes on a Chandos disc with the two violin concertos (see review). The programme notes describe it as “one of Bartók’s most accessible and radiant works”, with which I can only agree. It is not just a collection of pretty folk melodies – this is mature Bartók after all. The middle slow movement has hints of a funeral march – it was written in the shadow of World War II – while the outer fast movements intersperse folk rhythms with familiar twentieth-century sonorities. For anyone like myself still finding their way with Bartók, this is an ideal entry point, and has become a firm favourite.
The two Janáček pieces are very early works, written under the influence of Dvořák and his Serenade for Strings, which Janáček had conducted. They also have origins in Baroque forms, the composer initially naming some of the movements as sarabande, allemande etc. Those names were somewhat misleading, given that their timing and general character bear little resemblance to the baroque forms; this may explain why he changed the names to the basic tempo indications. They are very well-crafted and exceedingly enjoyable, in the same manner as Greig’s Holberg Suite and Halvorsen’s Suite ancienne. They may not provide me with an entry into Janáček’s mature sound-world, but that won’t prevent me from playing them frequently.
I haven’t heard recordings of any of the works on this disc, but I can’t imagine them better played than here. The range of music from the ferocity and angst in the Bartók to the delicacy, humour and innocent delight in the Janáček is handled splendidly, and the recording quality is also outstanding.
I’ve enjoyed almost everything on these two discs, and the Bartók/Janáček is an absolute beauty.
David Barker
Masterwork Index: Bachanias Brasileiras