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Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
Pampeana No. 3, Op. 24 (1954, rev. 1967) [18:11]
Ollantay, Op. 17 (1947) [13:30]
Estancia, Op. 8 (complete ballet) (1941)* [34:17]
*Lucas Somoza Osterc (speaker/baritone)
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
rec. 2014, MediaCity, Salford, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master from The Classical Shop
Pdf booklet included
CHANDOS CHAN10884 [65:03]

I first encountered the Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena in a sensational performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie; in fact it was so impressive that I made it one of my Recordings of the Year in 2012 (review). That was a one-off Hyperion release with the Bergen PO. As chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Mena now records for Chandos; to date he’s focused on music by his compatriots, among them Falla, Turina and Montsalvatge. Now it’s the turn of the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera.

Chandos have been here before, with a recording of Pampeana No. 3 and Estancia excerpts from Gabriel Castagna and the Berliner Symphoniker (CHAN10152). I’ve also hauled out Gisèle Ben-Dor’s full-length Panambi and Estancia, which Hubert Culot rightly described as ‘indispensable’ (review). Those 1997 Abbey Road recordings, with the LSO at their unbuttoned best, are a must for all Ginastera fans. Ben-Dor’s Ollantay is on a separate release, coupled with the two ballets in suite form and Popol Vuh (review). Then there’s Jan Wagner’s Pampeana No. 3 and Ollantay with the Odense Symphony (Bridge 9130). I much admired their highly idiomatic Villa-Lobos collection (review).

The Chandos liner-notes deal with Estancia and Ollantay first, but Mena kicks off with the less familiar Op. 54. Pampeana No. 3 – it’s the third of three works with the same title – takes as its inspiration the great South American grasslands, or pampas. The work begins with a brooding Adagio that finds the BBC strings in eloquent form. The tuttis are brief but arresting, and the highly animated Impetuosamente has commendable dash. Alas, the concluding Largo isn’t particularly engaging, at least not here.

Frankly, Castagna’s version of Pampeana No. 3 is far more charismatic and colourful. Indeed, the workings of the piece are laid bare in a way they aren’t under Mena. Also, this is the big, bold Chandos sound of old, with plenty of detail, depth and a decent soundstage. Castagna may dig deep, but then so do his players; more important, there’s a palpable sense of atmosphere to this 2002 performance that you won’t find in this uninvolving newcomer. Just listen to the sheer abandon of Castagna’s central movement, whose Malambo-like ostinati really set one’s pulse racing. Even his nicely projected Largo has more life and shape than Mena's.

Game over, you might think; well, not quite. Wagner and his Danish band give a very polished, rather symphonic performance of Pampeana No. 3 that majors in fine detail and lovely colours. Not only that, there’s a clarity and bite to the sound that I like very much indeed. The Bridge recording is probably the most civilised of the three, with believable dynamics and no audio nasties. Wagner’s central movement is crisply articulated – he has the tautest timps – and he infuses the score with a rare sense of anticipation. Yes, Castagna is more visceral, but for excitement and insight Wagner’s Pampeana No. 3 is the one to hear.

Since we’re already discussing the Odense recording we might as well turn to their performance of Ollantay. The piece is based on an Inca poem that chronicles the battle between Rica, son of the sun, and Ollantay, son of the earth. There are three sections – The Landscape, The Warriors and The Death of Ollantay – all of which Wagner delivers with a sure sense of drama. Mena is pleasing enough, but his version seems to burn with a lower flame. Also, the Chandos recording is rather fierce at times, especially in the treble. In fact I find the sound fatiguing, and that’s unusual for an album from this source.

Mena’s Ollantay is otherwise decent, but again I’d choose Wagner for sheer oomph and character. For instance the latter brings Copland strongly to mind at times, something that one barely notices with Mena. Wagner communicates and illuminates at every turn; it helps that Bridge have provided him with a warm, well balanced recording that works better for me than Chandos's generally recessed presentation with its aggressive, overemphatic climaxes. That tiring prominence also bothered me in Volume 4 of their Casella cycle, also recorded at MediaCity (review). I know it's a very subjective issue, but I can't think of a single recording from this venue that has appealed to me on sonic grounds; I feel Chandos get more natural and forgiving results in Bergen, Geneva and elsewhere.

Game over? Again, not quite. Ben-Dor’s account of Ollantay, recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in 2001, is excellent. Musically and sonically this is a very proportionate recording – the percussion is powerful but not crushing – and the agile brass and woodwinds are splendid. In short, this is a very immersive Ollantay. It’s a close call, but Wagner finds extra colour and contour in the piece. That said, listeners may be swayed by Ben-Dor’s attractive fillers, the Panambi suite and Popol Vuh. As for Wagner he offers very rewarding accounts of the comparatively rare Obertura para el ‘Fausto’ criollo and the Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals.

What a pity that Wagner opts for the Estancia suite when Mena and Ben-Dor give us the whole ballet. For some time now I've relished Ben-Dor's reading of this vital and vivid score, not least for the LSO’s knock-out rendition of the famous Danza final. With its depiction of life on a rural estate or estancia, this piece has something of the unfettered energy and indomitable spirit of Copland’s two 'frontier ballets', Rodeo and Billy the Kid. Mena’s account of Scene 1 (Dawn) is certainly encouraging in its blend of verve and sense of place. Lucas Somoza Osterc delivers his lines well enough and the ensuing Little Dance is nicely pointed, In fact there's a natural perspective to this recording that would have made such a difference to Mena's Pampeana No. 3 and Ollantay.

The Wheat Dance at the start of Scene 2 (Morning) has a languid loveliness that’s spoilt only by a hint of glassiness in the tuttis, and the ostinati that accompany The Farm Workers are as alert and infectious as it gets. Now this is much more like it; even Mena’s players seem more galvanised. That said, The Cattlemen seem a little dour and The Townsfolk aren’t as sharply characterised as I’d like. Pampas Melancholy, which introduces Scene 3 (Afternoon), has violin and baritone solos that some may find overly sentimental, but Mena makes amends with a rip-snorting Rodeo. The day’s exertions end with a overly Twilight Idyll.
Not surprisingly Scene 4 (Night) is devoted to a reflective Nocturne. In general Mena is at his best in the score’s more energetic episodes, but he does shape this music rather well. Again, the baritone's heart-on-sleeve singing won't please everyone. With Scene 5 a new day dawns, celebrated in part with the exhilarating Danza final - Malmabo. Mena and the BBC Phil are simply sensational; now if only the rest of this collection were this good. Incidentally, Gustavo Dudamel and his young Bolivars treated us to an unforgettable performance of that riotous finale at the BBC Proms in 2007; the piece was reprised, minus the visual delights, in their subsequent album Fiesta.

Game over? Not a chance. Ben-Dor and the LSO deliver a truly spectacular account of Esancia that brims with life and colour; indeed, it makes Mena seem almost polite by comparison. Rhythms are super-supple and there’s a unique charge to the music-making that’s just fabulous. Each scene is drawn with bold, imaginative strokes and the ultra-vivid recording is exemplary. With Ben-Dor those moments where Mena is comparatively weak – The Cattlemen and The Townsfolk – are as crisp and compelling as one could wish. Oh, how I would love to see this on stage one day...

I much prefer Ben-Dor’s speaker/singer, the bass-baritone Luis Gaeta, who has a steadiness and virility that Mena’s man simply can’t match. He brings a judiciously controlled ardour – an operatic subtlety if you like – to both Pampas Melancholy and the Nocturne that makes his rival sound cartoonish by comparison. Then there’s the noble, beautifully blended playing of the LSO in the Twilight Idyll. There is so much loveliness buried in this score, and it’s Ben-Dor who finds more of it than most. And what a Danza final. Now it really is game over.

Mena's performances are pretty decent, but his predecessors outflank him at every turn; the older recordings even sound better.

Dan Morgan