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Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
Orchestral Works - Vol.1
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. 14 January (Estancia), 4 March (other works) 2014, MediaCity, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN10884 [65:03]

At first glance volume 1 of Ginastera's orchestral works played by the proven excellent team of Juanjo Mena and his BBC Philharmonic seems like a mouth-watering prospect. Add Chandos' spectacular engineering which is tailor-made for Ginastera's richly coloured and exciting scores and the anticipation heightens. Do not get me wrong, this is by no means a bad disc - I am not sure this creative team could produce a bad disc, simply it is not as good - indeed as definitive as I was hoping it would be.

In essence, I have a nagging feeling that too much of the performance feels rather perfunctory - well played, skilful and accurate for sure - but lacking the machismo-fuelled muscular virility crucial sequences of this music demand. On reflection - and to a far less damaging degree - this polished neatness was a characteristic I noted in a recent disc of Alfredo Casella. Where neatness and poise ends and blandness begins is a moot point.

Given that Ginastera did not leave a vast amount of orchestral music, it comes as no surprise that versions of all the works given here have appeared on various other discs. The programme opens with Pampeana No.3; for the curious Pampeanas 1 and 2 are works for violin and piano and cello and piano respectively and the title refers to Argentina's great grasslands. Pampeana No.3 was commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra and their pioneering recording under Robert Whitney is still available coupled with Ollantay Op.17 presented here and the rarer Jubilum (First Edition FECD1015). That recording technically cannot match the Chandos sophistication but I like the bite of the Louisville brass in the central impetuosamente movement. Chandos are in competition with themselves in a programme played by the Berliner Symphoniker under Gabriel Castagna from 2003 (CHAN10152 - review). Here the recording is relatively distanced which gives the orchestral balances a more natural perspective - on the new recording the timpani in particular seem rather synthetically prominent - but at the cost of the energy which courses through many of the work's pages.

The disc's second work is in Ginastera's often-favoured triptych form; Ollantay Op.17 as mentioned above - the work's narrative gives it something of the feel of a Latin-American Taras Bulba. Again two reflective slower movements flank a section of pulsating drama - here Los guerreros (The warriors). Again, taken in isolation this new recording is perfectly good but in no way displaces earlier versions or indeed the newest competition of all from Karl-Heinz Steffens with the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz on Capriccio C5244. In passing, this disc strikes me as the best and most interesting of recent Ginastera orchestral releases featuring the finest Ollantay I know together with one of Ginastera's masterpieces; the Variaciones Concertantes Op.23 and most interesting of all a suite from the notorious opera Bomarzo. We should also note the existence of a Bridge disc that includes both Ollantay and Pampeana No. 3.

Both the Chandos discs are better/best in the outer movements where the music is more reflective - indeed pastoral or nocturnal. Ghostly nocturnes are another recurring feature
of Ginastera's scores and they often display the subtler skills of the composer's scoring to greatest effect. Eduardo Mata with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela on Dorian is excellent at exploiting both of these musical moods. He takes a slightly steadier motoric pace in the central movement which might underplay the impetuosity implicit in the movement's title but he has the best recording - the complex details of Ginastera's scoring register but within a natural perspective. If Ginastera has a trademark 'sound' it must surely be these drivingly powerful toccata-like movements. Whether in the ballets, the finale of two piano sonatas or string quartet number 1 or the first piano concerto I am not sure any music has sounded more mechanistic and fuelled by machismo. As ever with such generalisations and snap-shot assessments there is both truth and superficiality in the judgement. Whilst there is much much more to Ginastera than just this style of music, it is a strikingly individual part of his musical vocabulary and something any performer must embrace. I am surprised that Mena and the BBC PO are just that fraction too 'placed' in their performance.

This observation applies to the entire programme but perhaps most to the main work; a rare complete performance of the ballet Estancia. The four dances excerpted from the score represent Ginastera's calling-card to the wider musical world but important to note that these four dances take barely a third of the complete score's running time. The only competition to this new version comes from Gisčle Ben-Dor with the LSO originally on Conifer re-released on Naxos. Hard not to hear that disc from 1997 as superior on every front; excellent production and engineering at Abbey Road from Michael Fine and Simon Rhodes, virtuosic playing from the LSO every bit the equal of their fine Manchester colleagues, but with a crucial injection of extra intensity from Ben-Dor. Added to the orchestra - and unheard in the dance suite is a small part for a baritone/narrator. Both Lucas Somoza Osterc for Mena and Luis Gaeta for Ben-Dor do a good and idiomatic job, if forced to state a preference it would be for Gaeta for being positioned at a slightly greater distance in the orchestra and having a less intrusive fast vibrato.

Certainly Ginastera as a composer deserves an appreciation that stretches far beyond 'just' the one or two popular works that have penetrated the wider audience's consciousness. Good therefore to see a label and performers of the calibre of those here engaging with his work. I hope that as the series progresses the performances will benefit from an extra degree of sensual abandon. For the moment, a measured welcome.

Nick Barnard
Previous review: Dan Morgan



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