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Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
Orchestral Works - Volume 2
Panambí (1934-37) [37:02]
Piano Concerto No.2, Op.39 (1972) [31:51]
Xiayin Wang (piano)
Ladies of Manchester Chamber Choir
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
rec. September/November 2015 (Panambí), March 2016 (Concerto), MediaCity UK, Salford
CHANDOS CHAN10923 [69:07]

I approached the second volume of Ginastera's orchestral works from Chandos with a certain degree of caution. Volume 1, for all its technical excellence, lacked the red-blooded wild abandon at key moments which is a key element in this Ginastera's compositional palette. Conversely, the remarkable pianism of Xiayin Wang, whose blend of power and precision seems tailor-made for the piano concerto recorded here, was irresistible to hear.

In fact it turns out that conductor Juanjo Mena has a consistent musical approach across both discs. This brings more benefits on this disc than on Volume 1 but there is still the occasional relative disappointment when control rather than abandon needed. The disc opens with Ginastera's Op.1. Panambí - Choreographic Legend in One Act is a truly remarkable work for a composer in his late teens to early twenties. Yes of course there are extended passages where the influence of admired composers such as Ravel and Stravinsky are blatantly obvious but the sheer skill, handling of the orchestra and sheer originality out-weighs any possible concerns. Another group of important influences are the works by fellow Latin American composers. This score is contemporaneous with works such as Reveultas' Sensemeyá & Chávez's Sinfonia India.
Panambí is a score I know by ear pretty well. The particular success of this recording - credit to both performers and the technical team here - is the subtle layers of detail and telling orchestral colour revealed. For a young composer, Ginastera keeps the textures light and transparent for extended passages. His percussion writing, whether explosive or filigree, is a model of skilful effect. It is in the impressionist, emotionally detached passages that the relatively cool approach by Mena pays greatest dividends. A good example is the extended opening moonlight and 'forest murmurs' sequence. If you know Ginastera from the muscular posturing of much of the suite from Estancia this style will come as something of a surprise. But again, his dramatic and musical instincts are already so well tuned that when the timpani break into the Native Feast [track 3] with those nagging ostinati and aggressive brass interjections, the harshness of the change of mood, the sense of underlying threat and danger, is all the more palpable. However, I find there is more 'rawness', an apt crudeness even, certainly more nervous energy, in the performance by the Poznan Philharmonic on the Largo label. In the Daphnis-in-the-jungle Dawn section Ginastera's extraordinary evocation of the transition from day to night is more sophisticated in Manchester than in Poznan, right down to the percussion section imitating frogs. The presentation of the scene across the stereo spectrum is beautifully judged on Chandos.

One oddity about this piece; the Chandos recording and indeed a note in the liner from the conductor, make a big point that this is the "premiere recording with the original choral ending". However, the Poznan recording also includes the off-stage choir (they sound more child-like rather than female in Poznan). By timings alone and without access to a score I cannot tell if there are other details included in this new recording missing from the Poznan performance. It does not sound as if there are. Perhaps the error at the Chandos end was comparing this to the other complete performance of the work (originally on Conifer and latterly Naxos) from Gisčle Ben-Dor with the LSO. That performance does not include any chorus. In direct comparison I prefer both the Chandos and Largo recordings to the Naxos but would be reluctant to choose either of those as wholly superior to the other. As an aside - there is a four movement suite drawn from the ballet. This has not been recorded nearly as often as the equivalent taken from Estancia but the very old Everest recording with the LSO (again) under Eugene Goossens sounds remarkable for its age. This is by no means an alternative for any complete recording but a wholly enjoyable listen in its own right. Perhaps the choice of four succinct sections underlines the Stravinskian influence.

The coupling of one of Ginastera's later and knottiest works, the Piano Concerto No.2, is an inspired and powerful one. Xiayin Wang produces a performance every bit as impressive as I had hoped it would be. There is less competition in the catalogue for this work - the only other version I know is a very good Naxos disc which logically couples the two Ginastera concerti. There is another version played by Barbara Nissman and a student orchestra. Reading reviews of that performance it would seem that original dedicatee Hilda Somer in some way 'edited' the work, rewriting the second movement scherzo for right hand for the left hand (on this new disc apparently played using both hands the liner tells us) as well as revoicing/adding to the concerto's end. Quite whether this recording uses the original score as per Nissman or the edited version as per Somer is not clear. However, listening to soloist Doris de Marinis on Naxos it seems that that recording adds a solo passage/filler immediately before the final crashing chord. This Wang does not do so the balance of probability is that Wang is playing the original.

The structure of this concerto is quite unusual; four movements which start with a set of 32 variations on a theme built from a chord in Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The homage to Beethoven is present in the use of variations as well as the use of a theme from the les Adieux Sonata in the 22nd variation. The skill in composition and performance is to make this structure cohere logically - something the players do here with marked success. The following scherzo is an oddly disturbing night-scene. It is this kind of passage where the brilliance of the new recording is shown to maximum effect. The engineering captures with superb precision the intricacies of the percussion writing and its interplay with the soloist against a chilling background of slithering string chords. I still like the far less subtle performance from the Slovak PO on Naxos. Marinis is weightier in every movement and her piano is an uglier animal. It is hard not to hear Wang and Mena as the more 'complete' performance.

The third movement marked Quasi una fantasia finally allows the soloist some well-earned rest but the mood is still nocturnal in some way but with little sense of peace or relaxation. The closing movement opens with an extended accompanied cadenza - separately tracked here - which is announced by a harshly dissonant fanfare juxtaposed with thunderous percussion and thickly virtuosic piano writing. Here the BBC PO brass do sound unleashed in a way that has been absent earlier - goaded into action by Xiayin Wang's overtly brilliant playing. This leads without a break into a demonic Prestissimo finale - the piano playing an unending running sequence of triplets pursued by the whole orchestra. Apparently the inspiration here is Chopin's Op.35 Piano Sonata - although this is Chopin at several removes. Assuming the ending here is Ginastera's original, I have to say I prefer the effect of the sudden abrupt dismissive ending to the version given on the Naxos disc.

As ever, Chandos' subtly sophisticated engineering and skilful presentation make for an enjoyable audio experience before any musical judgements are made. The brilliance of the performance of the concerto allied to a very beautiful and atmospheric interpretation of Ginastera's astonishingly assured Op.1 ensures that this a very enjoyable disc indeed. I would urge listeners to seek out the more elemental, earthier approach to Panambí from the Poznan Philharmonic but this new recording remains a valuable addition to the catalogue if for no other reason than to make the listener appreciate the sheer range of the composer's work. As ever, it makes me lament that there is not greater appreciation of the quality and depth of music written across Latin America in the 20th Century. European understanding at least still seems to be based on a handful of "Latin-American-Lite" works which whilst being wholly enjoyable are no more representative of the greater body of music than minor works are of any great composer. Xiayin Wang's performance is quite superb and on the evidence here Juanjo Mena and the BBC PO are getting into their stride with Ginastera.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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