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Music of the Americas
Silvestre REVUELTAS (1899-1940)
Sensemayá (1938) [6:27]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Symphonic Dances from 'West Side Story' (1961) [23:38]
Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
Tangazo (1970) [15:16]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
An American in Paris (1928) [19:58]
Houston Symphony/Andrés Orozco-Estrada
rec. 2017, Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston
PENTATONE PTC5186619 SACD [65:42]

I was very much looking forward to hearing this disc. The excellent Houston Symphony recorded in demonstration multi-channel SACD sound by Pentatone playing four classics of the Americas. All of the preceding is true so the responsibility for my very lukewarm enjoyment sits wholly with the interpretations of conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada. If beautiful but bland is your thing and demonstration sound is key this might well be your kind of disc. For sure there are moments of individual musical brilliance - touching horn and oboe solos in the Somewhere section of the West Side Story Symphonic Dances, a perfectly blowsy trumpet in the Home Town Blues in An American in Paris amongst several others but the abiding impression is of a series of performances where the edge and danger - the animalistic aggression implicit in three of the four works - has been airbrushed into a kind of decorous orchestral dullness. Yes the orchestra do play loud or soft as required, the ensemble playing is brilliantly tight and articulate but for the most part the drama is nearly wholly absent.

The disc opens with the ritualistic Sensemayá by Silvestre Revueltas. A crude characterisation of this piece could be as a six minute Latin American Rite of Spring. The title refers to the ritual killing of a snake. Musically it consists of small rhythmic cells over which are built a series of aggressive angular melodic lines with the music slowly building to the cathartic killing. Generally throughout the disc Orozco-Estrada favours slowish tempi. That is not an issue in this work - momentum rather than tempo is the key and the 'heavy' tempo used here is certainly a lot preferable to Stokowski's gabbled performance which is nearly two minutes faster than the new version - an extraordinary difference in a work of just six minutes in the slower performance. The new recording focuses the ear on the wind writing at the opening - in striking contrast to producer/engineer Brian Culverhouse's choice of the dominant bass drum for vol.5 of the excellent Musica Mexicana series originally released on ASV. Here conductor Enrique Bátiz conducts a ferociously propulsive version a full minute quicker than Orozco-Estrada. Here is the danger and aggression I mentioned earlier. This is not comfortable or polite music. The playing and the engineering for Bátiz has little of the sophistication the new Pentatone disc has but to my ear the spirit of the music is much more powerfully conveyed. Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the New World Symphony conducts a performance of almost identical length to Orozco-Estrada which if it lacks the muscularity of Bátiz evokes a sense of inevitability and menace again wholly missing in Houston.

In this centenary year of Bernstein's birth recordings of all his music are bound to proliferate but I expect that West Side Story Symphonic Dances will lead the field in terms of quantity. Again I was hugely disappointed by Orozco-Estrada's seeming unwillingness to inhabit the drama of this piece. To the point that I did begin to wonder if - absurd as this might seem - he had never seen the musical itself. The opening Prologue has to project a fusion of the nominally high-spirited with a curdling sense of barely contained violence; when games descend into turf-wars. Likewise the entire "scene at the gym" sequence where the politeness of the adult-staged group dances are overwhelmed by the posturing of the Mambo. Here everything stays rum-ti-tum. Tiny details; the police whistle is blown almost politely, the finger clicking is given dynamics (not sure a gang member ever worried about that kind of thing!). By the stopwatch alone Orozco-Estrada's Mambo is only some 14 seconds slower than the classic Bernstein/NYPO/CBS recording if ever proof were needed that energy and tempo are not the same thing. New York crackles with arrogant brilliance, Houston places its very nicely. Not that this music is any more the sole provenance of American orchestras. Buried deep in the discography of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is a superb version - not the recent BIS disc - on old EMI with Carl Davis conducting a series of orchestral selections from the great musicals. Davis is quite superb throughout this disc and these dances are the pinnacle. The RLPO play with thrilling energy - the brass frontline being allowed their head in a way that Houston seem not to be. The sensitivity of the solo wind in Liverpool is every bit the equal of Houston - indeed it could be argued that there is an extra degree of expressive tender fragility in Liverpool which makes the lyrical sections of Somewhere and Finale (I have a love) even more affecting than the cultured certainties of Houston. Worth mentioning that Davis is clearly something of a specialist with this piece. He re-recorded it with the RPO for their own brief-lived Tring label discs and that is another very good version indeed but without that last degree on intensity he manages to generate in Liverpool. Cool Fugue in Houston has a better balance, between the energetic and the held, making it one of the better sections in this recording.

Tangazo (which translates as "Grand Tango") is the great Astor Piazolla's attempt to enshrine in full orchestral garb the essence of New Argentinian Tango. Piazzolla's work has been arranged and re-arranged over the years for just about any and every conceivable instrumental ensemble that I think it is important to have in one's ear the original essence of New Tango. Bandoneon, violin, piano, electric guitar and double bass was Piazzolla's preferred setup and even in works for a large symphony the sound of that small group should be the driving inspiration. If you have never heard the original recordings I urge you to seek them out - they have a quite unique sound. Part of the success of Tangazo as a work is how well this sound is transcribed by Piazolla to the orchestra. But again Orozco-Estrada seems bent on smoothing out the angularities and edgy energy the work requires.

This is the fifth recording of this work I know. One of the most wholly successful is on the same Tilson-Thomas disc mentioned before. Chandos produced a recording from the Wurttembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen conducted By Gabriel Castagna - not completely convincing but a good effort. The third is on a Decca disc made during the highly productive relationship between Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal for that label. Dutoit keeps the music - even the slower passages - moving to the point that this is quickest version albeit by just twenty or so seconds. The Decca recording from 2001 stills sounds very fine but as with the new recording I find this just a tad lacking in wildness. But that said it has more personality than Orozco-Estrada.

The fourth appeared on a BBC Music Magazine disc from a live performance by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. This last performance is technically the roughest of the five but I love the sense of accumulative abandon - the feeling of dancers surrendering themselves to the dance - the sheer danger of it all. Orozco-Estrada manages to nearly completely emasculate this work. One of Piazzolla's trademark effects are the so-called whip glissandi in the strings followed by a croaking near-percussive string sound generated by playing the strings behind the bridge. You will never hear these effects as well executed as they are by the original New Tango Quintet but it can get close in an orchestra - the BBC players go for it best. Houston is all about ensemble and placement again and in doing so quite misses the point. Worth mentioning too that all three of the versions I knew before come in at very similar timings around 14:32 - 14:36 - this new disc is 15:16. Given that there are extended languorous sections this slower tempo is again not a deal-breaker by any means but sensuality is in short supply. New Tango needs a sense of simmering sexiness.

The disc is completed by a good centrist performance of An American in Paris. Most successful to my ear because it is the work presented here which needs the least "attitude" in performance. There are big emotional moments put over effectively here but there is none of the muscular arrogance that is key in all the other works. Allied to that the excellent Pentatone recording allows the detail of the score to come through although both here and in the Bernstein the saxophones are rather disappointingly anonymous in the mix. But there are literally dozens of other as, or more, characterful performances of this work available so again unless the programme as a whole of the quality of the engineering is your paramount concern this is not enough to haul a musically non-descript disc but from the edge.

The liner note is adequate without giving much detail. Personally I always like to see orchestral lists as here - the excellence of the individual and collective playing here is never in doubt. Orozco-Estrada's biography says he "immediately established a dynamic presence on the podium" which might well be true but there is little that is truly dynamic or even of much musical personality on display here. I see that although he was born in Colombia his main musical training was in Vienna. I wonder if it is that training that seems to have made clarity and moderation pre-eminent in his approach - certainly as presented on this disc. I can imagine those virtues paying huge dividends across great tracts of the repertoire but in this wonderfully earthy and human music it simply seems misplaced. I also note that he "carefully curates his programmes". Perhaps a little less care and a little more spontaneity would go a long way.

America in Aspic.

Nick Barnard

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