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José Antônio Rezende de Almeida PRADO (1943-2010)
Complete Cartas Celestes - Volume 4
Cartas Celestes No. 13 (2001) [22:14]
Cartas Celestes No. 16, "Magical Animals" (2010) [14:53]
Cartas Celestes No. 17, "Celestial Egypt and Greece" (2010) [11:17]
Cartas Celestes No. 18, "The Sky of Macunaíma" (2010) [13:40]
Aleyson Scopel (piano)
rec. 2017, Sala Cecilia Meireles, Rio de Janeiro
GRAND PIANO GP747 [62:10]

With this release, the enterprising Grand Piano label concludes its four-disc series devoted to the solo piano works in Almeida Prado’s monumental Cartas Celestes (Maps of the Night Sky) cycle. There are in total fifteen examples across these discs: the sequence as a whole also includes works for two pianos and symphonic band (No 7), violin and orchestra (No 8) and piano, marimba and vibraphone (No 11). Our celestial guide here is the composer’s compatriot Aleyson Scopel; his playing oozes real commitment to, and belief in, these pieces, while the recording is vivid and true. This is the first time I have encountered any of this repertoire.

In his youth, José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado studied with the composer Camargo Mozart Guarnieri in São Paulo. Having won a composition competition in the late 1960s, he went to Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger and, revealingly, as far as this disc is concerned, with Messiaen, before returning to Brazil in the mid-1970s. His work list reveals a prolific output which covers most genres; at the time of his death in 2010 he was regarded as one of the foremost Brazilian composers. The Cartas Celestes are considered to be among his most important works and each makes use of ‘transtonality’, a novel harmonic language of his own invention. Scopel’s brief notes acknowledge this but don’t explain what the concept involves.

Cartas Celestes No 13 opens with a depiction of the Honda-Mrkos Pajdušáková comet. We hear multiple high trills and tremolos punctuated by brooding arpeggios in the left hand, the space between these extremes suggesting a vast, clear, Southern Hemisphere night sky. But then, the clue is in the title of this cycle. Cascades of rapid notes skitter hither and thither; there are odd hints of tonality. Abruptly, assertive chords welcome us to the constellation of Taurus. This music is certainly big on gesture, but I have to say as the disc proceeds there seems to be less in the way of real substance. There are a lot of repeated notes and chords. There is also a lot of Messiaen. Almeida Prado’s sonorities in themselves are never dull or unpleasant but as comet turned to constellation turned to cluster turned to nebula and back, I struggled to perceive any distinctiveness in each of them or formal cogency in the whole piece. One passage towards the end of No 13 (in the M32 Galaxy, for the record) suddenly brought to mind L’isle joyeuse but why those chords were there at that point I couldn’t say.

Prado’s big model here certainly seems to be the seven ‘books’ and thirteen pieces of Messiaen’s mighty Catalogue d’Oiseaux. I suppose Messiaen has the birdsong, something living and authentic to use as source material, and thus his piano masterpiece is deeply rooted in the natural world, Almeida Prado seemingly adopts Messiaen’s harmonic and rhythmic processes and postures in an attempt to characterise individual celestial phenomena which, one might argue, ultimately defy such characterisation.

So while the music may appear evocative on one level, I found it impossible to identify what, for example, distinguishes the Crab Nebula from the constellation of Perseus. Maybe I’m expecting too much in the way of literal ‘landmarks’ (skymarks?) to help me but considering these four Cartas as discrete entities is difficult, as gesturally, harmonically and rhythmically the material of each constitutes too much of a muchness. As it is, Cartas Celestes No 16 attempts to evoke heavenly entities named after animals which at least gives Prado something to go on; Aquila the Eagle soars and dives, there’s plenty of feline mystery in the Cat’s Eye Nebula while the Constellation of the Dragon makes use of a pentatonic melody.

Aleyson Scopel displays throughout an assured technique and what appears to be an utterly idiomatic command of Almeida Prado’s language. By the time we get to the final Cartas Celestes No 18, poignantly written shortly before the composer’s untimely death, there is actually a real sense that this music is Brazilian. The spirit of Villa-Lobos’ mighty Rudepoêma hovers around sporadically, aptly so as this final ‘map’ relates to Macunaíma, the central character in the eponymous novel by the Brazilian modernist author and musicologist Mário de Andrade, an individual who had a crucial influence on Villa-Lobos’ own aesthetic direction. At the end of the book, Manucaima rises to heaven and becomes the constellation Ursa Major. The ending of the Almeida Prado’s cycle is thus dance-like and joyful.

The music here, then is not unpleasant, and it is superbly played. While there are occasionally impressive compositional ideas and imaginative flourishes in the piano writing, I regret to say that much of the time I found these four Cartas Celestes derivative and repetitive. There may well be other listeners out there with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Brazilian piano music who are better placed than I to evaluate Almeida Prado’s achievement in these works. For my part, however, I would at least be interested to follow this experience up by sampling some examples of his orchestral or chamber output.

Richard Hanlon




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