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Manuel PONCE (1882-1948)
Chapultepec: Symphonic Sketches (1917, rev. 1923, 1929 and 1934) [19:34]
Estampas Nocturnas (1908/1912, rev. c. 1923) [21:55]
Instantáneas Mexicanas (1947) [10:29]
Suite Sinfónica del ‘Merlin’ de I. Albéniz (1929) [18:56]
Orquesta Sinfónica de San Luis Potosí/José Miramontes Zapata
rec. 2015/18, Teatro de la Paz, San Luis Potosí, Mexico

In Ponce’s vast portfolio of compositions are orchestral works that helped to lay the foundations of the Mexican national repertoire. There are also some pieces that have escaped recordings, and there is one – the Suite Sinfónica – in this disc.

Apart from his Piano Concerto No.1, Ponce’s first large-scale orchestral piece was the three-movement Chapultepec. After revision the original second movement was replaced by a wholly new one thus retaining the triptych structure. You can find this version on Brilliant Classic’s 8-CD box called Musica Mexicana where it’s played by the State of Mexico Symphony directed by Enrique Bátiz. However, in Toccata’s recording the work becomes a four-movement piece through the reinstatement of the jettisoned Paseo Diurno movement, which has never been recorded. This is clearly not what Ponce intended as he was careful to retain a balanced three-movement structure, but it affords the listener the chance to hear an ‘extended play’ of this early work. Its ardent impressionism is accompanied by thematically diverting textures, sumptuously orchestrated and it’s no surprise that Stokowski gave the revised version an American premiere in New York in the mid-30s. Birdsong and languor infiltrate the Nocturno second movement and that cut segment, the Paseo Diurno, is vibrant and colourful, indeed exuberant. Ponce’s use of native folkloric material is most evident in the finale, pre-Hispanic and Mexican dances of tangy richness and sensuality.

Unlike Chapultepec, composed in 1917 but which underwent revision in 1923, 1929 and 1934, Estampas Nocturnas, composed between 1908 and 1912, only went through one revision around 1923. Yet it needs some untangling too, as it was originally written for solo piano as well as for string orchestra. And in keeping with the Ponce trope, it too suffers from complications as to the names of each movement – you can read more about this in the excellent booklet notes. Meanwhile it would be difficult to resist the evocative nocturnal, the updated Gavotte, the songful lullaby movement or the finale, profuse in motifs with lashings of charm.

In 1947, two years before his death, he composed his last work, Instantáneas Mexicanas. Far briefer – indeed half the length - than the companion pre-war works, it deliberately employs flute and percussion to evoke native Mexican music, whilst in Canción Popular he revisits one of his own songs and in the last two Danzas returns to his Cuatro Danzas Mexicanas for piano in a fiesta of orchestrated characterisation. The odd man out here is Suite Sinfónica del Merlin de I Albéniz, composed in 1929, a symphonic suite in four movements employing themes from Albéniz’s opera Merlin. Ponce had been asked by Albéniz’s family to complete the score, which Albéniz had left incomplete on his death, and this he duly did. He worked from galley proofs that were by no means infallible so some of the solutions to the musical problems involved were his own. Now that Merlin has been recorded there is perhaps less pressing need to rely on Ponce for a succinct summary of some important themes, but it offers nonetheless an interesting sidelight into his preoccupations, not least as he was also asked by the family for this suite.

This is a most auspicious start to the Ponce series on Toccata, with fiery and evocative performances under José Miramontes Zapata. Rodolfo Ritter Arenas’ notes, to which I alluded, are splendid and the only thing wrong with this enterprise is that the gaps between movements are far too short.

Jonathan Woolf

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