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José ROLÓN (1876-1945)
Hommage to José Rolón
Les papillons blancs [2:51]*
Cinco piezas para piano, Op 12 [15:26]*
Madrigal tapatío [2:18]*
Valse Caprice, Op 14, d’après «Sur les vagues» de Juventino Rosas [9:44]
Tres danzas indigenas mexicanas (jaliscienses) [5:50]
In tempo di Minuet (manuscript from Op 3) [3:04]*
Cinq petits morceaux, Op 3 [14:14]*
Dos estudios para piano [4:48]*
Valse intime [3:20]
Cuarteto para piano y cuerdas, Op 16 [28:29]
Claudia Corona (piano); Michael Dinnebier (violin); Sylvie Altenberger (viola); Walter-Michael Vollhardt (cello)
rec. Schlossbergsaal des SWR, Freiburg, Germany
* Premiere Recording
TYXART TXA18120 [38:18 + 51:25]

While the CD booklet refers to José Rolón as being one of Mexico’s most prominent composers of the first half of the 20th century, his name certainly doesn’t crop up anywhere near as often as some of his contemporaries like Manuel M Ponce (1882-1948), Carlos Chávez (1899-1978), Spanish-born Rodolfo Halffter (1900-1987), or Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940). In fact, only one work by Rolón has featured in any MWI review, his Piano Concerto, which likewise appeared on the TYXart label, and with the same pianist, Claudia Corona, back in October 2013 (review).

Some five or so years later, Mexican-born Corona asks the question once more, why Rolón’s music does not appear to have received the acknowledgement she, and a lot of others around her feel he deserves – hence, no doubt, the issue of this double-CD investigation into his piano music, and the lone piano quartet.

Unlike some Mexican composers who spent most of their working life in the country, Rolón, who hails from the Guadalajara region, studied there for three years at the turn of the century, before continuing his education in Paris, with the ultimate aim of becoming a concert-pianist. Then in 1907 he returned to Guadalajara, where he founded a music school, which was to mark the start of his career as music-educator and developer. His first successes as a composer came in the 1920s, before he returned to Paris for another three years in 1927, during which time he studied with Paul Dukas, and Nadia Boulanger, and came into wider contact with ‘European-style’ composers like Schönberg and Edgar Varèse, as well as Hispano-Latino ones like de Falla, Rodrigo, and Villa-Lobos, before he finally relocated to his homeland.

Looking back at that earlier Corona disc, even when merely accessing sound-bite samples of the Piano Concerto, it becomes abundantly clear that this inhabits a different sound-world altogether from what constitutes the vast majority of Rolón’s piano music on this present double CD. The reason, though, isn’t hard to discern. His style is essentially an on-going attempt to fuse Mexican national musical elements with his own stylistic processes and procedures. This would take time even if he had lived in Mexico for longer than he did, but each sojourn in Paris, and the completely different musical, cultural, and aesthetic surroundings he would find himself in, would naturally add to the mix each time. Hence the Piano Concerto, which had quite a lengthy gestation period from 1928 to 1935, was bound to reflect this, when comparing its style with the generally much earlier piano works, and Piano Quartet. If we’re to believe the composer’s catalogue where, in fact, he chooses to indicate this, all the piano works and piano quartet recorded here range from Op 3 to Op 16, while the Concerto is Op 42. Corona also mentions that she had encountered difficulties in accessing his sheet music archive, which, in itself, unfortunately does the composer few favours after his death.

CD1 begins with the charming and highly-attractive Les papillons blancs – a miniature, at under three minutes, but still perfectly-formed. The Five Pieces for Piano, Op 12, open with Valse Chromatique, another finely-crafted little morsel, both from the composer’s standpoint, and the performer, with some little touches of virtuosity along the way. The booklet mentions that the ‘starting point’ for such morceaux was Weber, Field, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt. This may all be true, but Rolón’s first period of study in Paris really includes the key figure here – Moritz Moszkowski – whose eminently skilful salon pieces still delight today, and with whom I feel Rolón has the closest connection. Valse Chromatique, despite being in a different time signature, still hints at Moszkowski’s La Jongleuse in the opening section. Arabesque is again similarly reminiscent of the Polish composer, and, while a tricky little number under the fingers, never uses virtuosity for mere effect alone. As you would expect, Berceuse is gentle and inviting, perhaps in the manner of Fauré, in a slightly extended, but otherwise simple ternary ABA design, and relying on some nice little harmonic touches. Prelude is written in 5/4, which gives it real rhythmic flexibility which the composer makes effective use of. Mazurka, which ends the set, is quite an aggressive example of the genre, and more challenging for the player than might normally be expected. However, once again, it is beautifully written for the instrument.

Madrigal tapatío refers to the Jalisco region where the composer was born, but, written in 1922, is still not really rooted in indigenous Mexican music, but rather continues to follow the lines of European piano-culture. Despite some harmonic niceties along the way, the work’s title is essentially more exotic than the music itself, despite a slightly more experimental intrusion nearer the end.

Valse Caprice, Op 14, d’après «Sur les vagues» de Juventino Rosas is something of a novelty here, and possibly represents the culmination of the composer’s association with European piano music. It’s a technically-demanding arrangement, cast in variation style, on a popular waltz ‘Over the Waves’ (1888) by another Mexican composer, Juventino Rosas (1868-1894). The world of Liszt is never far away, both in the Hungarian composer’s penchant for doing something similar with various operatic numbers, and in the virtuoso style of Rolón’s writing itself – very much à la Godowsky, and great to listen to as well, even if the last two bars come over as a tad hackneyed.

The Three Mexican Dances which follow, have no opus number, and appeared in 1928. Gone are the lyrical textures we have enjoyed before. These three pieces look towards the style of the later Piano Concerto, and certainly represent a stylistic ‘turning point’, both in their greater rhythmic complexity and, harmonically, in their use of added intervals to existing common chords, all of which makes for far greater piquancy. This indeed represents a new direction, but one of which Rolón still shows himself the consummate master at the keyboard.
In one respect, it might have been more appropriate to conclude the first CD at this point. Instead, an earlier manuscript version of the final number from Five Little Pieces, Op 3 – which begin CD2 – is tacked on here, rather than including it under the banner of Op 3, though which then might almost seem like duplication.

The Five Little Pieces that open CD2 again show the composer in the mainstream European style of writing. Historiette has an almost Tchaikovsky-like sentimentality, something with which the Russian composer imbued some of his piano miniatures. Träumerei is a wistful number, possibly where the ‘dream’, does seems somewhat less happy than the one Schumann had in mind in his own piece of the same title from Kinderszenen. Petite Mazurka, like its previous counterpart in the Op 12 set, is again quite brusque and robust in concept, while Canzonetta is literally what it says on the tin – a little song, even if the middle section is somewhat agitated by contrast, and there’s a little unexpected flourish in the right hand, close to the end. The closing Menuett is a minute longer than the earlier manuscript version, which was then known as In tempo di Minuet. Either way it harks back to his neoclassical style, where Baroque ornamentation prevails in an otherwise more-contemporary harmonic setting.

The Two Studies for Piano were written in 1935 and share their sound-world with the Three Mexican Dances. The first is a study in fifths, while the second is one in seconds. While technically challenging, they adhere to the traditions of those by Chopin, and especially, later by Debussy, in that they are essentially piano pieces first, and studies second – and both highly successful in what they set out to achieve, even if the somewhat bizarre chord of C minor that concludes the second example does seem to come right out of the blue. Valse Intime (1908) returns to the salons of Paris, and, had the harmony been just a little quirkier at times, has the hallmark of Poulenc.

CD2 concludes with Rolón’s four-movement Piano Quartet, which dates from 1912. As the booklet confirms, it very much follows the style of the composer’s early piano music, rather than what he was starting to produce from 1925 onwards. As such, it does everything you would expect in any similar late-Romantic chamber work of the time. The opening movement (Allegro molto con brio) is well-crafted, tuneful and a model of concision and economy. The slow movement (Adagio) is a most attractive ‘song’, where each instrument has its own important part to play in the texture, as the music builds to a truly-passionate climax in the middle, before abating towards the end. The Scherzo (Molto vivace) has all the lightness of a French soufflé to it, so reminiscent of Saint-Saëns, for example, in his Second Piano Concerto. The finale (Allegro giocoso vivace) contrasts a jaunty, business-like main melody with a more spacious Romantic tune, in a simple confection where the opening melody finally emerges triumphant, and with a quickening of pace at the close. Even if there was no discernible Hispanic/Mexican feel to the music, it is still a most impressive work from a true craftsman and could find its way into the repertoire of any Piano Quartet looking for new material that will wow the audience, as well as being a joy to perform.

This double CD set clearly shows a composer eminently capable of adjusting from the prevailing late-Romantic European style to one where indigenous scales, rhythms, textures, and sonorities became the norm. Rolón’s ultimate mission was to try to blend Mexican Folklore with mainstream European music, but such was his integrity and musical conscience that he sought to avoid the mere trivial use of folklore ‘effects’ to produce a pseudo-Mexican amalgam, as some of his colleagues were doing, with their often ostentatious and cheaply-won pastiches. Unfortunately for Rolón, though, this was exactly what the Mexican government was actually after, following the destructive revolutionary years – nationalistic music simply and loosely based on the cultural traditions of the indigenous people. But his was not the composer’s aesthetic standpoint, as he became increasingly opposed to the prevailing cultural politics after 1920, which has surely had an adverse effect on his ranking as a Mexican-born composer.

Hopefully this CD set will provide a valuable weapon in helping to afford José Rolón the acclaim and prominence he so richly deserves, by seeking to fill in the gap since his Piano Concerto was first released some years ago. TYXart are to be congratulated for eventually following up with this new release, but I suspect the main driving force behind the whole project was Mexican pianist Claudia Corona, now resident in Germany.

If it were purely on the quality of her playing, her profuse stylistic sensitivity, abundant technical prowess, and sense of pure panache, it would make good sense to get to know as much as possible about her fellow-countryman as possible. But factor in the superb playing in the Piano Quartet, the outstanding recording quality and piano sound itself, and TYXart has really come up with a winner again, after an absence of almost six years,

Philip R Buttall

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