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Esteban BENZECRY (b. 1970)
Violin Concerto (2006-08) [27:16]
Ciclo de canciones (2014) [20:21]
Clarinet Concerto (2010) [25:04]
Ayako Tanaka (soprano), Xavier Inchausti (violin), Mariano Rey (clarinet)
Lviv National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Pablo Boggiano
rec. 2019, Lviv National Philharmonic Hall, Lviv Oblast, Ukraine.
Spanish sung texts, and English translations included.
NAXOS 8.574128 [72:57]

I think I first came across the name of Esteban Benzecry a few years ago in a French music magazine which I picked up when it was left behind on a table in the departure lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport. What I read made him sound an intriguing figure. But, as one does – or at least I do – I forgot the name before I ever got round to trying to find out more about him and hear some of his music. More recently, and quite by chance, a friend and former student of mine who sometimes sends me news of what she has been enjoying in the arts, sent me an email which contained a YouTube link to a performance of Benzecry’s Rituales Amerindos: tritico precolombino para orquesta given by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in the Concertgebouw. The music certainly was impressive, rich in echoes yet distinctive, strikingly orchestrated and with a strong South American flavour. I was, therefore, pleased to get the opportunity to hear and review this new disc of Benzecry’s work.

I have seen Benzecry described as a French-Argentinian composer (as in the booklet of this CD). But, musically speaking, he is an Argentinian composer who has absorbed some French influences. A little biography may be useful. Esteban Benzecry was actually born in Lisbon, but largely grew up in Argentina. He is, I believe, the son of Mario Benzecry, a well-established Argentinian conductor with an international reputation (he has an informative entry on Spanish Wikipedia). In Argentina the young Benzecry studied composition with the pianist and composer Sergio Hualpa. In the first half of the 1990s his compositions attracted much attention – and won him several awards – in Argentina. In 1997 he moved to Paris; at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris he studied composition with the organist and composer Jacques Charpentier (1933-2017) and the Iraqi-born composer Paul Méfano (b.1937). He also studied electroacoustic music with his fellow Argentinian Luis Naón (b.1961), then working in Paris. He was thus exposed to diverse approaches to contemporary music and its composition. The vibrant musical life of Paris doubtless presented him with a range of other influences and models. In 2011 he became a French citizen. While still in Argentina, Benzecry had studied painting at the Prilidiano Pueyrredón National School of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires – and there is a strong visual element to many of his compositions. His first symphony (1993), indeed, is said to have been inspired by four of his own paintings.

The Violin Concerto, which opens this disc, is in three movements. The two outer movements (at 11:02 and 10:21) are each of them approximately twice the length of the central movement (5:48). Each movement carries a title, respectively ‘Évocation d’un rêve’, ‘Évocation d’un tango’ and ‘Évocation d’un monde perdu’. The soloist on this recording, Xavier Inchausti, is an Argentinian who studied at the Reina Sofia School of Music in Madrid. The Naxos booklet note by Benoît Duteurte explains that this concerto grew gradually. ‘Évocation d’un rêve’ was written while Benzecry was composer in residence at the Casa de Velázquez in Madrid between 2004 and 2006 (supported by an award from the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France). It was originally intended as an independent one-movement work when premiered in Paris in 2006. So, too, was ‘Évocation d’un monde perdu’, which had its premiere in 2008. Benzecry then decided to treat them as the first and last movements of a concerto and composed ‘Évocation d’un tango’ as a central movement for this concerto. The completed concerto was premiered, again in Paris, in December 2009. In a 2014 interview with Eduardo Balestena, Benzecry spoke at length about the Violin Concerto and much of what he says is illuminating: “in my violin concerto I take certain roots, melodies, rhythms and mythological legends of our continent as a source of inspiration, but to develop my own language, my intention is not to do ethnomusicology or orchestrate Folk melodies”. He works, he says “in a more free and intuitive way, integrating these elements into my language”. With reference to ‘Évocation d’un rêve’ he observes that “In this work, there are small motifs evoked by Spanish music, including the music and the deep singing of the tablaos, but in the context of a contemporary orchestration, these evocations are like characters who at times enter and leave the scene within a sound scenography that gives them a unity of atmosphere and character. I also evoke my Sephardic roots”. Of ‘Évocation d’un tango’ he says “I evoke part of my Argentine origins, my city of Buenos Aires, where I lived most of my life, in which a tango is heard that was never written” while ‘Évocation d’un monde perdu’ is, he says, concerned with “the development of melodies and rhythms of South American folk roots, like the Baguala, Carnavalito, the Malambo, the traces of a pre-Columbian world, little known and lost.” If we consider these three pieces as constituting a concerto, then we can see that larger work as tracing a movement – in Benzecry’s mind and music – from Europe (specifically Spain, with which Argentina has had a long and complex relationship, and where the composer’s Sephardic roots lay), through modern urban Argentina (specifically Buenos Aires) to, finally, a pre-Columbian world that occupied the land in earlier times. This gives the concerto an ‘argument’ of sorts. Personally, I am inclined to find these three ‘Évocations’ most rewarding listened to individually, rather than as a concerto in three movements. My own favourite (at the moment!) is the first, ‘Évocation d’un rêve’. The conte jondo and the tablaos – the flamenco venues – are evoked only quite lightly, but attractively. (I wonder if Benzecry visited either Tablao Cardamom or Casa Patas in Madrid? – I name these simply because they are the ones I have been to). This first ‘Évocation’ begins with some strange microtonal effects in a subtly disturbing, yet beautiful, passage; after about four minutes the rhythms become more pronounced, emphasized in the lower brass especially; the music is unsettled and such echoes of flamenco as there are distant and (as the title of the movement implies, more dreamlike than ‘real’). Gradually the range of orchestral colours grows. What the soloist plays is commented on, rather than supported, by the orchestra. There is much to suggest that this ‘dream’ is somewhat troubled. In the closing phase of the movement, the music gets busier and busier as it builds to a less than explosive climax.

In the 2014 interview cited above Benzecry relates his approach to orchestration to his training as a painter: “My main influences regarding the effects of my orchestral coloring are: my pictorial past, I had a training as a plastic artist and that somehow left as a feature of my music the fact that it is very visual and varied in colors, it is as if I were coloring with my music, as if I were constructing sound sets”. In his writing he evokes, rather than employs, traditional instruments: “In my works I like to recreate the sounds of autochthonous instruments such as quenas [the quena is the traditional flute of the Andes] or sikus [the siku is the Andean panpipe], but using the instruments of the traditional orchestra, through current procedures such as the use of multiphonics, harmonics, different types of blows, extended techniques in aerophones, etc.”. However, in describing Benzecry’s orchestration as colourful, which it most definitely is, it should also be said that the music also has shape and substance. So, for example, ‘Évocation d’un tango’ begins in a kind of aural haze, with quasi-industrial and urban sounds prominent, with fragmentary reminders of tango emerging, before the violin takes centre-stage with an increasingly impassioned melody. Eventually the violin is submerged by the atmosphere and sound world of the opening. The most magical of these three pieces is ‘Évocation d’un monde perdu’, an attempt to summon up before the listener’s ears the lost sounds of a lost world. The echo of Proust in the title is doubtless intentional. The whole movement has a dream-like quality and power which, at times, becomes almost hallucinatory. The movement ends with a fierce moto perpetuo which makes considerable demands on the soloist – here, as elsewhere, Xavier Inchausti is impressively accomplished.

The five songs of the Ciclo de canciones also make considerable demands on the soloist – the Japanese soprano Ayako Tanaka. Benzecry was, in the words of Benoît Dutuerte “instantly captivated” by Tanaka’s voice at first hearing of it. Tanaka is best known as a coloratura soprano. She has a voice of great agility and of genuine lyrical beauty. Her website lists three solo albums by her; their titles are Coloratura, Wiener Coloratura and Vocalise – titles which suggest where her greatest strengths lie. Benzecry’s set of five songs gives her some coloratura passages to sing, and she sings them superbly. When it comes to the actual texts set by Benzecry, her diction (at least as recorded here) is not the clearest, so I was grateful that the CD booklet provided both the sung texts and English translations of them. I hope I am not being unfair to Ms. Tanaka if I say that she didn’t, for the most part, appear to be too interested in what the words meant. This is unfortunate and robs the work of some of the power it might have had. The texts are very intelligently chosen and cohere around a number of images and ideas. The imagery of trees and flowers, the shifting between first person singular and first person plural, sleep, rebirth – these and other repeated motifs (though the poems are by different authors) create a cycle in which the detail of the sung texts is an important dimension of the completed work. The opening poem – perhaps written specially for this work – is by Esteban Benzecry’s wife, the poet and painter Fernanda Victoria Caputi Monteverde. Its first two stanzas focus on two trees and their ‘flowers’ – first the ceibo, (Erythrina crista-galli), the ‘cockspur coral tree’, which is the national flower of Argentina. The second stanza refers to the sakura, the Japanese cherry or Prunus serrulate, the national tree of Japan. What could be more appropriate to a work by an Argentinian composer, written for performance by a Japanese soloist? The song’s Spanish title, ‘Del encuentro al camino’ is here translated, by Susannah Howe, as ‘Together on the Path’. The text of the second song ‘Paz’ (Peace) by Alfonsina Storni (1892-1938), an important Argentinian poet, begins “Let us go towards the trees … divine/virtue will bring us sleep.” And the phrasing is repeated at the beginning of the second stanza: “Let us go towards the trees, our souls/lulled to sleep by their earthy fragrance”. The text of the third song – only four lines long – with the title ‘Quiero ser’ (I want to be) is by Ana Lia Berçaitz (b.1947), another Argentinian poet. In Susannah Howe’s translation it read thus in full: “I want to be like the falling rain/that soaks into the earth and germinates it,/like the wind that scatters the seed/and on summer evenings becomes a gentle breeze.” Like its immediate predecessor – but unlike the first two poems in the Ciclo (which used the first person plural) – the fourth sung text, a poem by Gabriela Mistral is in the first person singular. Mistral (1889-1957) was a great Chilean poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. Her poem ‘La Noche’ uses a number of images we have met already. Again, my brief quotations are from the translation by Susannah Howe provided in the CD booklet. Mistral writes “To allow you to sleep, my child,/the sunset has ceased to glow”, “only the river is murmuring/only I now exist”, “The morning glory flowers are shut tight”, “As I sang I was doing more/than soothing my child:/the lilting tune of my lullaby/was sending the Earth itself to sleep”. All four of these texts, set as the first four songs in Benzecry’s Ciclo de canciones are, it is worth noting, by female poets. They portray the female experience as lover and as mother, as agent both of (re)birth and of sleep/death. It initially comes as something of a shock, therefore, to find that the closing text of the Ciclo is an extract from a much more ancient text, the ‘Qachwa de waylacha’, related to a ceremonial dance of the Quecha people, (sung here in a Spanish translation). The Quecha are an indigenous people living in the Andes; quecha, which predated the Incas themselves, became the language of the Incan empire. Thus the Ciclo, rather like the Violin Concerto, begins in Benzecry’s here and now (in this case with a poem written by his wife) and finishes in the pre-Columbian past, the time of origins. Fittingly the text is here titled ‘Altar de la existencia’ (Altar of Existence):

What is the origin of our existence,
o beautiful and holy river,
on the altar of our existence.
Tree of sweet love that I planted for myself,
watered and nurtured with the tears of my youth.

Let us make an offering to the season of fruitfulness,
o beautiful and holy river,
on the altar of happiness.

Guide me and draw me towards you.

It is a measure of how much thought Esteban Benzecry put into the choice and arrangement of the texts in his Ciclo that this centuries-old ceremonial song should ‘echo’, as it were, the four much more modern poems which precede it here. It serves to show just how ‘rooted’ the ‘modernist’ art of Argentina is in its pre-Columbian past. It enables the sequence to effect a movement backward through time (and to some extent through space), as its texts move from Benzecry’s own time and place, through some Argentinian predecessors to the Chilean Gabriela Mistral who, incidentally, was brought up in a small Andean village, right back to the pre-Columbian era (when Argentina and Chile didn’t yet exist). This song cycle is rich in its meanings and its power, and one understands more of its richness the more one examines the words of the sequence.

The Clarinet Concerto which closes this disc is, rather like the Violin Concerto which opens it, as much, if not more, a suite of pieces for clarinet and orchestra rather than a concerto in the conventional sense. It consists of four movements, each with a title: ‘Ecos del horizonte’, ‘Danzas volcánicas’, ‘Baguala enigmática’ and ‘Toccata caribeña’. These titles are Englished as follows in the CD booklet: ‘Echoes of the Horizon’, ‘Volcanic Dances’, ‘Enigmatic Baguala’ and ‘Caribbean Toccata’. The echo motif is prominent in the first movement, with the initially unaccompanied clarinet playing some dolorous figures; as the clarinet moves up to its highest range it is joined by first the strings and then the winds. But the music remains largely quiet and introspective, communicating the sense of a solitary individual in a wide and largely empty landscape marked by distant horizons. Things change abruptly, as the second movement begins. The landscape seems to have become decidedly mountainous and some, at least, of the mountains are volcanoes. The movement opens with some emphatic use of the timpani. Gradually the music evolves, in Benzecry’s words, into “imagined folk themes, pentatonic scales that recall Andean folk music, a carnavalito rhythm [the carnavalito is an ancient folk dance of pre-Columbian origins], multiphonic sounds and a dialogue between the soloist and the percussion, which dance to an irregular rhythm.” The volcanoes never quite erupt, but they seem to provide the rhythmic basis for this movement. I find this second movement somewhat enigmatic, though the puzzle is not unpleasant or disturbing – heard purely as a sequence of sounds ‘Danzas volcánicas’ is engaging and pleasant.

Benzecry himself uses the word ‘enigmatic’ in the title he gives to the third movement – ‘Baguala enigmatica’. The baguala, according to Benoît Duteurte’s booklet notes, is a “folk genre of western Argentina, of pre-Hispanic origins, typical of the Salta province, and performed by a single singer, the bagualero.” Here, as one might expect, the clarinet takes on the role of the bagualero while, in Benzecry’s own words “pizzicato strings imitate the strumming of the charango (a small guitar, traditionally made from an armadillo shell).” Before the clarinet takes over, however, there is an introductory passage involving piano, strings and low brass and a short trombone solo. Once the clarinet is foregrounded the music takes on an attractively lyrical quality, as a pleasing melody unfurls slowly. Characteristically, where Benzecry is concerned, there is no imitation of a specific traditional baguala melody – the composer choosing to imitate the idiom, rather than appropriate a single example of it. Benzecry adopts the same procedure in the final movement of the concerto, ‘Toccata caribeña’. Once more Duteurte quotes the composer’s own comments on the piece. The composer states that he sought “to express the joy and the festive and sensual feel of Caribbean rhythms by evoking the style of the region’s folk music rather than quoting directly from it”. This is spectacular music, brilliantly orchestrated and richly coloured – the recorded sound captures it well. There is an attractive clarinet cadenza about halfway through the movement’s eight-minute length. The movement concludes with some dramatic writing for both soloist and orchestra. Still, I have to say that although I enjoyed this Clarinet Concerto, I find it less substantial, less rich in significance, than the other two works on the disc. All three works receive their World Premiere Recording.

Overall this is an exciting and rewarding disc. Bezecry’s music explores both his own ‘identity’, through some autobiographical allusions, and the nature of what it is to be a Latin-American artist, in terms of what such an artist inherits from the traditions of his/her native land and in terms of modern artistic idioms across the globe. Though I have my reservations (see above) about some aspects of Ayako Tanaka’s performance of the Ciclo de canciones, in general the performances are vivid and idiomatic. I was impressed by the musical intelligence and technical competence of both Xavier Inchausti and Mariano Rey; the Lviv National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pablo Boggiano, give committed and assured performances. An Argentinian, Pablo Boggiano began his studies as a conductor with Mario Benzecry at the National Consevatory ‘Lopez Buchado’ in Buenos Aires.

I would sum up the music of Esteban Benzecry as a development of the musical vision of Ginastera. Like Ginastera, Benzecry uses the resources of the ‘European’ orchestra to explore the pre-Hispanic world which underlies, literally and metaphorically, modern Argentina. The resources offered by European music are now more various than those that were available to the earlier composer – in his 2014 interview with Eduardo Balastena, from which I quoted earlier, Benzecry says “added to my interest in the folk music of our continent, my taste for the color of the orchestral palette of French music has influenced me, from the Impressionists, through Dutilleux, Messiaen and even current spectral music, from where I learned many of those orchestral effects that are used so much today and my brief contact with electroacoustic music during my student days in Paris, which although I did not venture into it, has greatly enriched me by opening my ears in search of other sounds, but with the symphony orchestra which is my favorite instrument.”

As the icing on the cake where this fine album is concerned, the front cover of the CD booklet carries a very beautiful image by Pablo Lembo, an Argentinian artist and designer now based in Sweden.

Glyn Pursglove

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