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Gustavo DÍAZ-JEREZ (b. 1970)
Maghek – Seven Symphonic Poems about the Canary Islands
Ymarxa (Tenerife), for orchestra (2010) [19:27]
Ayssuragan (La Palma), for clarinet and orchestra (2012) [23:44]
Guanapay (Lanzarote), for piano and orchestra [26:24]
Chigaday (La Gomera), for orchestra (2016) [19:02]
Azaenegue (Gran Canaria), for orchestra [22:14]
Erbane (Fuerteventura), for orchestra [15:05]
Aranfaybo (El Hierro), for orchestra (2008) [11:46]
Cristo Barrios (clarinet), Ricardo Descalzo (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Eduardo Portal
rec. 2019 at the New Auditorium, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, UK
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD612 [69:37 + 68:10]

This release utterly confounded my expectations. I must confess I’ve never visited the Canary Islands; their popularity as a holiday destination for us Brits (especially the resorts of Lanzarote and Tenerife) suggests a level of commercialisation which frankly doesn’t appeal, but as a sucker for contemporary Spanish music I was curious indeed to see what a highly-regarded local composer would make of an ambitious brief to write seven symphonic poems each inspired by an aspect of one of the islands. If I was hoping for colour, atmosphere and a degree of bright sunshine in the scoring, I got all three in spades; what I was quite unprepared for was the searing modernity of Díaz-Jerez’s style, his genuine flair for orchestration, the tangible cogency of these remarkable pieces, and most strikingly of all, the real individuality of each work in relation to its six siblings. Maghek, the cycle’s title, literally means ‘the one who creates brightness’ and refers to the sun goddess of the ancient aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands, the Guanches. This is a most apt descriptor for this music. I can state at the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed every second of these two handsomely packaged and produced discs.

A word about the composer. Gustavo Díaz-Jerez was himself born on the Canary Islands and as such is uniquely qualified to meet this unusual compositional challenge. He originally studied piano at the Santa Cruz Conservatory in Tenerife and continued his training at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he also pursued composition. He has earned a reputation as a refined, sensitive pianist; his CD recording of Albéniz’s Iberia was released by the Spanish SEDEM label in 2009 to considerable acclaim. His performance of his own piano cycle Metaludios appeared last year on the IBS label – the only recording of his own compositions I could trace. The excellent website dedicated to Díaz-Jerez (and to this Maghek cycle in particular) describes his approach to composition as ‘algorithmic spectralism’; what this means in practice is that while timbre (including each instrument’s capacity for extended playing techniques) is central to his method, the sequencing and arrangement of the music per se is derived mathematically and computationally. If this latter idea suggests music that is cold and forbidding this is absolutely not the case; whilst his language can be challenging and is indubitably contemporary it is also arresting, unceasingly imaginative, lucid and frequently beautiful. Díaz-Jerez has put more than a decade of work into these pieces – they are clearly heartfelt and one gets the real impression with familiarity that not a note is wasted. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra might strike listeners as an unlikely choice for this recording but their enthusiasm for the music is quite beyond question.

Of the seven pieces, two are concertante works involving a solo instrument. One is identified on the website (although curiously not in the booklet) as a concerto for orchestra. These three are all big works of between 22 and 27 minutes duration. The other four pieces more obviously merit the label ‘symphonic poem’ and last between 11 and 19 minutes. Each piece relates to a particular location on each of the individual islands, identified by their Guanche name. As a point of general knowledge (I’m an inveterate quizzer), La Graciosa officially became the eighth Canary Island in 2018 after Díaz-Jerez had completed the present series – so perhaps there’s a bit of wriggle-room for extending the cycle in the future.

Fascinating as all these pieces are, the two concertante works particularly impressed me. Ayssuragan for clarinet and orchestra takes its name from a Guanche word meaning ‘place of freezing’; it refers to the area in La Palma whither the local non-combatant population fled, only to perish, at the conclusion of the European conquest. The music consequently projects a haunting undercurrent throughout. Díaz-Jerez refers to a characteristic of his music which he calls “emergence”; here it applies to the spirit of desolation and ghostliness imparted throughout by Cristo Barrios, an excellent soloist whose playing is bold and sensitive by turn. His clarinet traces an elusive path from the harmonics and overtones of the opening bars, via forests of skittering excitement (often featuring an energetic xylophone) and ethereal sections of glassy stasis. One responds to the music with the wonderment of an explorer discovering a long-forgotten realm, so novel are the colours that Díaz-Jerez invents. The eerie ascent of the soloist prior to the final bars seems to charm the creepy human voices of the dead from the orchestra. Exciting as the fast music is, the quieter episodes are counter-intuitively even more riveting.

At 26 minutes Guanapay is the longest piece in the set; it’s essentially a muscular piano concerto. It acts as a splendid counterweight to Ayssuragan offering heft and force in the solo part where the clarinet work centred more around the airy writing for the solo instrument. Here pianist Ricardo Descalzo meets its white-knuckle challenges head on, proving as nimble with his pedalling as he is with his digits. The title refers to an extinct volcano in Lanzarote on whose slopes stands the oldest castle on the islands. The piece navigates an imagined course between consensus and violent conflict. Tectonic collisions yield sirens of blaring brass, sounds which are pitted against delicate microtonal threads in the piano part which appears to be electronically manipulated here and there. Here is a tropical counterpart to the Icelander Jón Leifs’s geophysically-inspired orchestral pieces. There are plenty of volcanic rumblings, sinuous bass-clarinet lines and strange subterranean breathings. The mercurial piano writing falls easily under Descalzo’s fingers throughout. Dramatic chromatic chorales in the strings meld with bubbling winds and exotic woodwind lines. Overworked percussionists create steaming, boiling surfaces. Many different seabirds visit from about 11:57 – not just the inevitable gulls. Guanapay is simultaneously primordial and futuristic. It’s possibly even moved me sufficiently to want to pay a visit to Lanzarote sometime in the future perhaps….. Signum’s sound is of demonstration quality – their engineers have certainly produced a fantastic workout for one’s sound-system.

These two concertante works are immediately gripping; I found Azaenegue, the work dubbed a ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ on Díaz-Jerez’s website a rather tougher proposition. Azaenegue is a Guanche construction which means ‘The Arrival of Dawn’; it refers to the all-encompassing view from Altavista, the highest point on Gran Canaria. Dawn is depicted by the glistening percussion and harp sounds emerging from the dark cloud of string harmonics which invoke night. Subtle shifts in timbre convey changes in the light throughout a work whose mood is characterised by its morphing textures and flexible tempi as opposed to any melodic content. There are stunning sonic impressions of sea and wind which are almost literal and yet many of the sounds Díaz-Jerez conjures from the orchestra rival Xenakis in their complexity and austerity. The composer explains that the conclusion of this piece is a sonic realisation of the ‘Big Rip’- a phenomenon some physicists postulate as a possible end of the world. For the listener it’s akin to being an onlooker at the centre of a tornado.

Light is the physical concept at the core of Ymarxa, the magnificent piece that opens the first disc. Ymarxa is the Guanche name for an area of Tenerife at whose centre stood a lagoon upon whose banks the local population once worshipped. With the piece’s opening gesture it’s as if the composer has flicked a switch enabling densely woven threads of melody to compete for attention against a blinding, sunlit backdrop. Blocks of material are connected by rippling configurations of harp and tuned percussion. Díaz-Jerez’s writing for solo winds is both unusual and attractive. It communicates its Iberian character in a way that aficionados of the music of Roberto Gerhard might recognise. String and woodwind textures suggest yet more colourful birds. It is again abundantly clear that the RSNO are as taken by this music as I am. In the latter stages of the work, a sepulchral muted brass melody is infused with microtones, rendering it simultaneously ancient and modern. Similarly the incongruous sounding violin solo that follows proves with familiarity to be not quite as incongruous as it initially seemed. I am reduced to diffuse, fleeting impressions. Ymarxa glows and builds majestically. Its conclusion is stupefying. In each of these pieces, Díaz-Jerez manages to sustain an improbably high level of inspiration.

The other three works are hardly less impressive or enjoyable. Chigaday is a substantial nature portrait whereby (to quote from the booklet note) “Complexity arises, indeed emerges, from the entanglement and interaction of many small, apparently simpler parts, which together make up a whole of greater richness and significance”. Whilst this may be true on a technical level, listeners are far more likely to immerse themselves in Díaz-Jerez’s remarkably imaginative timbral evocations of avian life, of surf and spume and of rock and earth. The conclusion is magical: melodic strands seem to coalesce towards a big finish, but instead Chigaday peters out atmospherically in a collage of gentle watery textures. In Erbane the composer seems to be seeking even more explicitly to tone paint the topography of Fuerteventura. Whilst the note suggests that softer orchestral textures are more to the fore here, and supposedly represent the smoother contours of the island, that wasn’t something I easily detected. What struck me more was Díaz-Jerez’s creative approach to sound through his adoption of extended instrumental techniques to evoke nature. The second disc concludes with Aranfaybo, at 12 minutes the briefest of these symphonic poems and as far as I can ascertain the first to be completed in 2008. Here the composer has realised a perfect arch form whose central climax triggers the reiteration of the first half of the piece in retrograde. Fragmentary, crystalline textures seem to mimic the spitting rain that gives the island its Guanche name. while solo winds trace uneasy lines over faint but extended string episodes, coalescing into a complex chorale early on in the piece which absorbs brass and tuned percussion into its lush ambit. Aranfaybo inhabits a complex embroidery of delicate textures which dissipate and disentangle as the piece drifts away toward some distant horizon.

I hope I have sufficiently conveyed my admiration for the RSNO’s superb playing on these discs. Much of the credit for this must be attributed to the conductor Eduardo Portal. Given that the recording of these seven big new works took place over a brief four day window last September, fastidious preparation on his part must have been key; the orchestra’s response to what must have been unfamiliar music speaks for itself. The entire package represents a real triumph for the adventurous folk at Signum Records and constitutes a most impressive calling-card for a truly distinctive and talented Spanish composer. Releases like this often fall beneath the radar; I sincerely hope this one bucks that trend.

Richard Hanlon



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