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José Antônio de ALMEIDA PRADO (1943-2010)
Piano Concerto No 1 (1982-83) [25:43]
Aurora (1975) [18:46]
Concerto Fribourgeois (1985) [27:16]
Sonia Rubinsky (piano)
Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra/Fabio Mechetti
rec May 2019, Sala Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
NAXOS 8.574225 [72:02]

The southern border of the vast Brazilian state of Minas Gerais lies roughly 100 miles north of (and is broadly parallel to) the road which connects the more renowned centres of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Its capital Belo Horizonte lies centrally and seems to be the home of the Minas Gerais Philharmonic, which on the evidence of this disc appears to be an impressive orchestral unit. Indeed I would suggest that their enthusiasm for the challenging music on this disc more than matches that of the OSESP, their more celebrated neighbour in São Paulo.

In recording terms, José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado (to supply his name in full) has become a familiar name to certain pianophiles over recent years as the composer of the Cartas Celestes (Maps of the Night Sky), an enormous sequence of discrete pieces mostly (but not exclusively) for solo piano. Aleyson Scopel has recorded all of these solo pieces for the Grand Piano label; my review of the last of these discs refers to the lingering influence of Almeida Prado’s teacher Messiaen in the countenance of this music and also to the concertante works within the cycle which have not, to my knowledge been recorded to date.

Aurora, the earliest offering among this trilogy of Almeida Prado’s piano concertos can be seen as a pendant to the first six pieces of the Cartas Celestes; indeed in his note Cristiano Melli quotes the composer’s description of it as “…an unofficial Cartas Celestes, because it’s not numbered in the same series, but does share the same universe, the same heart, the same elan!”. It also incorporates Almeida Prado’s technique of ‘transtonality’ which amplifies the role of overtones; I have to say I responded far more positively to this ravishing and colourful work than I did to the solo pieces. Listeners familiar with them will quickly identify the similar tonal and harmonic language, but the composer’s expansion in incorporating what sounds like a huge orchestra for this 19 minute piece renders the listening experience more unpredictable and certainly less arid. In seeking to characterise his physical and emotional response to sunrise, Almeida Prado’s design seems to oscillate between episodes of tight, clear focus and music of wild unpredictability which recalls the chaotic, colourful thickness of the composer’s’s compatriot Villa-Lobos. Aurora is both dramatic and monumental; the engineers have done a splendid job in taming its excesses and realising an ideal balance between the demanding piano part and the orchestra.

It’s framed by two concertos which at first hearing seem so stylistically different they might have been penned by completely different authors; in fact Almeida Prado conceived all three of these works within a decade. The Piano Concerto No 1 is actually his only numbered work in the genre despite its designation. It embodies an arch-like structure, framed by brief panels labelled Apelo (Appeal) I and II in which contain the four-note thematic germ which drives the entire work. Apelo I inhabits murky depths whose severity soon yields to a sequence of rapid variations, performed with remarkable incisiveness and clarity by Rubinsky and the orchestra. This material displays a Bartokian melodic flavour and Ginastera-like rhythmic astringency. An anxious cadenza leads via an atmospheric, static interlude to a slow central movement labelled Transparente, floral. This music is fragrant and sensual, embroidered with washes of harp and tuned percussion. The idyll doesn’t last; the third movement proper (Granitico) is true to its word, implacable staccato string chords cut across Rubinsky’s domineering piano stylings, the residual violence echoed by thrilling Kodo-style drumming. Whilst these sounds are biting and aggressive, the melodic content is surprisingly resilient. Its attraction is reinforced by the vitality and precision of Almeida Prado’s rhythmic demands. A second suspended interlude (mirroring the first in tone and substance) transforms into an ethereal Memorial which hints at a distant, half-remembered song and a decaying, repeated piano chord; this evokes a tolling bell and duly cedes to Apelo II which concludes most abruptly. The Piano Concerto No 1 makes a lasting impact – it’s difficult to imagine a more compelling or definitive account than Rubinsky’s.

The issue concludes with the Concerto Fribourgeois, commissioned in 1985 to celebrate the tricentenary of the birth of J S Bach by Paul and Margrit Hahnloser, patrons of the arts who were resident at the time in Fribourg, the medieval Swiss city which gives the piece its name. Its tone is very different from the couplings on this disc. Whilst Almeida Prado makes his debt to the earlier masters clear (to Bach in the mannerisms of the concerto’s longish Passacaglia section, to Beethoven in several of its grandiose gestures) the clearest parallel I detected (present from the outset in the persistent dotted rhythms and even in Almeida Prado’s melodic and harmonic material) was far more unexpected. Much of this music has a striking similarity to Galina Ustvolskaya’s enigmatic Piano Concerto of 1946. I strongly suspect the overlaps are entirely coincidental since Almeida Prado’s piece pre-dates the reclusive Russian composer’s rise to prominence in the West. The Concerto Fribourgeois is framed around a sequence of relatively brief episodes whose headings (Recitativo, Passacaglia, Toccata and Arioso) certainly evoke Bach, although this at times dark work makes few concessions to easy neo-classicism. The composer lays down any number of fierce challenges to the strings of the Minas Gerais Philharmonic to which they prove more than equal. Sonia Rubinsky’s supreme commitment to this music provides yet more evidence of her devotion to Almeida Prado, whilst the recording rates highly in its depth and clarity.

In my somewhat restrained review of the fourth volume of Cartas Celestes I did express my curiosity as to how some of Almeida Prado’s more ambitious orchestral canvasses might sound. Well the answer is here, and I’m happy to report that I found all three of these very different works most enjoyable; they are each sufficiently colourful and invigorating to merit further reacquaintance. As the Naxos Brazilian series gathers momentum, I certainly hope to encounter further examples of this composer’s sizeable orchestral output.

Richard Hanlon

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