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Barrios symphony CDS11142
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Aurelio BARRIOS Y MORALES (1880-1943)
Symphony in F minor (1913) [42:05]
The Guardian Angel (1909) [5:06]
At the Sunset of Life for String Orchestra (1940) [6:52]
Fugue in F minor for String Orchestra (1909) [5:18]
Orquesta Sinfónica de Coyoacán Nueva Era A.C/ Rodrigo Elorduy
Rec. Centro de negocios ICC, Mexico City, Mexico, years not given
STERLING CDS1114-2 [59:21]

Aside from a few classical “pops”, the music of Latin America is still woefully unknown and underappreciated outside of that continent. There are swathes of striking and individual scores just waiting to be discovered and celebrated away from their homelands. Which is why I was especially interested in receiving this disc of four orchestral works by the Mexican composer Aurelio Barrios y Morales. All the more so since the disc contains a full four movement symphony dating from 1913. I was hoping that this work might prove to be some kind of ‘missing link’ between the European-centric works of 19th Century Latin American composers and the compellingly nationalistic works of their 20th Century counterparts.

Before dealing with the music perhaps some brief biographical information (all courtesy of the liner note) might be useful for a composer of whom I had never heard before receiving this disc. Barrios y Morales was born the fourth of six children in Zacatlán, Puebla which is roughly 150 Km north east of Mexico City. Although his upbringing was in relative poverty, with the help of a local priest he enrolled at the Puebla Seminary. Part of the condition of his enrolment there and subsequently at the Conservatory Nacional de Música was that his studies were jointly of music and to become a priest. After two years, Barrios y Morales realised his true vocation lay with music alone. That said the catalogue of his works is dominated by church music – the liner states there are over a hundred sacred works. What is not mentioned is whether any of these works have maintained a foothold within Mexican concert halls or churches. The symphony presented here - Barrios y Morales’ only work in this form - was actually written for a competition at the Conservatory although the composition date of 1913 would suggest it was submitted well after Barrios y Morales completed his studies – it did win him the first prize.

So what is the music actually like? I am hugely disappointed to say it must be one of the most conservative and least individual works I have ever heard. If you think for a moment that 1913 was the year that The Rite of Spring was premiered and Schoenberg’s infamous Skandalkonzert occurred in Vienna let alone new works from Debussy or Ravel to name but two others. Clearly music such as that would not instantly be known on the other side of the Atlantic, but Barrios y Morales’ Symphony is really no more than a rather weak ‘standard’ Germanic symphony in the Schumann/Mendelssohn mould. Not that every piece of music needs to break conventions or push boundaries but this work is the numbing combination of unoriginal and unimaginative. For sure, Latin American nationalism was in its infancy in 1913 - Barrios y Morales’ fellow Mexican Manuel Ponce wrote his most famous work Estrellita in 1912 but it would still be many years before the most famous Mexican nationalistic orchestral works would appear – Chávez’s Sinfonía India in 1935 or Revueltas’ Sensemayá in 1938 to name but two. One imagines that Barrios y Morales would have struggled to identify with his compatriots’ striking music.

I really cannot find a single passage in the symphony – or indeed any of the works performed here – that merits or commands attention. The opening Allegro con fuoco is a standard sonata-form first movement which strives to be a stormy F minor allegro. First and second subjects are presented and dutifully developed. The slow movement comes second and aspires to a Brahmsian nobility. To be fair this is probably the strongest movement in the work but the playing once again cannot sustain the climaxes – tuning and ensemble are serious issues. The Scherzo that follows again is modelled on Brahms in allegretto grazioso mode (although it is not so titled). The finale is marked allegro animato which tries to bring the symphony to a suitably triumphant conclusion. As such, it kind of works but in a very modest and backward looking manner. Circumstances are not helped by the quality of the playing and indeed the recording. These are all live concert performances given by Orquesta Sinfónica de Coyoacán Nueva Era A.C. According to the liner note this is a professional Mexican orchestra which has been in existence for around twenty years. Given the excellence of many Mexican ensembles it comes as something of a shock just how poor this orchestra is. The strings in particular are simply not up to the demands of the Symphony. Barrios y Morales does not help his players with the choice of keys but here it is not a case of needing another rehearsal to learn the music – it is simply too hard for the players. The orchestral list included in the liner shows a small string compliment anyway – just eight 1st violins. The final nail is the recording itself. Not only is the sound generally rather blowsy, it emphasises the scrawny string tone but adds to that overly prominent brass and a percussion section that dominates as soon as they touch anything. The orchestra’s principal oboe emerges as a nice player but that is really about as far as the good news gets.

The disc is completed by three other works, two that predate the symphony and one that is much later. If readers are curious, a different performance of El angel de la guarda (The guardian angel) from the one here is played by the same performers and can be viewed on Youtube. It clearly shows the limitations of both the piece and the performers. This really is a maudlin work. Scored for organ, strings, harp and triangle this reminds me of one of those cloyingly devotional Victorian pictures that used to hang in your grandparent’s front room. The liner writes of “exquisite” string scoring which it is not. Certainly the players are not tested by the work in the way the symphony does so in that sense it is “better”. Recorded at a different time, the acoustic is different too – more glassy than for the symphony with the organ sounding more like a chapel harmonium than a proper organ. Again, I find no redeeming virtues in the work. Likewise the En el ocasio de la vida (At the sunset of life) written – astonishingly – in 1940 for strings alone. Rather bizarrely Barrios y Morales seems to quote directly from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker – Act I the grandfather dance [track 6 3:00]. This is such a direct ‘lift’ that I assume it has some significance that the liner note does not explain. The disc is completed by another string orchestra work – again from 1909 this is a rather solemn Fugue in F minor. This sounds like a student exercise work as the Bachian style is so explicit that I cannot explain it having any function except as a technical practice score. Again the playing is better than in the symphony but still striking in its lack of finesse.

We live in an age where we are spoilt by the astonishing performing skills of little known players and ensembles. Likewise, there are near-daily discoveries of remarkable composers and their forgotten works. This disc is a salutary reminder that not everything deserves revival and that not every orchestra in the world is good.

Nick Barnard

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