Classical CD Reviews

CHAVEZ: Piano Concerto; Meditacion; MONCAYO: Muros Verdes; ZYMAN: Variations on an Original Theme – Jorge Federico Osorio, piano/ Mexico Nat. Sym. Orch./ Miguel Prieto – Cedille

The tempestuous virtuoso Osorio negotiates three Mexican composers who share his firebrand gifts and temperament, particularly in the potent Concerto by Chavez.

Published on April 28, 2013

CHAVEZ: Piano Concerto; Meditacion; MONCAYO: Muros Verdes; ZYMAN: Variations on an Original Theme – Jorge Federico Osorio, piano/ Mexico National Symphony Orchestra/ Miguel Prieto – Cedille CDR 90000 140, 64:50 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The music of Carlos Chavez (1899-1978) maintains a startling energy based on ethnic rhythms and melodic riffs from his native Mexico, cross-fertilized by a thorough knowledge of the Classical canon appreciated for its pedagogical insights. The Piano Concerto of 1939-40 derives from a commission from the Guggenheim Foundation, so the composer felt a decided impulse to combine virtuosity with that cosmopolitan austerity and percussive dissonance that often characterize his style. American pianist Eugene List premiered the work in New York with Dimitri Mitropoulos in 1942; List eventually recorded the work under the orchestral direction of the composer.

The first movement, a grandly epic Largo non troppo – Allegro agitato, seems to be organized in terms of sound clusters. The parallel might lie in the music of Bartok – the Piano Concertos and the Rhapsody -  but Chavez has his own idiosyncratic angularity and native scales and timbres. We might conceive the Concerto as a concertante work on the scale of the Szymanowski Symphony No. 4. The impression of a knotty moto perpetuo opens the score, with Osorio’s wrists unusually active. The horns, cymbals, and tympani assist in creating a thickly rich texture that eventually winds down into something lyrical, the keyboard’s asserting a kind of nocturnal cadenza. The music resumes its raucous yet indigenous character, with outburst from the E-flat clarinet and piccolo. The metrical irregularities challenge to count the beats, a la Bartok, or even more pertinently Silvestre Revueltas, who also indulges the ear in exotic tempos in his music. When the music assumes an “Amazon” character, we think of the Villa-Lobos mystique in music, at once energized and haunted by its Indian, Aztec or Mayan sensibilities. When the tissue thin out again, indulging on horn and harp and piccolo, we feel an element from high in the mountain air. Abruptly, as is this music’s wont, the Concerto indulges in a vast sequence of scales, modal and emotionally carefree, a sort of Latinized Poulenc. Osorio’s stamina, certainly, finds itself tested in this bravura work, whose imaginative and figurations should ingratiate it to anyone fascinated by monumental keyboard technique.

The second movement, Molto lento, likewise proves iconoclastic: a loud slow movement, opening with piano and harp in what seems a variation on a Debussy prelude, the music suddenly invokes Indian sounds via the oboe over that same harp. The keyboard picks up the theme percussively, in a kind of meditative cadenza, the figures breaking into small units and fragments. A chamber music texture ensues, minimalist and angularly modal. Has Chavez been influenced by Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds? The progression gains in dynamics, an elastic crescendo in singularly askew shapes, a night-vision scene courtesy of Henri Rousseau. A kind of Indian chant concludes the movement, the colors marked by horn, tympani, and ratchet. The last movement,  Allegro non troppo, stitches a series of declamations and frenetic outbursts together, blustery and relentless. Hectic and polyphonic, the music jerks us along in irregular metrics, brilliant and passionately luminous. A rather jazzy series of tropes ensue, not so far from striding Gershwin or from the second movement of the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. The energy redoubles itself, a festive gallop more like Prokofiev than Bartok, the scale pattern echoed by various instruments in fluctuating registers. Brisk fingers from Osorio must compete with a panoply of colors, the last pages a-flurry with combative punch.

The Meditacion (1918) of Chavez opens with a riff and mood not far from Rachmaninov’s Prelude in B Minor. The music, however, sings on the last beat. Despite the separation of the hands as written, the resultant effect proves romantic and nocturnal. If the right hand waxes contemplative, the left hand indulges in chromatic pyrotechnics. A Spanish rhythm and canto jondo evolve from the wayward mix, some of which echoes Debussy. The speed of musical modulation creates an elastic effect, though the Meditacion lasts merely five minutes.

Jose Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958) finds representation in his 1951 Muros verdes or “Green Walls.” The sectionalized piece ranges emotionally from a diaphanous nocturne to an urbane toccata in strict polyphony.  Osorio plays the piece in a galvanized mechanical fashion, the thirds and fourths moving in symmetrical patterns despite the angular rhythms in 5/8 or in quadruple time superimposed on 6/8. As the modal toccata gains dynamic power, it becomes invested with more Indian character, the pentatonic scales ringing in the sun like the sword of an Aztec priest held on high prior to the sacrifice.

Samuel Zyman (b. 1956), a native of Mexico City, composed his Variations on an Original Theme in 2007 for Argentine pianist Miriam Conti. A twenty-six bar theme Largo espressivo evolves through four variations and then returns to its original countenance, much in the manner of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The musical treatment, percussive and virtuosic, wants to maintain the sense of improvisation, a jazz piece with monumental ambitions. In the course of the variations, Osorio must apply any number of bravura feats, in rubato and in syncopes, accent displacements, and exotic coloring. The Tranquillo section takes a color or two from Chopin as nurtured by Mussorgsky. Variation 3 challenges Prokofiev for witty polyphony, shades of Stravinsky. The angular Variation 4 echoes Chopin and Liszt when it wants to, each “composer” bequeathed his own line of music, so we have two ideas in counterpoint. With much attention to Zyman’s seduction bass harmonies, Osorio brings the music back to its roots, this Aztec snake having devoured its own, intricate tail, what Revueltas calls Sensemaya.

—Gary Lemco




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