Ginastera’s Mindblowing Early Ballet Impresses

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GINASTERA: Panambi (Choreographic Legend in One Act)*. Piano Concerto No. 2# / #Xiayin Yang, pianist; *Ladies of Manchester Chamber Choir; BBC Philharmonic Orch.; Juanjo Mena, conductor / Chandos 10923

This is Vol. 2 of a projected series of Ginastera’s orchestral works on Chandos. Vol. 1 (Chandos 10884) included Estancia, Ollantay and Pampeana No. 3. This one goes backward in time to begin with Panambi, the ballet score from 1934-37 which was his Op. 1, then fast-forwards to the 1972 Piano Concerto No. 2 when he had incorporated serialism in his music.

For Ginastera, color was as much an important part of his music as form, thus even from the first soft bars of Panambi one is immersed in soft pastels. Although this music is not nearly as harmonically complex as his later work, it is by no means mooshy-gooshy Romanticism, either; even at this early date, Ginastera was using some quite complex chord positions in his music, even overlaying one chord on another at times to enhance the texture. I am happy to say that conductor Mena has absorbed all of this and brings it out of the BBC Philharmonic with great skill and, best of all, clarity.

The composer quite clearly preferred the French school to the German; there is much of Dukas and Ravel in this score as well as a touch of Stravinsky. Speaking of the latter composer, he once asked Claude Debussy what he really thought of The Firebird, to which—after a pause—Debussy shrugged and said, “Everyone has to start somewhere.” Well, of course The Firebird is far from an immature composition, it just isn’t the fully formed Stravinsky of Sacre du Printemps or Les Noces; but it wasn’t his first published composition, either. For a debut work, Panambi is absolutely masterful, and not just in harmony and texture. The organic unity of the music is truly astounding, and if some of the motor rhythms (as in the “Danza de los guerre”) do hark back to Sacre, there is so much originality in the score that one is taken aback by Ginastera’s compositional audacity. Note, for instance, how the very next scene pulls back on both tempo and volume, receding into a world of remarkable orchestral color which defines the music as much as the brief melodic figures. His models are clear, but the way he re-uses their influence is startling and entirely his own.

Indeed, as the work progresses one is reminded as much if not more of the lyrical scores of Debussy (e.g., Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune) and Ravel than of anything Argentinian. Indeed, only the latter part of the score, such as the “Invocaciòn a los espiritus” and “Danza del Hechicero,” really has a strong Latin flavor about it. The liner notes also praise his grasp of color, even in the quietest passages; it is music that literally splashes across the mind like a spray fountain at night before a row of colored lights. And the music never becomes stagnant or overstays its welcome. I was rather startled to discover that this is one of only two recordings of this work available, the other one being on Naxos by the excellent conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor, but the spectacular sonics of this release and Mena’s more idiomatic reading give it a slight edge over hers. The women’s chorus that emerges in “El Amancer [Dawn]” has a feeling similar to “Neptune, the Mystic” from Holst’s The Planets.

The Piano Concerto is an entirely different animal, even as concerti go, since its first movement is set up as a theme and 32 variations, “accordo di Beethoven.” Interestingly, the infusion of serialism in Ginastera’s music, though it certainly changed the harmonic progression, didn’t really alter his sense of color or his penchant for atmosphere. Nor does it inhibit his penchant for strong rhythms, as one will note when listening to the first movement. Nonetheless, I felt that some of this later work was a bit more intellectual in concept and not really spontaneous in its outpouring. This doesn’t mean that the music is poor or uninteresting, only that there is a certain feeling of contrivance here that doesn’t seem to be present in Panambi. The composer quite evidently tried to take an entirely new approach to the piano concerto, creating music in which the solo instrument is front stage center while the orchestra acts more as “color commentary” around it. I found this extraordinarily interesting while still admitting that the score’s creation was obviously less spontaneous.

Listening to the concerto, particularly the first movement, one is so immersed in the sound and color of the music that the “theme and 32 variations” don’t even register as such unless you are following it with a score in hand. Similarly, the remaining movements, though centered around less variations, have the same basic impact. This is the kind of music in which a super-virtuoso is more impressive than a sensitive pianist; Ginastera’s world of color and rhythm never had much room in it for water-eyed ascetics. I’d love to hear Marc-André Hamelin or even Martha Argerich, whose playing I generally dislike, take a shot at this score…with the right conductor, of course. At certain moments, such as the middle of the second movement when the tympani whacks emerge, one is reminded of parts of Panambi in its use of color. In that respect, Ginastera varied his approach but never really left it behind. At first, the opening notes of the third movement suggest a more conventional “Adagio,” but it isn’t long before Ginastera tosses in a few odd, eerie string chords to disorient the listener. A series of rising right-hand trills on the piano lead one into a sequence that includes staccato bitonal chords and even a few pounded low bass notes. “Quasi una fantasia,” my eye! though that is what this movement is marked. As the music becomes more agitated, the piano trills become more insistent and the string chords louder before the volume recedes, leading to an almost pensive series of single notes in the right hand and occasional chords in the left.

In the last movement, which strangely enough begins with edgy brass chords and a cadenza before romping into a prestissimo finale, brings this very strange piano concerto to its close. In the latter half, the piano plays repeated staccato notes followed by rapid eighth-note runs up and down the keyboard while the brass plays crescendi using cup mutes to bring their sound up from soft to loud. The strings swirl around when called for, and the later section of this movement combines the brass and strings in edgy, high-range sound mixtures. It’s quite the wild ride, ending quite suddenly with a mixed brass chord.

What a fabulous recording! Give this one a ride.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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