Korstick Digs Into Ginastera

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GINASTERA: Danzas Argentinas. Milonga. Tres Piezas. Malambo. Pequeño Danza. Piezas Infantiles. Doce Preludios Americanos. Suite de Danzas Criollas. Rondó Sobre Temas Infantiles Argentinos. Toccata. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 3 / Michael Korstick, pianist / CPO 555 069-2

Michael Korstick has rapidly become one of my favorite living pianists, not only because of his pace-setting recording of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas (the best modern recording by a long shot) but also because of his beautifully-chiseled Debussy and passionate Milhaud, and now he has turned his considerable talent to the music of Alberto Ginastera.

Korstick’s familiar attributes of exemplary musicianship, sharp attacks and sensitive phrasing are apparent. There are only a handful of modern pianists who come close to him in these respects, and fewer still who can immediately identify with the music the way he does. Whenever I review a new Korstick CD, I am always swept away by his passion for whatever he plays; I never have to worry whether or not he will introduce some tasteless distortions of phrase; and thus in the end I have branded him as one of those very few “untouchables” out there who never, ever disappoint. One might not think that a German-born pianist who generally specializes in Beethoven would be right for the Argentinian aesthetic of Ginastera, but adapt he does, even to the point of caressing the pulse of the Milonga in a sensuous manner. He also carries this sensitivity over to the opening “Cuyana” of the Tres Piezas, Op. 6, and finds exactly the right mood and feel for the succeeding “Nortena.” This is piano artistry on a very high level, and I find it virtually impossible to “criticize” Korstick because he’s just so damn good.

As we move on to some of the more animated pieces—the Criolla, Malambo, Pequeño Danza, etc.—we begin to appreciate the genius that Ginastera was able to pack into even short pieces. His imagination seemed always fertile, his aesthetic rooted in a headlong rush of ideas. If a strange chord or not combination seemed to be in his path, so be it. I’m not sure that the composer thought too long or too hard about which chord positions to use in his music, but merely “ran into” them as freight train flattens everything in its path. Sometimes, pure instinct surpasses long contemplation, but of course I could be wrong. So many of Beethoven’s pieces have the same feeling, yet we know from his handwritten scores that he sweated, strained, cursed, swore, crossed out and re-crossed out as he composed, but in the end whatever emerged usually sounded fully organic. Perhaps my instincts about Ginastera stem from the fact that he was Latino, and Latin folks tend to be high energy and with a temperament in the now.

The 12 American Preludes, for instance, have almost nothing to do with North America. These are mostly South American music, with such titles as “Para los acentos,” “Vidala,” “Danza criolla” and “En el 1er, modo pentafono menor,” but there are also four “Homage” pieces and one of them is dedicated to Aaron Copland. But does it sound like Copland? Not at all! It’s a headlong rush through typical Ginastera-like rhythms and clashing chords, played virtuosically in sixteenths throughout its short (53-second) span.

Perhaps, however, Ginastera was a bit too clever for his own good, because unlike many of his orchestral pieces, many of these short piano works tend to sound alike. This is no criticism of Korstick’s approach, which is fine. It’s the music itself. Working in short forms based on Latin dance rhythms, Ginastera simply repeated not only tempos but actual figures a bit too often. Of course, he probably never expected that some day people would play or record all of these pieces in sequence, to be listened to in one long sitting, but it does show that he had his own personal working patterns and that he often relied on tried-and-true techniques to put his music together. Even a fairly imaginative piece like the Rondo sobre temas infantiles Argentinas, with its contrasting sections, tends to sound like three of his shorter pieces fused together. Thus, as the CD progressed, I found my mind wandering despite the music’s surface excitement. As Lewis Carroll once said, it’s too much of a muchness!

Indeed, I found myself surprised to realize that the Piano Sonata No. 1 had actually started because it sounded virtually the same to a dozen or more earlier pieces. This was, I think, his weakness. In his ballets and concertos, he presented us with tremendous variety of sound and color, but in his piano music—and this CD includes all of it except for the Piano Sonata No. 2—the ideas run together so much that you keep experiencing a feeling of déjà vu. The ideas run together so much that you keep experiencing a feeling of déjà vu. The ideas run together so much that you keep experiencing a feeling of déjà vu.

Thus, in the end, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. Recommend or not recommend? I love Ginastera in general, and I greatly admire Korstick, but although one hears a certain amount of creativity in this music it is repetitive creativity. I say, decide for yourself.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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