Ponce’s Piano Music Brought to Life by Cendoya

front cover

PONCE: Rapsodia Cubana. Guateque. Suite Cubana. Preludio Cubano. Elegía de la Ausencia. Cubana (Danza de Salón). Moderato Malinconico. Scherzino (Homenaje a Debussy). Intermezzo No. 2. Preludios Encadenados. Suite Bitonal / Álvaro Cendoya, pianist / Grand Piano GP764

This is Vol. 2 of Álvaro Cendoya’s traversal of the piano music of Manuel Ponce. Perhaps best known in the United States for his charming song Estrellita, which became a huge crossover hit in the 1930s, Ponce was also a serious musician who wrote a large body of music. Some of his finest pieces, such as the Balada Mexicana, Concierto de Sur, Estampas Nocturnas and the Violin Concerto, were recorded by conductor Enrique Batiz back in the 1990s.

Like so many nationalistic composers of his time, Ponce’s music leaned so heavily on native popular and folk tunes that the end results often sounded like those kind of songs with classical filigree added to them. He left Mexico midway through the revolution and lived in Cuba from 1915 to 1917, later moving to Paris during the 1920s (didn’t they all?). This does not, however, detract from their substance; Ponce was essentially a late Romantic, but his compositional style evolved with time and was always rooted in strict classical principles. Thus the Rapsodia Cubana starts out much like a Cuban song but eventually becomes quite complex, blending its tunefulness with development and counterpoint. Pianist Cendoya evidently loves this music; every note and every bar fairly bursts with deep feeling, bringing the notes to life in a quite remarkable manner.

Interestingly, Guatesque shows a close affinity to the rags and “Mexican serenades” of Scott Joplin. Perhaps Ponce was a fan? After all, Joplin was enormously popular in North America and didn’t die until 1917. The Suite Cubana, although also evidently based on local music, but the third movement, slow and dark, has an entirely different feel to it. Both the Preludio Cubano and Elegía de la Ausencia have a similar beat, but the latter is a bit slow, in a minor key, and rather ominous in feeling. By contrast, the Cubana (Danza de Salón) also has a Joplinesque feeling, perhaps even more so than Guatesque, alternating between D minor and D major, although it just repeats the two strains without bothering with a trio theme.

The Scherezino, written as a tribute to Claude Debussy in 1912, uses more passing tones and whole tones than usual for Ponce, although the middle strain is in a conventional tonality. Sadly, the Intermezzo No. 2 is a relatively tame and conventional piece, well written but not very interesting. By contrast, the Preludios Encadenados, though in much the same tempo and mood, evolves in a much more interestng manner, and the musical structure is more involved, becoming quite complex at the three-minute mark.

The back cover insert for this CD indicates that Ponce’s Suite Bitonal explored “new compositional techniques, resulting in his own modernist style,” but this doesn’t quite prepare the listener for the actual music, which is extraordinarily playful. It’s almost as if Ponce decided to test the waters of bitonality but consciously chose to invent charming themes to set it to. Yes, the “Arietta” and “Sarabande” are rather Debussy-ish, but as we’ve seen Ponce already had a high regard for Debussy’s aesthetic, so that isn’t terribly surprising. In the last movement, marked “Gigue,” Ponce is back at his playful best.

As with so many collections of this type, then, it’s a bit of a mixed bag but full of some surprising goodies, well worth exploring.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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