Mena Continues His Ginastera Series

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GINASTERA: Piano Concerto No. 1. Variaciones Concertantes. Concierto Argentino / Xiayin Yang, pn; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Juanjo Mena, cond / Chandos 10949

In this, the third installment in Juanjo Mena’s series of Ginastera’s orchestral music, he moves backward in time from the second piano concerto (Vol. 2) to the first, written in 1961 in memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky (it was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation). It is no less powerful or innovative, however, and in fact I seriously doubt that Koussevitzky, a musician of limited gifts, could have done it justice. Jagged rhythms such as these were beyond his capabilities, but he probably would have assigned it to his associate during the 1940s, Leonard Bernstein, to conduct. It’s unusually constructed, with the orchestra playing atonal harmonies within its Stravinskian framework, and the piano acting as a commentator on the ongoing proceedings, filling in lines and textures rather than creating an independent solo around which the orchestra coalesces. Moreover, the remaining works on this disc go even further back in time: the Variaciones Concertantes date from 1953 and the Concierto Argentino from 1935.

Pianist Xiayin Yang has the requisite technique for his part as well as a good grasp of musical style and phrasing, and the BBC Philharmonic plays with exceptional fire and energy. Most interesting among the concerto’s four movements is the “Scherzo allucinante,” taken at a relatively slow pace for a scherzo and focusing on sparse flute and other wind instruments weaving their way around the piano, which here assumes center stage, creating odd rhythmic figures that eventually increase the tempo and energize the brass and percussion into action around it. The “Adagissimo” movement follows closely on its heels, and again Ginastera creates an unusual structure, largely instrumental in its first 1:41, with an alternation of forlorn winds and explosive orchestral moments before the piano enters. Soft, high, mysterious strings end the movement along with the piano. The finale, “Toccata concertata,” is built around an energetic and aggressive rhythm, again pitting high winds (and percussion) against the soloist.

The Variaciones Concertantes inhabit an entirely different sound-world, beginning with a lovely cello solo. As the notes indicate, this piece is as much a concerto for orchestra as a set of variations, and the opening theme is delicate and sparsely scored. The first variation features the flute, and is energetic and also mostly tonal. Then comes the variation for clarinet, bouncy and energetic in a quick 3/8 tempo. The viola variation begins with a solo, ruminative and using modal harmony, before soft winds underpin the instrument. This is followed by an energetic and highly rhythmic variation for the trumpet and trombone sections, lasting but 35 seconds, before the violin gets its turn in an almost jig-like movement. A pastoral interlude follows, highlighted by both winds and horns, which leads directly into a lovely contrabass solo in the same mood. The final variation, in the form of a rondo, is energetic and features the whole orchestra.

Interestingly, the early Concierto Argentino sounds even a bit more modern than the previous (later) work, although it is more clearly based on Argentinean music and rhythms. In this piece the solo pianist plays an opening solo that sounds like a classical version of barroom music. Yet, interestingly, Ginastera manages to weave the disparate parts of this music together to create a whole cloth, which unfolds in its own grand manner. In this work, despite his brilliant technique, I felt that Yang’s playing was all surface and didn’t get under the skin of the score, though Mena does his best from the podium.

Another excellent CD of Ginastera’s music, and a must-have for admirers of this great composer.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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