Benzecry’s Song Cycle & Concerti

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awardBENZECRY: Violin Concerto.1 Ciclo de Canciones.2 Clarinet Concerto3 / 1Xavier Inchausti, vln; 2Ayaka Tanaka, sop; 3Mariano Rey, cl; Lviv National Philharmonic Orch.; Pablo Boggiano, cond / Naxos 8.574128

This disc presents the first recordings of these works by French-Argentinean composer Esteban Benzecry (b. 1970), of whom I had not previously heard. The Violin Concerto opens with strange microtonal figures (shades of Julián Carrillo!) played by the clarinetist, violin soloist and orchestra, setting an eerie, suspenseful mood for what is to come. Indeed, much of the first movement has a strong Carrillo-like feel to it, with the soloist entering in his high range playing edgy figures. Benzecry calls this concerto “autobiographical” and draws on South American folk music and rhythms, although I believe that the finished product, at least in the first movement, is much closer allied to Ginastera and Carrillo. Eventually, at 3:55 into it, strong rhythms are indeed set up by the low brass in the orchestra, and these alternate with the slower, more microtonal playing of the soloist. This movement is titled “Evocation of a Dream,” but there must certainly be some elements of a bad dream in it, for the music is more restless than peaceful, at least until 5:52 into it, at which point a few restful moments come and go. Despite all these contrasting features, however, the work has a strong sense of structure.

The second movement is titled “Evocation of a Tango,” but thankfully it’s not tango-centric like all of those mediocre works by Piazzolla. The tango rhythm is much slower and more subtle here, and Benzecry leans into modal harmonies to create a dreamlike, almost peaceful atmosphere. The third movement, “Evocation of a Lost World,” begins ominously, with pounding timpani and low brass and winds. This orchestral storm calms down for the violin’s entrance, yet the mood remains sad and elegiac. In fact, since none of the three movements are really fast, the concerto as a whole is rather doleful, but then again so is most of Weinberg’s output and I love his music, too. Ah, but this final movement does indeed become quite hectic at about the 6:45 mark and continues to be so to the end, turning quite edgy with bitonal brass chords and pounding timpani behind the soloist, who plays a series of rapid figures.

The Song Cycle is based on Japanese culture as much as Argentinean, thus it is appropriate that it is sung here by Japanese soprano Ayako Tanaka for whom it was written. The first song, “Together on the Path,” is based on a text by Benzecry’s wife, Fernanda Caputi. Its theme is the meeting of two cultures, represented by Argentina’s national flower, the scarlet celbo of the coral tree, and Japan’s cherry blossom. Tanaka has a beautiful voice, steady in emission and with a unique lyric beauty about it, though her highest notes tend to be a bit squally. Much of this first song is simply a vocalese without words; she doesn’t begin singing words until 1:44 into the piece. Behind her, Benzecry continues to use bitonal orchestral chords to accompany the otherwise tonal, lyric line.

The other songs in the cycle are “Paz [Peace],” based on a poem by Alfonsina Stomi, “I want to be” by her compatriot Ana Lia Berçaitz, “Night” by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and “Altar of Existence,” based on an excerpt from a Quechua text of the Peruvian Coracora community. In all of these, Benezecry mixes the lyrical with the harmonically edgy, to great effect. I was captivated by this cycle from start to finish. Tanaka’s one deficiency as a singer is that she does not interpret words, she merely sings notes. In the fourth song, Benzecry creates some unusual timbral sounds by blending winds and brass together in close chords, and here, too, he uses what I would characterize as a somewhat Japanese-sounding melodic line. The fifth song is different from all the others, being set to fast, powerful, almost ominous music, again colored by heavy brass, timpani and low strings. Later on, he uses the violins in loud, skittering motifs, and the soprano twitters away cheerfully in her extreme high range with coloratura fireworks.

The Clarinet Concerto opens with the soloist playing dolefully, all alone. After rising to its upper range, the clarinet is then enjoined by soft, swirling string figures, creating a mood of expectation for what is to come. This first movement’s drama is created by the clarinet moving up, now and then, to its extreme upper range while the high winds and strings continue to create new swirling figures in the background. Indeed, the continued quietude of this first movement suspends the feeling of expectation without ever seeming to resolve it. Not until the 6:40 mark does the music seem to be coalescing into a continuous musical form, and that feeling is short-lived as the movement ends on a series of low clarinet trills and a strange, rising three-note figure a minute later.

The second movement, by contrast, opens with pounding timpani and is all rhythm and excitement, though this is maintained at a low enough level to allow the clarinet to continue to be heard above all. Here, too, the soloist doesn’t seem to be so much a part of the evolving musical discourse as simply an outside commenting on it with short rhythmic motifs, yet because of the aural balance his line is the one that is always most prominent. The third opens with soft, low piano chords, string tremolos and low wind and brass figures, followed by—surprisingly enough—a growl trombone solo, who is joined by the other trombones who then play a chorale-like figure. The music quiets a bit but doesn’t really die down as the solo clarinet enters, eventually playing a surprisingly lyrical melody. Here, the soloist does indeed seem to be leading the music and not following it. There’s a strange passage near the end where the orchestra softly plays slow, edgy figures that don’t quite synchro-mesh.

The fourth movement opens dramatically with clarinet flourishes, ending with a sustained high note under which the orchestra explodes, then drops out as the soloist runs through a series of up-and-down arpeggios. The orchestra accommodates him for a while but, as he moves into Latin-based rhythms and figures, they rebel with their low, ominous rumblings and bitonal figures. In the middle of the movement, everything quiets down so that the soloist can play his quirky cadenza a cappella, which goes on for quite some time before the orchestra re-enters, the tempo heightens again and things become rather dramatic. The soloist complains loudly, gets a few more arpeggiated runs in for good measure, and thus leads the forces to their conclusion.

This is an outstanding album of music by a composer I will most certainly look out for in the future. Bravo to all involved in this project, it is brilliant from start to finish!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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