REVUELTAS: Redes. COPLAND: The City / PostClassical Ensemble; Angel Gil-Ordóñez, cond / Naxos 8.574350
My regular readers know that I generally avoid “classic film scores” like the plague, only making exceptions for the truly exceptional ones, whether classical or jazz. I made an exception for this disc because Silvestre Revueltas, whose name is unfortunately not as well known north of Mexico as it should be, and Aaron Copland were two of the finest composers of their time.
I only wish that the album cover and liner notes would have eliminated the word “Political” from the album title. Yes, these films had a political message, but regardless of the political leanings of either composer you can’t really refer to the music as political. Music is what it is, and nothing more or less. As Joseph Horowitz put it in his excellent liner notes, “Rarely does political art achieve permanence,” and this is simply because political views shift like the winds in the perspective of time. In the case of the film that Revueltas wrote for, Redes means fishing nets, and the plot revolves around “The story of poor fishermen victimized by monopoly control of their market. It argues for organized resistance as a necessary means of political reform.” Update for those who have had their heads in the sand for years: it’s even worse today. The corporations run everything in our lives, they’ve screwed up everything from our food supply to medical care with all stops in between, and “organized resistance” means nothing because the organized resistors are simply arrested, thrown into jails and have their teeth prosecuted out of their heads. Game over.
Although portions of these scores have been recorded before, these are the first recordings of the complete versions. This is especially valuable in the case of Revueltas, a hugely talented and original composer who was, unfortunately, also a drifter and a hopeless alcoholic who drank himself to death at age 41. (It almost seems fitting that the only film clip that survives of him was taken from a Mexican movie where he played a drunken bar pianist, sitting underneath a sign that said, “Don’t shoot the piano player.”) I first ran across him in the “Musica Mexicana” boxed set issued many years ago, conducted by Enrique Batiz, and immediately fell in love with his scores. Revueltas had a knack for writing music that combined Latin rhythms, lyrical melodic lines, and harmonies based on those of Stravinsky and Bartók, yet still retained a musical identity entirely his own. Those who knew him were amazed how, despite his drinking and basic laziness, he could come up with some of the most brilliant music imaginable on a moment’s notice.
Redes is probably the closest thing to a symphony that Revueltas ever wrote; he was too indolent to bother coming up with symphonies or concerti on his own. Unlike so many film scores I’ve heard, even the ones from the 1940s by such good composers as George Antheil and Bernard Herrmann, Redes has structural integrity. Yes, the tempos and moods changed to suit what was going on in the film, yet the music holds together in a way that has to be heard to be believed. And the sheer originality of this music will stun you. Revueltas was able to constantly come up with brilliant, novel themes and motifs that he could shape into logical narratives while still surprising the listener at every turn. The man was just gifted; there’s no other explanation for a talent like his.
Happily, for this recording Naxos chose conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez and his PostClassical Ensemble, and they tear into this score as if they just couldn’t wait to let you hear how exciting and brilliant this music is. (Batiz took a similar approach to Revueltas in his boxed set, which is one reason why I liked the music so much.)
Despite the basically continuous flow of the music, there is a break between the sixth selection (“Good Fishing”) and the seventh (“Nets”), which is brooding with occasional outbursts of raw energy. “Nets” is then tied to the last two sections, “Fighting – Unity” and “Finale,” but Revueltas almost accidentally split the score into two equal halves since “Finale,” at nine minutes, is the longest portion of it. Other listeners may argue with me, but to my ears Redes is a masterpiece that should be programmed in symphony concerts—but probably won’t be because (a) Revueltas isn’t very well known, (b) the music is challenging and unfamiliar, and (c) Mexican composers, like women and black composers, continue to get short shrift in the mainstream classical world. And that’s a shame. (But hey, they play Manuel Ponce’s pop tune Estrellita every now and then, don’t they?)
Copland’s The City, though perhaps not heard on CD in its entirety previously, is much better known music simply because Copland is considered a major American composer and so scores over poor Revueltas. I should point out, for the sake of full disclosure, that although this is the first time these scores are available in their entirely on CD that they were both previously issued on Naxos DVDs of the films. I missed out on Redes because I was then writing for a well-known classical music magazine that didn’t offer me a chance to review it, but I did review the DVD of The City. As a film, it was nice and had some atmosphere about it but didn’t grab you. The music, on the other hand, struck me as excellent and I think I mentioned at the time that I wish it was available on a CD to just listen to. Well, here it is.
The score was written in 1939 during the period when Copland had given up on producing brilliant but bitonal scores and decided to write melodically and harmonically simpler music based on American folk songs. In doing so, he created the sound we now identify as “Americana,” but what was lost in the process was Copland’s greater talent for originality. Also, to be honest, Copland’s score for The City is much more episodic than Revueltas’ Redes as well as being geared more to being background music for what was going on in the film. This is exactly the kind of weakness I referred to in the opening section of this review. A good film music composer has to support as well as react to what the images and action onscreen are; he or she normally cannot write as they please because to do so would be to disrupt or conflict with the mood and/or action of the film. Thus there are a few weak moments in this score as compared to Revueltas’ start-to-finish masterpiece, but once in a while, as in “Steeltown,” Copland surprises the listener by suddenly throwing in some harsher and more harmonically acerbic music to remind one that he had once been part of the avant-garde in the late 1920s and early ‘30s. In this same section he also gives us a quieter, more tonal passage that uses some very tricky and complex cross-rhythms that I’m sure the original orchestra had a hard time grasping.
As music, then, I’d give Redes an A+ whereas The City gets a B- or maybe a C+, and this has nothing to do with Gil-Ordóñez’ conducting, which is fine. It’s just the nature of the music itself. But if you don’t have the DVD of Redes, you clearly need to have this CD; the music is just that good and that interesting that it bears repeated listening. The Copland score is the kind of thing you might play in the background once every few years while you’re knitting or crocheting.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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