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CLASSICAL  May 2005

CLASSICAL May 2005

Subject:

Toussaint/Marquez/Sierra - Cello Concertos

From:

Bert Bailey <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 4 May 2005 20:26:03 -0400

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'Conciertos para el fin del milenio'
*Eugenio Toussaint (b. 1954): Concierto no. 2 para violonchelo y orquesta (1999)
*Arturo Marquez (b. 1950): Espejos en la arena (2000)
*Roberto Sierra (b. 1953): Cuatro versos (Concerto for Cello & Orchestra) (1999)
Three World Premiere Recordings
Carlos Prieto ("cello), Orquesta de las Americas, Carlos Miguel Prieto,
conductor.  Rec. in the Sala Nezahualcoyotl, Centro Cultural Universitario,
Mexico City, 2001
Urtext JBCC 047 [65:04]

Lovers of contemporary "classical' will welcome 'Concertos for the End
of the Millennium,' a fine introduction to three current Latin-American
composers.  Those who think of this music through works by Revueltas,
Chavez, Ginastera, Villa-Lobos, or, possibly, Guarnieri and Serebrier,
are in for a treat: a new generation is being recorded by its local
talent, and this collection of premiere cello concertos suggests it
is time to prick up our ears.

These works span a wide musical spectrum: Mexicans Toussaint and Marquez
have crafted involving, richly-coloured, often outright gorgeous works
based on popular sources: jazz and folk, respectively.  Puerto Rico-born
Roberto Sierra's concerto is no less absorbing, yet it is made of much
grittier musical stuff.  All are dedicated to Carlos Prieto, the dean
of Latin-American cellists and dedicatee of works by about 70 other
composers, including Joaquin Rodrigo.  A student of Fournier and Rose,
Prieto has performed in the world's major concert halls as soloist and
with the Prieto String Quartet.  Also the author of several books, one
is a biography (soon to appear in English under the title 'The Adventures
of a Cello') of the instrument he plays so engagingly on this disc: the
Piatti Stradivarius.

Eugenio Toussaint's Second Cello Concerto should make anyone who enjoys
jazzy classical feel right at home.  His earliest successes were with a
jazz band, followed by a move to Los Angeles to study with Albert Harris.
Toussaint ended up working alongside Herb Alpert, and, later, as Paul
Anka's musical director.  When Toussaint began thinking about composing
this work, Prieto remarked that his First Cello Concerto had strayed
from these roots, and he suggested considering a return for his second
venture.

The result is this breezy, approachable work where there is a complete
synchrony from the start between soloist and orchestra.  Launching right
into a vibrant tune, the orchestra's expansive backup leaves the cellist
to share the stage with harmonizing forays by the flute, oboe, horns,
strings, and light percussion.  During the slow movement, Prieto fills
the spotlight with a longing, nostalgic melody, while the orchestra
settles into quiet support: winds underline, strings pluck a pulse,
but little more.  The cello and a clarinet swing into high gear for the
close, interrupted only briefly by a cadenza where Prieto jabs the worka
- 's light frame with some rough-edged dissonance, infusing tension while
the xylophones, bongos and strings drive toward its culmination.

Prieto throws himself into this work, fully in the swing of its jazz
idioms with a tone as rich and deep as anyone could wish for, doing the
composer proud even when occasionally required to sing at the topmost
end of the instrument's range.  In keeping with its jazz roots, the
main challenge, and the ensemble's remarkable achievement, is to
express a sparkling spontaneity beyond the notated text.  Yet the real
strength lies in the lyrical middle section, where the cello is called
on to cry an aching tour de force.  The infectious Latin-jazz rhythms
evoke Bernstein in mambo sleeves, rather than the rougher-edged Perez
Prado.  For all this work's easy charm and upbeat musicality, it
rewards repeated hearings.

The concerto that follows, Marquez's "Espejos en la arena' ("Mirrors
in the Sand'), places the soloist front and centre almost throughout,
while the orchestra very seldom strays from firm accompaniment.  Marquez,
who reports having popular music in his blood since he learned the
mariachi violin in childhood, has an assured, extrovert voice.  A student
of Federico Ibarra and Morton Subotnick, around 1990 he turned from
modernism to more accessible Mexican folk forms.  A celebrated series
of seven Danzones has gained him a wide following, while the Urtext
label has also released a disc of his ballet music, 'Mandinga.'

This concerto stands as another peak confirming dance forms as a
Marquesian specialty.  The orchestra's strident, almost regal canter has
the sunny carriage of a Rodrigo score, while perhaps without its genial
levity.  This thicker rhythmic core from the orchestra essentially frames
Prieto's shaping of the melodic line and the tune's varying tones and
accents.  The music emerges from this lyricism, rather than from any
harmonic interplays with the orchestra.  The cello receives support,
emphasis and echo from the strings and the whole ensemble, ceding only
rarely to a single instrument or section, but never playing opposite
them.  Understated orchestration again characterizes 'Lluvia en la arena'
("Rain in the sand'), while Prieto plays a song of exquisite brooding
in a movement that vaguely echoes the lyricism of Walton's cello concerto.
A 'Milonga' cadenza for the cellist leads to an agitated tempo, taking
the work to its breathless 'Polka derecha-izquierda' (a - "Right-left
Polka') movement, where the work hurtles, with a rich dash of Shostakovich,
toward a blistering finale.

Marquez's concerto is a work of great expressivity that builds on sturdy
but graceful melodies, at which he clearly excels.  The orchestration
is essentially traditional, although the percussion is enhanced with a
Veracruz tambourine, claves, maracas, and Puerto-Rican guiro.  Aside
from the cellist 's virtuosic turn, the Orchestra of the Americas under
Carlos Miguel Prieto makes fine work of inhabiting the neo-romantic
sound-world that so differs from Toussaint's sparer, more contrapuntal
composition.

A yet sharper change in character toward astringency and dissonance sets
Roberto Sierra's 'Four Verses' Concerto apart from both previous works,
enriching this recording with a far more demanding, avant-gardist work.
To Marquez's celebratory dance or excursion, Sierra's concerto strikes
the ear as a dark saga.  While neither more nor less Latin in flavour
and rhythmic core than the previous works, these are far more deeply
integrated within his compositional voice.

In sharp contrast with Toussaint's concerto, the cellist and orchestra
begin by generating separate sonic cells, rather than discernible themes
or melodies, embarking at contrasting tempi from near-opposite ends of
the scale.  The wayward cello strays far from the orchestra, seemingly
engrossed after some musical concretion, maybe seeking to complete a
worthy theme; then again, perhaps just content to roam.  The level of
tension between cellist and orchestra has no parallel on this disc, and
for once the orchestra is given considerable autonomy.

While the cello is engrossed in its articulations, light percussion and
winds let off colourful sparks that clash against the plot of the weighty
horns, double-basses and darker woodwinds.  Sierra's dazzling orchestral
chaos is reminiscent of Thea Musgrave's brand of lucid disorder, and in
the second movement it begins to wax and wane along with the cello's
restlessness, although never quite settling into an accompanying role.
Suggestions of a vague convergence do arise, for instance, in an orchestral
passage full of anticipation that culminates with a soaring phrase by
the cello (at 0:22), and when, duetting with various winds, the soloist's
phrase entwines with a flute's, and then completes it (at 3:02).  But
such moments always pass, the ensemble seemingly indifferent or uninterested
in the cello as it wanders off on its own.  After an edgy cadenza, the
strain of this aptly-named Intenso gives way to a movement where tensions
appear to recede: the cello begins setting a less discordant direction
for the high-pitched percussion, straying woodwinds, and interrupting
brasses, and amid the more subdued backdrop, the soloist starts to assume
the near-prominence of a first among equals.

The dots so far strewn across the concerto start to connect in the
vigorous third, 'Vivo,' and especially in the jauntier, closing 'Ritmico'
movements, overcoming the work's stark initial contrasts while never
quite letting go of its character as an eerie, uncompromising music.  An
exotic, more recognizably Latin-American pulse begins to frame the soloist
with energetic support, adding sharp jabs and stresses, enhancing calmer
moments, setting a faster beat for the soloist to hurtle toward an end
that, unconventionally as ever, seems to arrive too soon -- while at the
same time suggesting a satisfying resolution.  Prior to this, amid all
the rapid-fire ensemble playing, the work reaches a sort of culmination,
of the kind it seemed at least partly driven towards: its brief moment
of musical rest and tranquil merging (at 1:28).  Aside from showing
Prieto to full advantage, these two closing movements are also notable
for throwing a retrospective light on Sierra's sure compositional hand
with the winds, the main source of this work's exotic flavour.

Sierra worked in Hamburg with Ligeti, and currently teaches at Cornell.
Yet this music shows as much affinity with Roberto Gerhard's, for the
seemingly unruly orchestration and for its uniqueness: engaging the
listener despite a high level of abstraction and the unbending avoidance
of cliche.  It must be said that the likeness with Gerhard extends also
to the work's difficulty: those so intrigued as to listen again are
likely to do so not for the ride or to be swept away, but to marvel and
gain a better grasp of its startling wealth of tensions -- and, if so,
by small accretions.  This is clearly the disc's most bracing work, given
its unusual ways of generating musical cohesiveness.  For all the
compositional strengths and musicality of the Toussaint and Marquez
concertos, they could almost have sprung from the eras of Toch, Martinu,
Walton or Rozsa.  Not so with the Sierra: its rightful kin are Lutoslawski,
Gubaidulina and Dutilleux, placing it very firmly in the 21st century.

All three composers owe a strong debt to Prieto's advocacy, yet each
one repays the favour by giving the Piatti a range of opportunities
to display his outstanding gifts.  In a field crowded by fine cellists,
when instrumentalists with big contracts so often stay with the "classics'
or drift into pointless crossover, Prieto seeks out living composers who
deserve the attention.  His discography includes impressive concertos
by Federico Ibarra, Celso Garrido-Lecca, Camargo Guarnieri, and Ireland's
John Kinsella -- all of which leave no doubt that "classical' is very
much alive and thriving.  Likewise, along with chamber pieces by Falla
and Gerhard, he has recorded Manuel Enriquez, R.X.  Rodriguez, Mario
Lavista, the prolific Spaniard Tomas Marco and his compatriot Manuel
Castillo -- none yet internationally famous, but all strong composers
enriching the musical landscape.

The Orchestra of the Americas under Carlos Miguel Prieto adapts
impressively to a challenging array of requirements: joining the soloist
in the neoclassical Toussaint as a kind of jazz rhythm section; backing
the cellist's shaping of Marquez's melodic lines with bold and nimble
ensemble playing; and rallying to the astringent Cuatro versos, with its
wandering and ambiguities, and the wild orchestration.  A tall triple
order, but very handsomely met.

The informative notes on the music are in Spanish, English, French and
German.  Urtext produces their attractive booklets in a very large format,
wrapping the CD cases in decorative sleeves that also envelop these
publications.  Unfortunately, these card sleeves only obstruct access
to the disc, so, with their oversized booklets, most are likely to land
in a dusty corner somewhere, like mine, leaving the notes far from the
music.

An unfortunate misstep from a label that, with this issue, gets it very
right with the music, where it really matters.  These are sparkling
performances of three exciting new concertos in excellent sound.  This
recording by the Orchestra of the Americas, in the expert hands of both
Prietos, deserves the highest possible recommendation.

Bert Bailey

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