September 02, 2010


Marcel Tyberg: Symphony No. 3; Piano Trio in F. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta (Symphony); Michael Ludwig, violin; Roman Mekinulov, cello; Ya-Fei Chuang, piano (Trio). Naxos. $8.99.

Alberta Ginastera: Estancia (extended suite); Suite de Danzas Criollas; Panambí (extended suite); Ollantay; Popul Vuh: The Mayan Creation. London Symphony Orchestra, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Gisèle Ben-Dor. Naxos. $8.99.

Mi Alma Mexicana/My Mexican Soul. Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas conducted by Alondra de la Parra. Sony. $13.98 (2 CDs).

     There is always some level of personal connection between a composer and his or her music. Mozart, for example, was not fond of violin concertos, but knew he had to write some; so all of his date from early in his career, and none of them pushes the boundaries of the form or expands use of the solo instrument or the orchestra in any significant way – in contrast to, say, his piano concertos and works for winds. But the violin concertos are glorious music nevertheless, and it is absolutely not necessary to have one iota of information about their composer’s attitudes or personal circumstances at the time the pieces were written in order to enjoy them thoroughly.

     But all the music on these CDs – all of which feature female conductors, and it is absolutely wonderful to find that women on the podium are no longer the rarity that they were just a few years ago – requires some knowledge of the composers’ situations for full appreciation. The works here stand reasonably well on their own, but for a full appreciation of them, at least some familiarity with their composers’ lives and the circumstances of the music’s creation is very helpful and perhaps even necessary.

     This is especially true of the CD of orchestral and chamber music by Marcel Tyberg (1891-1944), an otherwise wholly unknown composer. Tyberg, of Jewish ancestry, died at Auschwitz, transported there by the Nazis after entrusting his music to a family by the name of Mihich. Six decades later, a member of that family – a doctor at a major hospital in Buffalo, New York – got conductor JoAnn Falletta so interested in Tyberg’s work that Falletta and Naxos decided on a Tyberg release to mark the start of the Buffalo Philharmonic’s 75th anniversary season. And it must be said that the CD is an extremely impressive presentation: the orchestra has never sounded better, and the performers in Tyberg’s Piano Trio bring warmth, empathy and strongly communicated emotion to the music.

     But without knowing the Tyberg story, without understanding how special this release is from a biographical and historical-rediscovery standpoint, listeners relying solely on the music itself may find themselves disappointed in it. This is very, very old-fashioned music to have been written in the 1930s. Both the symphony and the trio invite listeners to say “that sounds like Schumann!” and “Mendelssohn!” and “how Brahmsian!” and so on and so forth. It is difficult to point to anything in either work of which one could say, “That is unmistakably a new voice – that is true Tyberg.” The Piano Trio reflects Brahms almost throughout, and as for the symphony – well, the Scherzo is so Mahlerian that it sounds like a homage to the older composer; in fact, the cadences and orchestration are so Mahlerian that, in other hands (say, those of Shostakovich), this movement would come across as satire or parody. This is not to say that there is anything inelegant in Tyberg’s music – in fact, it is very well crafted, and its earnestness can scarcely be doubted. It is strongly orchestrated – or, in the case of the trio, expertly balanced among the instruments – and pervaded by seriousness of purpose, tunefulness and clear mastery of harmony, sonata form and all the other basic structural elements of the early to middle 19th century. But, except in a very few details, Tyberg’s music could have been written by, say, Ferdinand Ries or Charles Stanford – admirable craftsmen who took the musical language of their time and refined it in small ways without really advancing it at all. Tyberg took his language from the music of a much earlier time than his own – he is one 20th-century Austrian quite uninfluenced by Schoenberg, Berg or Webern. His music is eminently listenable and undoubtedly well-constructed, but if it were not for the composer’s tragic history, his works (at least these first two) would scarcely be worthy of much attention.

     The biographical elements are less germane, but still important, in a new CD of music by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). Conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor is the glue that holds this otherwise scattered compilation together: she leads three different orchestras in performances recorded as far back as 1997 and as recently as 2006. All the ensembles play well for her, although it would be hard to call any of the performances instinctive or idiomatic: the pervasive Argentinian folk tunes are all handled skillfully, but there is no special lilt or sense of familiarity with them forthcoming. Three of the works on this CD are sort of world première recordings – “sort of” because all have been recorded before, but not quite in the form in which they are heard here. That is, the “extended suite” versions of Estancia and Panambí are premières, and Suite de Danzas Criollas is so designated only because this piano work – one of Ginastera’s better-known pieces – is here heard as orchestrated by Shimon Cohen. Ginastera himself divided his music into three compositional periods, so although it is technically true that the works on this CD span his career, it is more precisely correct to say that they omit one entire segment of it. All these pieces except Popul Vuh were written in 1947 or earlier, within what Ginastera called his “objective nationalism” period of 1934-48. Nothing on the CD comes from his more personalized and abstract “subjective nationalism” period (1948-58). Popul Vuh, which Ginastera did not finish although he worked on it starting in 1975, is from the final compositional period, which Ginastera labeled “neo-expressionism,” and indeed it has more expressive flow and less obvious use of folk melodies than the other pieces here – although all five works are redolent of Argentinian sounds and rhythms. Ginastera’s work is colorful, well-orchestrated and evocative of Latin American culture. Everything sounds good here, although most of the music projects the sense of a travelogue rather than putting forth anything particularly profound.

     Nor is profundity the primary intention of the new two-CD set featuring up-and-coming conductor Alondra de la Parra, who here offers 15 works celebrating this year’s Mexican Bicentennial. Except for Carlos Chávez and perhaps Silvestre Revueltas, few of the composers on this compilation will be known to most audiences outside Mexico. No matter: the works here were clearly selected for their immediate appeal, rhythmic vigor and tunes with a flavor of Mi Alma Mexicana – “my Mexican soul,” as the set’s title has it. Written as early as 1884 (Juventino Rosas’ extremely famous waltz, Sobre las olas, which could have been written in Vienna – or by Émile Waldteufel) and 1890 (Gustavo Campa’s Mèlodie pour violon et orchestre, complete with French title) and as recently as 2006 (the Largo from Eugenio Toussaint’s Concierto para piano improvisado y orquesta, with title emphatically in Spanish), these pieces are flavorful if scarcely deep, providing a sampling of Mexican composers’ music over more than a century without delving very far into anyone’s personal style. One traditional Latin American instrument, the guitar, comes across particularly well here, in one of the best works in the set: Manuel Ponce’s Concierto del Sur para guitarra y orquesta, featuring soloist Pablo Sáinz Villegas. In her debut recording, de la Parra shows that she can certainly handle a symphonic ensemble: the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas is balanced, responsive and fluid throughout. What she does not show is whether she can explore the depths of profound music, since there is none of it offered here. The works are mostly bright and vibrant, attractively orchestrated and well assembled in a variety of styles; and most do have distinct Latin American elements that de la Parra brings out effectively, although some (such as Mario Lavista’s 1990 Clepsydra) simply sound like a lot of other music of the same vintage. Everything is very well played by the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, which de la Parra founded in 2004 and of which she is artistic director. This two-CD set is strongly focused on de la Parra herself, filled with celebrity-like photos of her as well as pictures of her conducting. It is something more than a collection of encores and something less than a serious consideration of the ins and outs of Mexican music in the past 125-plus years. The individual biographies of the composers are not needed to enjoy these works, but the fact that they are all Mexican is crucial, since it is what unites all their music and is the reason for this compilation in the first place. Few of the pieces are interesting enough in and of themselves to attract listeners who are unfamiliar with the music and indifferent to the circumstances of its composition.

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