''A Rewarding Voyage'' : Tres Canciones Populares Mexicanas
The MHS Review 408, VOL. 12, NO.12• 1988
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As music lovers, we Americans are, in many ways, a provincial lot. To most of us, the vast and variegated musical landscape just south of our own border is largely uncharted territory. Despite the enormous impact of the long-running Broadway musical Evita--which did so much to conjure up those wonderfully nostalgic days of Juan Peron and his ruthless but charming wife (who to me still bears an uncanny resemblance to Patty LuPone, all historical evidence to the contrary)--we know very little about this vast region spanning, north to south, some 6250 statute miles, and containing well over 389,655,000 persons in an interesting mix of indigenous, Hispanic, Portuguese, and Black cultures.
Who out there can name a composer from this region besides (guitar aficionados need not participate) Carlos Chavez or Heitor Villa-Lobos? Incidentally, on the very day of this writing I've acquired a recording of orchestral music by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), and like the guitar music on this release, it's smashing stuff. Now I can name a third composer.
The largest portion of this recording is dedicated to the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce (1882-1949). Initially trained in Mexico, Ponce embarked upon a European sojourn in 1904 to further his studies at Berlin's Stem Conservatory (the same institution which produced Bruno Walter). Along the way he befriended Paul Dukas and assimilated the sounds of the French Impressionists. Returning to Mexico, he established credentials as a folklorist, teacher, and conductor, but, most important, also as a composer striving to create a synthesis of popular elements and "learned" technique. His guitar music--all composed late in his career during the course of a unique collaborative friendship with Andres Segovia--provides a delightfully satisfying means to judge his success.
His Preludes 1-6 are musical minimalism in the best sense. In these epigrammatic essays (each averaging around a minute in length) all elements are pared down almost to the vanishing point. The slightest melodic twist, harmonic change, or variation in timbre has enormous impact; guitarist Marc Regnier negotiates each subtle move with stunning effect. In best baroque tradition, each movement is based on a ground-bass figure presented at the onset of the first prelude. What emerges is a sort of "Enigma Variatons" set, with the theme proper appearing only in the very last piece. This "theme" shows itself to have been, all along, a tune of a decidedly popular nature. Of the remaining four Ponce pieces, I defy anyone to tell me (without reading the liner notes) where the transcription process ends and the composing begins.
Two of the other composers on this release, Joaquin Nin-Culmell (b. 1908), an American of Cuban descent, and the Spanish-born Cuban Julian Orbon (b. 1925), offer us pieces squarely in the Ponce tradition, only with more updated harmonies, and in the case of Orbon, bracing Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Without the Spanish-born Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909), this release probably wouldn't have been possible. When Tarrega took up the study of the guitar in 1862, the instrument was at its nadir. The developing piano, with its overall loudness and its ever increasing dynamic range, was rendering the modest guitar obsolete. Taking the sage advice of his father, Tarrega became a virtuoso pianist as well as guitarist. The turning point came in 1869 when young Tarrega acquired a loud, resonant guitar from the luthier Antonio Torres. With this instrument in tow, he established himself all over Europe as the "Sarasate of the Guitar." He overcame his lack of repertoire by transcribing established composers, including Mozart and Beethoven, as well as by composing original pieces. The four compositions on this record evoke the world of Chopin, but in their subtle turns of melody and rhythmic inflections (especially in the two mazurkas) they transform archetypical Polish music into archetypical Spanish music. Through his composition, Tarrega says more about the universality of music than I could possibly with my words.
Guitarist Marc Regnier, his two capable hands firmly but gently on the nerve centers of this music, takes us on a rewarding voyage of discovery.
Review on page 49