Notes and Editorial Reviews
Glosses on Themes of Pablo Casals:
op. 46 for string quintet and string orchestra;
op. 48 for orchestra
Gisêle Ben-Dor, cond;
NAXOS 8.572249 (58:46)
Naxos is doing well by Ginastera. The label has recorded much of his chamber music, including the complete string quartets, and reissued two significant recordings of his orchestral music. This is the second of those reissues, recorded in 1995 and originally available on the Koch label.
The main point of interest in this program is the inclusion of both versions of the late masterwork
Glosses on Themes of Pablo Casals.
The version for strings came first, written to celebrate the centenary of the beloved Catalan cellist in 1975. (Ginastera’s cellist wife, Aurora, had been one of Casals’ disciples.) Two years later Rostropovich, then at the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C., asked the composer for a new work and the result was the second version, fully scored and considerably re-thought in orchestral terms, so much so that it warranted a different opus number.
The work is more of an imaginative deconstruction and decoration of themes than a straightforward set of variations, hence the title “glosses.” Several pieces by Casals are quoted: in the first movement, a solemn chorale from his
Prayer to the Virgin of Montserrat
, an ardent love song in the second movement, and in the penultimate fourth movement the cellist’s well-known encore piece
Song of the Birds
. In this work, Ginastera’s musical interests come together: his distant Catalan roots and (in the concluding
) Argentinean dance rhythms, along with the textural intricacies of his late orchestral style, bracingly avant-garde at the time.
While the orchestral version is a true showpiece with many fascinating and effective moments—I love the Gabrieli-style brass scoring of the chorale theme in the first movement—the string version has greater strength and unity. The work’s free-form structure feels less piecemeal when held together by string timbres. I know of a couple of fine recordings of the full orchestral version postdating this one, but none of the string version. It is an asset to be able to compare both on one disc, and a salutary reminder of the composer’s fastidious ear for texture. The London Symphony plays beautifully for Gisêle Ben-Dor, a specialist in Latin American music.
In between the two
comes a set of genuine variations, the Variaciones Concertantes for chamber orchestra of 1953. The original theme is built on a chord of rising fourths, equating to the open strings of a guitar. A string ensemble provides the backdrop to a series of variations featuring one or two wind soloists per variation. All the forces come together in the final movement, which employs a favorite stamping dance rhythm of the composer, the
. A popular and oft-recorded work, it receives a fine performance from the Israel Chamber Orchestra.
This has always been one of the most satisfying discs in the Ginastera catalog. If you missed it the first time around, you now have a bargain opportunity to remedy that error.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
"Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes are a series of variations scored primarily for very small groups of instruments, with the full orchestra only entering for a brilliant malambo folk-dance finale. As a result the piece sounds like a richly varied chamber epic, and the different textures and colours never grow old. I found the Variaciones very easy to enjoy, and you will too: the lovely thematic material is presented first by the solo cello and harp, then in a sequence of delectable solos for flute, clarinet, viola and horn with spare orchestral accompaniment, plus a surprising appearance by the double bass. This colorful but exceedingly simple orchestration demands a clear, intimate sound picture and superb first-chair playing, both of which are manifest here. The various soloists of the Israel Chamber Orchestra are not intimidated by the spotlight, and Uruguayan-born conductor Gisele Ben-Dor keeps the music flowing well. This is a work which adventurous (and virtuosic) ensembles ought to consider programming into their concerts, and the present performance has me quite excited for a live performance of the Variaciones scheduled for my hometown next spring.
There are three recordings of the Variaciones Concertantes readily available. This Naxos release is in fact a reissue of an old Koch recording; another, featuring the Richmond Sinfonia from Virginia, is available in America on the Elan label. The Richmond group certainly plays well, but its sound is not as idiomatic, lacking a certain Latin-ness; moreover, a few of the solos (particularly the cello’s) are less than appealing. I have not heard the third recording, featuring the Europa Symphony on Arte Nova, but cannot see how it would preclude a recommendation for this excellent, and very modestly priced, reissue.
The rest of the music on this album is not as immediately appealing, but makes for interesting close listening. The program begins with the orchestral version of the Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals and, after the Variaciones, concludes with the original instrumentation of those Glosses, for string quintet and string orchestra. The full version is genuinely creepy music, often sounding as if it arrived from another planet. There are ruggedly atonal sections here, whirlwinds of fierce and bizarre orchestral colors, and snatches of the lyrical tunes Pau (better known as Pablo) Casals originally wrote. The opening moments are the first and almost the last passages of lyrical repose; the “Sardane” is particularly hair-raising. The final movement, marked “Conclusio delirant,” is a wild ride, but rather fun. This orchestral version was, interestingly, premiered in 1978 under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich.
Originally, however, these Glosses were scored for string quintet and string orchestra. If you are not one for repeat listening to the same work, rest assured that these two renditions make for rewarding comparison. They sound like two different pieces (and were published under two different opus numbers.) If anything, the original, pared-down version is even more engaging, with the soloists presenting the Casals material while the orchestra buzzes about them like a swarm of wasps. Even in the delirious final movement, I never really missed the greater color and variety of the full orchestra.
In sum, the repetition in this program will be cause for hesitation for some buyers, who might be intrigued by the more substantial coupling on the Elan disc (a phenomenal performance by Santiago Rodriguez of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s First Piano Concerto). Even so, I did enjoy playing this album straight through. The Variaciones Concertantes are an immense pleasure; consider the Glosses a welcome bonus."
-- Brian Reinhart, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23 by Alberto Ginastera
London Symphony Orchestra,
Israel Chamber Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1953; Argentina
Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals, Op. 46 by Alberto Ginastera
London Symphony Orchestra,
Israel Chamber Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1976; Argentina
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