Enrique Bátiz CHÁVEZ - REVUELTAS - PONCE - HALFFTER - MONCAYO - JIMÉNEZ Música Mexicana

The orchestral honours here are shared between three orchestras. The main burden is taken between the Mexican State Philharmonic and the Mexico City Symphony Orchestra. The Royal Philharmonic take up the ‘slack’ with the Chavez Antigona and Romantica, the Violin Concerto by Halffter and the Chavez Chapultepec, Ponce’s Ferial and Instantaneas, the Revueltas Toccata and the Ponce Estampas.
All the recordings have been licensed out to Brilliant by the Sanctuary Group having originally formed part of ASV’s distinguished Mexican series.
Mexican orchestral music is represented here by three symphonies by Chavez (three of his six), two violin concertos (Ponce and Halffter), a piano concerto by Ponce and the Ponce Guitar Concerto. In fact we get all three of Ponce's dazzlingly imaginative concertos. Otherwise we hear nine pieces by Revueltas, ten by Chavez, eleven by Ponce including those three concertos and his most famous piece taken up by many violinists including Heifetz, Estrellita.
Chavez's Chapultepec overture is cheeky with a dash of Sousa-style excess to add a kick. Ponce's Ferial is from 1940 and is a lividly lit though subtle counterpart to Rapsodie espagnole. It was first conducted by Erich Kleiber. The Instantaneas are a series of short Mexican snapshots with the rasping rattle and gourd noises we may be familiar with from Villa-Lobos's Indianist and jungle pieces. These are interspersed with virile little village dances - sombrero commercial and drowsy sentimental. Revueltas's Toccata is jerky and fragmented, like a doll dance escaped from Pulcinella. Beside Ponce, Revueltas sounds like the modernist. Ponce's Estampas Nocturnas are substantial and their language is thoughtful, impressionistic and watercolour-sentimental - none of the lurid colours we associate with the Mexican sound. This is more Mexico City aspiring to Vienna than to Indianist and other ethnic origins.
After a disc of lighter if not always slight fare we next encounter three major works. Ponce's 1942 Violin Concerto is taken by Henryk Szeryng whose singing silver tone suits the work very well. This is a delightful chucklingly serenading romantic work closer to Barber, Walton and Glazunov than to anything grim. However something more Bergian seeps into the bones for the central andante espressivo. The finale is catchy and chipper. It uses the popular song Manitas. Chavez's India symphony is from the mid-1930s. It was premiered in New York with the composer conducting. It's in a single movement in one track incorporating four episodes. It is alive with virile rhythmic interest and with the flavour of ethnic percussion: tenebari, grijutian, teponaxtli and hupenhuehuetl, the latter two being drums and the former rattles. Beyond these decorative details the lyrical material reminded me of Copland. Revueltas's four movement La Noche de las Mayas is a half hour work in four movements. It is extracted from a film score written for the 1939 film of the same name. Its cinema origins probably explain why the music is often more commercial and even rather more like Ponce than the tough originality we come to expect from Revueltas. That modernity can be heard however in the terse, blaring and gritty Noche de encantamiento with its braying horns and rattle-scrape ostinati.
Madrid-born Rodolfo Halffter left Spain for Mexico in 1939. His 1942 Violin Concerto was written with Samuel Dushkin in mind; the same Dushkin who commissioned and premiered the Stravinsky Violin Concerto. It has some of the Stravinsky's brusque neo-classicism with a splash of de Falla to mitigate the desiccation. It also sports an affecting central Andante cantabile. It is heard in its 1953 edition made by the soloist here, Henryk Szeryng. This set has justified claims to definitive status given the involvement of Szeryng in both the Ponce and the Halffter.
Moncayo's Huapango is something of a fixture in Latino classical collections from Bernstein and Dudamel. It dates from 1941. It's a beaming bright and sharply rhythmic piece which is brilliantly orchestrated. Here it is carried off with panache.
Revueltas's Cuauhnahuac (1930) is his first major orchestral work. It's a portrait in sound of the town of Cuernavaca but by its Indian name. It is uproarious, howling and braying, whooping in the manner of a Markevich score, with a sentimental core and rampant closing pages.
The Ponce Concierto del Sur is played by Alfonso Moreno. It is one of the most instantly pleasing works on the disc and I commend it to you if you like the Rodrigo Aranjuez, Andaluz or Madrigal. It has a gift of a tune at 2:02 which returns from time to time. The sierra-cool Andante is hardly less fine. If you would like to sample then look no further than the final movement. Slake your thirst for more Rodrigo with this utterly captivating guitar concerto premiered by Segovia and Ponce in Montevideo in 1943.
Revueltas's Redes (Nets) I knew from the old RCA LP made by Eduardo Mata in the 1970s. It is an excitingly dissonant piece of explosive material. This is laced with haunted nostalgic divagations which can be quite affecting. Redes was written for a socialist-realist film of the same name which depicted the impoverished life of the fisherman. Three years before that score he wrote the Homenaje a Garcia Lorca in 1935. It's a raucous celebratory piece full of sour dissonance and Stravinskian gestures. Also memorable is the elegiac vinegar of a trumpet solo. Jimenez's Tres cartas de Mexico was a discovery for me with its Petrushkan bustle and poetically accessible local colour. Four guitars (Cecilia Lopez, Juan Reves, Jesus Ruiz, Alfredo Sanchez Oviedo) put in an appearance in the final Allegro. It's all very attractive.
Blas Galindo Dimas is better known as Blas Galindo. His Homenaje a Cervantes is neo-Baroque and undemandingly entertaining. It's followed by the fluffy Gottschalk-like pearly glitter of a turn of the century effusion for piano and orchestra by Herrera. Lastly, Chavez's transcription of a Buxtehude Zarabanda can be seen in the same league as the massive orchestrations of Bach organ pieces. This is however rather intensely romantic. These works lead naturally to Halffter’s transcriptions of three Soler sonatas. Their super-inflated orchestration and steroidal Handelian glare allow for a rather finely turned Allegretto grazia.
Revuletas's Sensemaya takes us back into the feral jungle and wild antiquity of the Mayan past. This is more in the whooping thudding direction of The Rite of Spring. Galindo's enjoyable Sones de Mariachi (1940) revels in Mexican postcard brightness. Ponce's classic hit Estrelita is a sentimental hit and is better known from the Heifetz transcription. Here it is heard in its heavily luxurious orchestral version - almost Korngold. Halffter's 1952 Obertura Festiva is flightily neo-classical but at times too heavily booted to take wing. More harmonically sour and thorny is the Tripartita of 1959. Revueltas's Janitizio of 1933 depicts the revels of a seaside resort. It’s honking, hip-swaying and uproarious. Although written for an instrumental Octet his Ocho por Radio (1933) is in much the same squeaky, impudent and characterful vein. Vilanueva's Vals Poetico apes the grand metropolitan waltzes of Europe and does so smoothly and with some style. Chavez's 1937 Chaconne is another wonderfully inflated and upholstered Buxtehude transcription belonging in the same noble league as the classic Stokowski-Bach arrangements. 
CD 6 is a fascinating all-Ponce collection. The sound glares a bit in the 1912 Ponce Piano Concerto but the work is in the gleamingly romantic conservative tradition of Liszt, Chopin and Arensky. Thunder and screes of pearly notes are thrown hither and yon by the impassioned Jorge Federico Osorio - very enjoyable if not appreciably Mexican. The affecting elegance of Gavota is in the aristocratic ballroom tradition. Balada Mexicana includes a piano solo part, here played by Seva Suk. It is once again in the exotic Gottschalk idiom with a smoking Latino element. The Dance of the Ancient Mexicans is skilled and shapely but the composer seems to caricature rather than suggest anything at all vivid or dangerous - fun though. Lastly the three movement Chapultepec is an impressionistic picture premiered in a concert it shared with Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole. This quarter-hour piece can be seen as an extension of Ferial which has a similarly Gallic impressionist signature. It is a fine discovery and well worth devoting listening time. Poema Elegiaco of 1935 breaks the deferential European mould with moody ambiguity and even tacit threat. This is one of the most attractive disks in the set. In fact Ponce emerges as hardly the most original figure but a composer whose music is often rewarding.
The seventh disc is an all-Chavez affair. His 1947 Toccata for Orchestra begins in an eerie Berlioz-like chill and finally erupts in a volcanic blast. The notes tell us that this impressive music is based on an incidental score for a ‘Don Quixote’ stage adaptation. The diptychal Paisajes Mexicanas (1973) is the most recent piece. It has a raw and glaring edge - something more in common with the blare of the classic Revueltas scores. The 1943 suite La Hija de Colquide (the Medea legend) was written for Martha Graham for performance at the Library of Congress. The five movement suite is allocated a single track where in this respect decisions for the rest of the set have been well handled. It ranges from gentle woodwind musing to indianist rattle, rasp, gong, whistle and mystery. We hear much the same smoking sense of peril as in Barber's Medea ballet - clearly a popular theme. The indianist aspect is to the fore again in the brilliant and rhythmically emphasised Cantos de Mexico of 1933 which ends in the dazzling white teeth, frills and uproar predictive of Copland’s El Salon Mexico. I wonder how these Mexican composers viewed Copland's work. The short 1953 Baile has that upstart, cheeky Mexican brightness and serenading brilliance. Both Cantos and the roaring Baile would pair well with the Copland work or make a nice change from it.
The last disc of the set pairs Chavez and Revueltas. The good though typo-ridden notes by David Moncur remind us that there are seven Chavez symphonies from the 1916 Sinfonia para orquesta (not numbered) to the 1961 Sixth. There is a Vox set of all the six numbered symphonies on VoxBox. The Sinfonia de Antigona is his first numbered symphony. It groans and rasps with Sophoclean tragedy. The material is drawn from music he wrote for Cocteau's updated rewrite of the work. Clearly scarifying Greek themes attracted him as his score for the Medea-based Martha Graham ballet Hija de Colchide shows. This is stern music with moments of repose from threat serving to emphasise what they separate yet also providing some spiritual let-up. The symphony ends in calm.
The Fourth Symphony is the Sinfonia Romantica in three movements. It was written to a commission from the stupendously active and affluent Louisville Orchestra. The Sinfonia Romantica is romantic certainly - not quite Howard Hanson but the first movement recalls Korngold at times. The molto lent middle movement sings with a little more remorse and reserve. A bustling dynamic enlivens the final Vivo with skirling trumpet fanfares, woodwind mariachi contributions and rowdy heroics. The first version of the finale is in fact the Baile heard earlier. 
The rest of the last disc is given over to Revueltas. His Caminos is jaunty, agreeably unsophisticated, explosive, jaunty and oompah-wild. Occasional passages sound as if Markevitch had worked over the Capriccio Italien. Musica para charlar (Music to converse to) is drawn from the score he wrote for his 1938 documentary film Ferrocariles de Baja California (Baja California Railroad). In this sense alone it parallels Virgil Thomson's music for the films Louisiana Story and The Plow that Broke the Plain. It's not as dissolute and fissile as Caminos and in fact from time to time amid the railway rhythms it indulges in turn of the century Ballroom lavish. It's a specially agreeable score and a little less challenging than some of his classic works. It's good that Revueltas chose to rescue it as a concert item. Ventanas (Windows) of 1931 revels in ambivalence. Its underlying thunder-cloud tension is sustained throughout. Imperious writing unleashes chaotic forces which rupture the mood. Revueltas happily sends murderous and rather haphazard military bands into the street scene with their band parts mixed up. This does not cause them to lose their overwheening confidence. Instead they lay into the music which at the last erupts in a furnace blast of sound. 
I trust that the Mexican government have bought stacks of these sets and are giving them away in delegate packs for conferences on the culture and attractions of a country in whose artistic musical achievements it can take a fierce pride. (Rob Barnett)

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