Ginastera Festival 2006

String Quartet No.1, Op.20
Las Cuatro Estanciones ‘Porteñas’
Ernesto Halffter
String Quartet in A minor
Piano Quintet, Op.29

Assai Quartet [Reynaldo Maceo Rodríguez & Gladys Silot Bravo (violins), José Martínez Pérez (viola) & Joaquín Ruiz Asumend (cello)], with Alberto Portugheis (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 April, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The ongoing “Ginastera Festival 2006”, commemorating what would have been the Argentinean composer’s ninetieth birthday, continued here with two major chamber works – alongside music by two other significant ‘Latin’ figures. To the public at large, Astor Piazzolla remains the only South American composer – other than Villa-Lobos – to have achieved world-wide prominence; a reputation based on his vast number of tangos and tango-related pieces that translate the unmistakable dance rhythm onto an altogether more sophisticated and, culturally speaking, politically-charged dimension.

Among his more extended concert works, Las Cuatro Estanciones ‘Porteñas’ (1968) is a sequence (running from Winter through to Autumn) that evokes the inner city of Buenos Aries from differing seasonal perspectives. Each is an elaboration of the ‘nuevo tango’ synonymous with Piazzolla – though the contrast between them, and the degree to which they evoke specific characteristics of city and season, is secondary to the heightened emotion built up over each piece. In a concert such as this, they would have been better deployed as interludes between more extended items – which is not to deny their distinctiveness as instances of Piazzolla’s craft, or their attractiveness as music per se.

Music, it goes without saying, to which the gratifyingly large audience responded with some pleasure, whereas the String Quartet (1923) by Ernesto Halffter was greeted with something nearer polite bemusement. Today remembered for his devotion to Manuel de Falla – in particular his completion of his mentor’s cantata “Atlantida”, which protracted effort left little time for original composition – the younger of the Halffter brothers was a composer of some promise when he essayed his only quartet at the age of just eighteen. Although it follows the customary format, and makes conspicuous nods to the quartets of Debussy and Ravel, Halffter’s work is notable for the formal detachment – though not necessarily episodic construction – of each movement, as also its pointedly restrained – but by no means uniform – dynamic range, with passages of forte and above largely absent. Within these self-imposed restraints, Halffter evolves a work full of incident and subtle colouring; one, moreover, that fulfils an implicit aim of concealing its overall trajectory until the understated final bars are reached.

The Madrid-based Assai Quartet was responsive to the very different needs of both these works, and was only marginally less assured in the Alberto Ginastera items framing the overall programme. Stylistically speaking, his music falls into three main periods: these outline a gradual embrace of and turning away from folk idioms, towards an engagement with the more radical elements of early twentieth-century music, before a final period of innately personal composition wholly of its time yet independent of fashion (the music of his older contemporary Roberto Gerhard offers instructive comparison). The two works played here come at the beginning and near the end of this second period – with Ginastera still subject to external influences, while producing some distinctive and immediately approachable music.

His breakthrough work in European terms, the First Quartet (1948) owes a notable debt to Bartók – whether in the driving energy and lithe motion of its initial two movements, or the spectral shading of the atmospheric ‘night music’ that follows – but utilises this with considerable resource and a direct emotional appeal, while the finale both admits then sublimates its debt to the folk influences destined to play a diminishing role in his creative thinking thereafter.

Certainly there is little trace of them in the Piano Quintet (1963) – its integration of ensemble movements with cadenzas of varied scoring looking toward recent precedents (notably the Second Quartet and Double Concerto of Elliott Carter), without betraying the inclusive armoury Ginastera now had at his disposal. And it was in the ensemble movements – particularly a trenchant ‘Introduzione’ and evocative ‘Piccola musica notturna’ – that the Assai was at its best, whereas the cadenzas brought some problems of intonation. Alberto Portugheis, though, was powerfully rhetorical in the piano cadenza that segues into the ‘Finale’ – less convincing a formal conclusion than Ginastera later achieved, but an unequivocal ending all the same.

A rewarding further instalment, then, of a festival that ought to attract much needed attention to a composer whose increasingly radical yet always non-doctrinaire approach to composing was cut short with his death in 1983, when only 67, and whose consistent integrity is a quality sadly lacking in so much music of the present era. Further such concerts during 2006 can only be keenly anticipated.

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