Popol vuh, Op.44 [European premiere]
Piano Concerto No.1, Op.28
Rolf Hind (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 14 March, 2003
Venue: BBC Studio One, Maida Vale, London
Much respected during his lifetime for his distinctive and constantly varying synthesis of Latin-American and European stylistic traits, Alberto Ginastera has been heard seldom in UK concert halls since his death – at the age of only 67 – in 1983, making this 20th-anniversary ’portrait concert’ a welcome acknowledgement of his continued significance.
Though short, the programme was well chosen to cover the three main periods of the composer’s creativity. In the suite of dances drawn from his early ballet Estancia (1941), the influence of Copland’s ’cowboy ballets’ is evident in the robust energy of The Farm Labourers and the driving rhythmic momentum of the closing Malambo – a rhythmically more subtle (and musically superior!) equivalent to the Hoe-down from older composer’s Rodeo. Meanwhile, the lilting evocation that is Wheat Dance indicates a sure grasp of post-Debussian harmony with sonority such that would come to the fore in Ginastera’s later work.
His central creative phase, in which serial thinking is of crucial, though never dogmatic importance, was represented by the First Piano Concerto (1961) – a scintillating rethink of the medium in four concentrated and contrasted movements. Rhetorical and introspective by turns, the opening ’Cadenza e varianti’ sets up conflict between formal control and cumulative energy that is refined in a delicate, if ominous ’Scherzo allucinante’, rarified in an introspective ’Adagissimo’ and unified in the brilliant ’Toccata concertata’. (It’s ironic that this Finale is inadvertently known to millions in a transcription by the ’progressive-rock’ band Emerson, Lake and Palmer – on their 1973 album “Brain Salad Surgery”.) Vividly rendered by Rolf Hind, Ginastera’s First Concerto cries out to be included in the all-too-limited modern repertoire.
Before it, Leonard Slatkin had given the European premiere of a work he himself rescued from oblivion. Commissioned by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Popol vuh is an ambitious tone poem embodying the creation myth as represented in Mayan culture. Only seven out of eight sections were completed between 1975 and Ginastera’s death – to be subsequently turned down by Riccardo Muti (Ormandy’s successor). Matters rested until Slatkin secured the premiere for the St Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1989 – followed by an excellent (and currently unavailable) recording on RCA.
Scored for a large orchestra rich in percussion, sensitively employed, Popol vuh fuses its contrasting sections into a 25-minute depiction of animate sense evolving from inanimate sound; eschewing descriptive clichés as surely as it distils a powerful momentum from myriad individual motifs and sonorities. Whether the projected ’Creation of Mankind’ would have secured a calm yet conclusive epilogue to the massive crescendo which precedes it can only be imagined: moreover – as Slatkin suggested in his informal spoken introduction – the piece is remarkably coherent as it stands.
Good that Popol vuh has finally made it to these shores, and in a persuasive account from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, taking the difficulties of rhythmic co-ordination and ensemble balance in its collective stride. Hopefully the work won’t have to wait a further 20 years for its second performance here – any more than we will have to wait until 2016 for a fuller celebration of Ginastera’s creative genius!
- Concert recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3