A.Ginastera, Popol Vuh et al.,
S.Asbury / WDR SO et al.
The little Munich CD label Neos is hard to pin down. Modernist niche fare with local performers seems its primary objective, but whenever I think I have them figured out, they’ll throw in a release that defies expectations. A Beethoven Third in an “as at the Palais Lobkowitz premiere” configuration with a local semi-professional band. Then the smashing Weinberg Viola Sonatas which was followed by a whole Weinberg series. (See ""2011 Almost List"" and "Best of 2011".) Perhaps Otto Siegl and Karl Weigl are next? Not at all modernist, they, but highly intriguing 20th-century fare.
Before me is a disc with works of Alberto Ginastera (“Ginastera” with a soft G sound, not a hard “Gh” for this Argentine of Italo-Catalan descent): Popol Vuh, the half-hour orchestrated depiction of the creation of the Mayan world that occupied Ginastera until his death in 1983, coupled with the Cantata para América Mágica from 1960. These are major contributions to the Ginastera discography, Popol Vuh done with a major orchestra, the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra (Cologne), and the cantata with the percussion ensemble of the Cologne conservatory. Neither are firsts on disc, but Leonard Slatkin’s world premiere recording of Popol Vuh with St. Louis on RCA is out of print (though available as an ArkivCD) and Henri Temianka’s Cantata never made it off vinyl.
Neos’s release is even better news for those who like—or are at least intrigued by—Alberto Ginastera and South American classical music, because the niche-market company takes painstaking care in the presentation of its CDs. Four-way folding, high-quality digipacks with heavy, textured card stock, discriminating choice of fonts, well-written extensive liner notes, and good translations. And, like most of its releases, this is an SACD production.
Both are notably live recordings; notably especially because Popol Vuh begins with extensive silence and that silence reveals a good deal of extraneous noise—if, admittedly, in very good sound. That makes the very atmospheric opening of the creation story less than ideal if you listen on headphones; otherwise it’s no real detriment, merely a quibble that should be mentioned in passing. Once the rhythmically driven buildup gets under way, the music is so spellbinding (or at least so loud) that nothing else is noticeable, anyway.
The composition, routinely compared to Stravinsky’s Rite of the Spring (Slatkin’s coupling), is best understood as a painting with sounds or a soundtrack without film. It features a very ample percussion section of more than 50 different instruments played by four musicians—plus extra timpani.
Its parts are “Everlasting Night” (hovering silence, rolling timpani, lowest woodwinds intimating a creaking hull of a ship); “The Birth of the Earth” (primitive energy takes shape with a thundering bang, pierced by crashing outbursts); “Nature Wakes” (rising woodwinds, trumpets, and chatter from the light percussion battery); “The Cry of Creation” (a screaming cacophony pounding its way to a brass chorale); “Grand Rain” (shimmering musical droplets); “Magical Indian Corn Ceremony” (chugging tribal rhythms); and “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” (blunted Messiaen minus the colors and a touch of Varèse).
There is an eighth, unfinished part to the composition, meant to depict New Man and intended for percussion only. Lacking reconstructible drafts, Popol Vuh is performed as a seven-part work, and though we can’t know how much more impressive the piece would be, it’s plenty astonishing as is.
In the (earlier) cantata, Ginastera had gone even one or several steps further; the entire orchestra consists of percussion (including two pianos and celesta), facing a soprano who sings poems by Ginastera’s first wife, Mecerdes de Toro, based on pre-Columbian manuscripts. Both works show a brilliant side of the composer: the use of all those percussion instruments without you ever noticing it—which is to say, with a complete and utter lack of ostentation and that self-conscious employment of sounds for the sounds’ sake where the instruments call attention to themselves and their “exotic” use rather than to the music they are supposed to serve. (If Ginastera is the man that a strain of contemporary American composers—Higdon, Sierra, Ramírez, Golijov come to mind—look to when they create their works of orgiastic percussion silliness, they fail their model for that exact reason.) The result is understandably monochromatic, above which the poems come into bold relief. Stefan Asbury conducts, Canadian soprano Rayanne Dupuis sings, and all the other players turn in exquisite performances.