Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Withdrawn Month - Alberto Ginastera's Impresiones de la Puna

Maybe I'm a philistine.  Scratch that, I am a philistine, albeit one with a crippling need to soak up classical music's enormous pile of trivia like a derange sponge.  That being said, in my mind Alberto Ginastera is the best composer South America has ever produced - he was both nationalistic and wildly original, pushed personal and international boundaries multiple times in his career, and synthesized Argentina's musical soul with classical modernism better than anyone could have dreamed of.  See?  Only a philistine could be that hyperbolic.  What is undeniable is the many phases his compositional style went through, from folk/classical syncretism ("Objective Nationalism") to fists-to-the-keys Neoclassicism ("Subjective Nationalism") and finally into the Avant-Garde beyond ("Neo-Expressionism"), and that first, still-the-most-performed period produced a handful of works that were doomed to Ginastera's dustbin.  Unlike Boulez's Psalmodies, however, today's piece, Impresiones de la Puna, made it to print, though it didn't stay in print for long.  The venue was Instituto Interamericano de Musicología, an organization I haven't talked about since my Harold Brown article but one more than worthy of lengthy discussion.  The Instituto was part of a big push in the 40's and 50's to promote modern classical composers from all Americas across all Americas, the last time that U.S. listeners and performers had access en masse to Latin American classical music.  The Instituto's scores were disseminated through a Boletín and the Impresiones appear in the 1942 issue, though they were written in 1934.  Ginastera was only 18 when he wrote them, tying them with his Piezas Infantiles for piano as the earliest surviving pieces in his oeuvre, and while I understand why they weren't considered worthy enough to get an opus number they're really dang good for music written by a teenager, even more so for coming from a country still struggling to find its international artistic stature at the time.

Ginastera's first major influence was Impressionism, most explicitly seen in his opus 1, the ballet Panambi (1934-37), begun around the same time the Impresiones were finished.  There was a lot to draw from in this area, as de Falla and Albeniz were still riding high at this point and the French Impressionists had a history of drawing from Spanish and Latin American folk music.  What helps set the Impresiones apart is the Puna part, the Puna being a grassland area in the Andes, showing Ginastera's hometeam advantage.  The ensemble is the always welcome flute and string quartet (very Impressionistic) and the piece is cast in three short movements.  The first, "Quena" ("Flute") is a barren, lonely improvisation that starts with a very Fratres-esque harmonic cell in the strings, an A-minor triad sliding through G minor while the cello holds a distant F against the viola's distant E:

The flute is left alone in the middle of the piece, surging through sophisticated, melancholy modes as if there were no other people for hundreds of miles.  The second movement, "Canción" ("Song"), is a slowly-lapping barcarolle in G minor featuring some deftly placed harmonics and a mature restraint unlike most 18-year-old composers can manage.  Of particular note is a horripilative passage where C and F harmonic minor scales plane across an E-flat pedal:

Ultimately the song slinks out on a major resolution that rubs shoulders with the "Coffee" dance from The Nutcracker.  The last movement, "Danza" ("Dance", like anybody needed to be told that), features the first glimpses of Ginastera's long, fruitful relationship with Argentinian dance rhythms, though not the percussive clusters that made them so fresh in his breakout Danzas argentinas, op. 2 (1937).  This is classic, El Amor Brujo-style hispanic dance material, and though it's possibly the least original of the set that doesn't mean it isn't really fun:

While there are a number of professional recordings to choose from I'm glad that there were several live performances on YouTube to choose from, so many so that the one I picked was really good in spite of its overly wet acoustics.  The Impresiones have a great advantage in how they are both fine additions to the flute chamber rep and not all that hard to perform, making them a perfect choice for collegiate recitals, not that I ever heard these live in the six years I was in higher education.  If you've got a flute and four string buddies give them a practiced whirl, proving Ginastera wrong for the good of the rep.


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