Monday, 21 May 2012

Beyond Sauvignon Blanc

Continuing my world tour, I've always been partial to nationalistic-sounding pieces from Latin America - the best-known works of Ginastera, Villa-Lobos, Chavez and Revueltas, for example - but have never heard anything from that fine, tall-but-slim-looking country, Chile. What has Chile to offer the classical music listener (besides tasty but inexpensive wines)? Going off its reputation, I expected music of considerable sophistication that would be outward-looking and up-to-date with contemporary trends in Europe and America. I haven't been disappointed.

Pedro Humberto Allende (1885-1959) is considered one of the greatest Chilean composers of the last century and our good (and always reliable) friends at Wikipedia inform us that he was well-regarded by Debussy, among others. First impressions are highly favourable. The nationalist impulse - comparable to that expressed across Europe by everyone from Vaughan Williams to Bartok as much as to the rest of Latin America at the time of composition - is clear in his Twelve Tonadas Chilenas. The tonada is a type of Chilean folksong and Allende's treatment of them accentuates both their tunefulness and the tanginess of their harmonies in ways that show the influence of Debussy and Ravel and will appeal to those who enjoy the piano music of Falla and Mompou. Performances of these attractive pieces can be heard here:
-------Tonada No.5
-------Tonada No.9
It isn't surprising that No.7 appears twice, as it's particularly loveable. I think you'll find the Cello Concerto of 1914 to be of great interest too, though it largely eschews Chilean folk music for the language of international late Romanticism (with touches of Debussy). My goodness, what a discovery! The piece is in the traditional three-movement form and combines passionate lyricism with considerable sophistication. The central Adagio has an especial melodic warmth. The world doesn't exactly have a large number of first-rate Romantic cello concertos and is missing out by not recruiting Allende's very fine piece into that select club of widely-performed pieces.

Enrique Soro (1884-1954) is another Chilean late-Romantic whose music needs exploring outside of Chile. The Tres aires chilenos are first-rate light music of the kind that British composers wrote so well in the early decades of the last century. His earlier Danza Fantástica is good fun too. I suspect these pieces will cheer you up no end! For Soro on a more ambitious scale, please try his Piano Sonata No.3 in C major (Mvts 2, 3 & 4). The style is Romantic and heroic, with plenty of lyricism for good measure, but - like Allende - you will discover that the sweeping Romanticism is supplemented by touches of post-Debussyan/post-Scriabin writing in all four movements, especially in the irresistible outer sections of the third movement Scherzo. Whether the two contrasting styles entirely gel is an open question! I suspect you will have enjoyed meeting this sonata's acquaintance as much as I did though. There's nothing about it that would give its Chilean (or Latin American) provenance away and I suspect that Soro is to be seen as an old-fashioned Romantic at heart. For Soro pieces with no pretence of being anything other than European 19th Century-style works, please try the slow movement of his Piano Concerto and his Andante Appassionato - music that speaks straight to the heart.

Alfonso Leng (1894-1974) was not only a composer but also a dentist. Relax though as his music is far from painful! (Or so I deduce from a very small sampling of his output). He's clearly another late-Romantic, as this beautiful pair of Preludios for orchestra demonstrate. Had I blind-lasted these pieces I would have guessed that they were composed by a Scandinavian composer somewhere around 1900. His Dolora No. 1 and Doloro No.3 are similarly attractive pieces of old-fashioned Romantic writing, this time for the piano. Another Chilean composer of quality.

Acario Cotapos (1889-1969) sounds (on a similar small sample of his work) to be a more 'modern' composer, as can be heard in the dramatic first movement of his Sonata-Fantasía for piano, where a Scriabin-like sensibility veers vertiginously towards the future and Messiaen. His music is much more 'advanced' that anything being written in Britain at the time. The tiny, enigmatic prelude for orchestra Soledad del hombre ('Loneliness of Man') and the extraordinary orchestral song, Philippe L'Arabe, (which, if I were to risk a pithy description, I'd describe as 'Expressionist Szymanowki'), both composed quite early in his career, also suggest that Cotapos's music is well worth exploring.

Juan Orrego-Salas (1919-) was once a Copland pupil. The Copland-Latin American two-way influence is a notable feature of the music of Mexican composers such as Carlos Chavez. Is there any Copland effect on Orrego-Salas's music? Hard to tell without hearing any of his orchestral music. The song La Gitana ('The Gypsy') is very much in a traditional Spanish/Latin American art song style (a la Falla). His Sextet for B flat clarinet, string quartet and piano is a beautifully-written piece of the kind I associate with French late-Romanticism - despite the music's touches of neo-Classicism and moments of harmonic tartness. (See also Mvts. 2, 3 and 4). With the Egloga from his Duos Concertantes Op.41, I'd say that we are again in a place where Romantic lyricism meets neo-Classical grace, and harmonic modernity also makes an occasional appearance. I did spot one harmony that sounding like Copland though! The neo-Classical element (including those glimpses of jazz in the Sextet) seems to have become much more pronounced by the time of Orrego-Salas's Partita (Mvts. 1 & 4). The influence of Copland might be said to be found here, but there are other quarters the composer could have got this soundworld from. Again, an intriguing composer who deserves a wider hearing - as so much of this Chilean music does. Aleluya!

Alfonso Letelier (1912-1994) is (apparently) best known for his three large-scales orchestral songs, Los sonetos de la muerte ('The sonnets of Death') (Pts. 2 and 3). These inhabit a promiscuous soundworld that lies somewhere between Straussian/Puccinian late-Romanticism and Bergian Expressionism. A parallel between this kind of music and the sensationalist passions and orchestral ripeness (over-ripeness?) of inter-war Europeans like Schreker, Krenek, Korngold is easy to make. It's music that's meant to overpower the listener's senses and Letelier's songs are heady, fascinating stuff.

The music of Gustavo Becerra-Schmidt (1925-2010) often seems a world away from the music we've encountered so far. However, from what I've read, he seems to have been both a very prolific and a highly unpredictable composer, sometimes sounding traditional, sometimes sounding anti-traditional. That said, through him we can hear a Chilean's take on the post-war international avant-garde. Becerra-Schmidt was a leading pioneer of his country's electroacoustic music and his works in this medium often combine the Cagean ideas of chance-controlled music with Nono-like radicalism, though - to my ears - the electronic works of Edgar Varèse sound closer to the actual sound of his pieces. For a flavour of it, perhaps try his relatively gentle Oda al Mar ('Ode to the Sea') or the eerie Nocturno. Like Nono, Becerra-Schmidt was highly active on the political Left, as the titles of the suitably violent-sounding Batallas para Allende ('Battles for Allende') and the strangely otherworldly Lenin suggest. Lenin is particularly engaging, though - unlike the Allende piece - the title seems bizarrely at odds with the sound of the music (which is humped-back-whales-in-space music, to be incredibly crude about it!). For the other side of his music, please try the String Quartet No.4 (Mvts. 2, 3 & 4), which is more in the manner of Berg, Bartok and Shostakovich, and for a piece of purely tonal choral music, why not try Revolución? (I won't supply you with the text for that piece, as I suspect you won't need it!) Becerra-Schmidt taught Sergio Ortega (1938-2003), the communist composer most closely associated with the government of Allende and writer of that favourite anthem of anti-capitalist types the world over, ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! ("The People United Will Never Be Defeated!") 

He also taught Luis Advis (1935-2004), another left-winger who (like Ortega) draw on Chilean folk and popular music. The influence of popular music can be heard transmuted into lyrical classical music in his attractive piano Preludes and pop and folk are turned into something not-quite-classical-though-not-quite-pop-or-folk in his highly tuneful, easy-on-the-ear Sinfonía los tres tiempos de América ('America's three-times symphony'). 

Chilean-Israeli composer Leon Schidlowsky (1931-) beat Becerra-Schmidt to it when it came to writing electroacoustic music, writing Chile's (and, it seems, Latin America's) first such piece back in 1956, namely Nacimiento ('Birth') - though it does sound rather dated these days! Schidlowsky was an avant-gardist, seemingly of the Schoenberg school - if his Six Piano Miniatures of 1952 are representative. Quite how his music has developed since then I'm unable to say, unfortunately.

Chilean-German composer Leni Alexander (1924-2005) was also an avant-gardist. (Wikipedia says that Boulez and Maderna were her friends). A short sample of her music is Carta de lluvia ('Letter of Rain'), music written to accompany a film made in contemplation of rain. Gentle, lyrical, imaginative serial music, this tiny window of opportunity suggests another composer whose music merits further exploration. 

Fernando García (1930-) is another Becerra-Schmidt pupil and another Chilean composer who wrote in the style of the post-Webern avant-garde - as can be heard in the song, Muerte (perhaps closest in style to Dallapiccola). He too got involved in electroacoustic music (and politics).

Juan Allende-Blin (1928-) is also to be placed in the avant-garde camp. His strange but beautiful Mein blaues Klavier for organ, hurdy-gurdy and Jews harp sounds like electroacoustic music! There's too little music by Allende-Blin to form a judgement at this stage but a sense of how he was regarded can be gauged from a piece called One, for Juan Allende-Blin written by John Cage.  

There's music for most tastes in this short, sketchy survey of Chilean music. Where my enthusiasms lie can, I hope, be easily guessed!

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