Chavez Piano Concerto CD Cover

Carlos Chávez: Piano Concerto on Cedille Records

Cedille Records LogoCarlos Chávez (1899-1978) has been called the dean of Mexican classical music, important not just for his compositions but also as conductor, teacher and director of Mexico’s most important musical organizations. Born in Mexico City, Chavez often had the opportunity to visit more rural parts of Mexico, absorbing the local music and art and learning of the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures. Although Chavez studied with Manuel Ponce, he was largely self taught.

Recordings of Chavez’s music are somewhat rare. This new Cedille recording of the epic Piano Concerto, (the first one since the late 70’s) by Mexican born pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, Carlos Miguel Prieto conductor and the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional De Mexico, is most welcome.

Carlos Chavez

Carlos Chavez

Written in 1938-1940, the “Concierto para piano” was auspiciously premiered in January 1942 by Eugene List and Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. Critics at the time found the work to be marvelous… audiences thought it “cacophonic.” Today, the work sounds as “contemporary” as works written 70 years later. Chavez’s concerto is atavistic and primal; even the more melodic sections dance and writhe. Like Bartók, there is little direct quoting of indigenous music as there is the capturing of its repetitive, angular, simple melodies and stomping, complex rhythms. Also important the influence of Debussy, with the prominent use of harp, delicate percussion, divisi strings, and thick texture.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fog shrouded opening, which serves to set the primitive, other-worldly tone of the first movement. Chavez’ genius never lets this music degenerate into mere travelogue music; this is genuinely Mexican in flavor but equally rooted in western form and technique. The fog soon lifts and the rest of this mighty movement (nearly 20 minutes and easily half the whole work’s length) is a virtuosic, energetic tour-de-force. This is raucous, festive music with themes, rhythms, and motifs tossed about in a cascade of notes dancing on the edge of chaos. Osorio, Prieto and the orchestra dig in to the complex work but keep it all under control negotiating the craggy, boisterous music.

The shorter second movement is a reflective, dark adagio in striking contrast to the first movement. Exploration of the harp and piano’s lowest registers and the relentless slow progression evokes a threnody for a people. Central to this chamber-like movement is a long, central solo mediation for the piano. Special mention to the un-credited harp and oboe whose solos are key to this most somber interlude and to Osorio’s fluid technique.

The finale, at around seven minutes is the shortest, resuming the energy of the first while growing organically from the slow climax of the central movement. More of a lighthearted scherzo than a finale, it is nonetheless a satisfying, electric conclusion.

Chavez Piano Concerto CD CoverEugene List and Chavez recorded the concerto with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra in 1963. The timings of that performance (long out of print) are close to the Osorio/Prieto performance. However, the earlier one seems a bit softer, relaxed and romantic edged, possibly due to the less forward and dynamic recording of the era. With Osorio’s obvious virtuoso command of the taxing part and the committed playing of the Mexican orchestra, Osorio and Prieto are the way to go in this work.

The brief solo “Meditación,” also included on this album, was written in 1918 when Chavez was 19. Its debt to Debussy and “impressionism” is clear from the beginning, but one also hears the young composer exploring atonality, independent lines and pianistic color. A wonderful piece, poetically performed, that should be heard in concert more often.

José Pablo Moncayo, (1912-1958) is represented by a solo piano work “Muros Verdes” (“Green Walls) from 1951. There is French influence here too, but with jazz influenced harmonies and colors. A paean to green forests, Muros Verdes is more mature and rhythmically vital than “Meditación” and certainly performed with the required delicacy and verve by Osorio.

The latest piece on the recording, the “Variations on an Original Theme” composed in 2007 by Samuel Zyman (1956- ) is clearly written in homage of Chavez with the same thick chords, impressionistic color and reliance on the lowest register of the piano. A theme and four contrasting variations, the 16 minute work receives its deserved and well done world premiere recording.

This brilliantly performed, stunningly recorded and attractively packaged CD deserves a place in any serious contemporary music fan’s collection.

Carlos Chavez, Piano Concerto (Cedille Records 90000 140, 2012) | Buy on Amazon US | Amazon CA | Amazon UK