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Review: From Chile to Cuba

June 9, 2009

From Chile to Cuba: Latin American Piano Music (Albany Records) isn’t quite what it seems at first.  For one, I was expecting a survey of piano pieces from the many different regions and countries that make up Latin America, while in reality the album features music of Brazil (Villa-Lobos), Chile (Llona, Allende), Cuba (Perez-Velazquez, Leng), and Argentina (Ginastera).  This of course isn’t a big deal.  What is a big deal is that at first I didn’t find the music or playing to be all that noteworthy, but it turned out I was just missing the depth of the performance and music.

Pola Baytelman is the lone performer on the album, negotiating early Twentieth century music to early twenty-first century with neo-Bach textures mixed in, among other styles.  The finesse she has in approaching the music is excellent, most notably because many of the moments require a sure hand navigating the many rhythmic ideas and precise articulations throughout the repertoire.  None of the pieces are lacking in its challenges, but Baytelman meets them all head on.  The recording techniques used on the album are also commendable – the dryness that is often standard for Albany Records really stands out for its, well in this case, lack of intrusion on the music being made. 

The pieces she chose for the album are certainly a diverse bunch.  Villa-Lobos has portions of two pieces on the album: two movements from his Brazilian Cycle and the Prelude to his Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4.  This is a more conservative Villa-Lobos than most listeners are familiar with – both pieces were written after 1930.  They still maintain the character of melding Brazilian and Western traditions, but do so much more reservedly. 

Following the Brazilian composer is Alfonso Letelier Llona’s Cuatro piezas and portions of Pedro Humberto Allende’s Doce Tonadas de caracter popular chileno.  The Cuatro piezas is an enjoyable suite displaying a number of different characteristics that the piano can take on, without holding excessive gravitas.  The Doce Tonadas all carry a familiar form (except No. 5), beginning slow and almost meditative before taking off for the races.  All clocking in at very brief track lengths, heard consecutively the music felt a little too stop and go to me – I spend enough time on the high way in rush hour.  The form is interesting though: hearing the music gradual pick up a full head of steam is certainly interesting.  My favorite is No. 7 in G.

After the Chilean composers, Baytelman performs two works by Cuban composers.  The first is a modern work by the American trained Ileana Perez-Velazquez entitled Encantamiento.  Written in 2002, the piece fails to find any comfortable rhythmic regularity forcing the listener to attempt to hold onto the melodic fragments as the music goes.  Alfonso Leng is quite the opposite: his early 20th Century work Doloras: Poemas para piano is a romantic study in harmony and melody.  The two are a great study in contrast in the difference a hundred years can make for a country’s musical output and the difficulty in identifying a national musical character. 

The album ends with Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s Suite de danzas criollas.  The work feels more like a series of fragments than a full suite.  The harmonies resonate with me, but I have a hard time fitting the music in a context.  The suite does end on a really brilliant note – technical and flashy, the fifth movement (Scherzando) is a delight.

Ultimately, the albums’ biggest flaw is the briefness of all the sections.  That is probably what made me dismiss the album upon first listen.  The composers are not like the early Russian composers, extremely long winded and boisterous, but the earlier ones (Llona, Allende, Leng, Ginastera) have a sort of kinship to Glinka and his associates: they are attempting to build a bridge between their cultural musical treasures and the Western musical tradition.  These pieces represent a well performed set of examples on how Latin American composers attempted to combine the two different schools.

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