CDs reveal richness of Hispanic musical culture

March 06, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Revueltas, "Redes" and "Sensemaya," Orbon, Concerto Grosso for String Quartet and Orchestra, Ginastera, "Pampeana No. 3," performed by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Eduardo Mata, conductor (Dorian DOR-90178).

Orbon, "Tres Versiones Sinfonicas," Villa-Lobos, "Bachiana Brasileira No. 2," Antonio Estevez, "Mediodia en el Llano," Chavez, "Sinfonia India," performed by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, Eduardo Mata, conductor (Dorian DOR-90179).

These CDs are part of Mata's project to record music by Hispanic composers with this young Venezuelan orchestra for the Dorian label. The pieces of music on the discs do indeed deserve the project's title, "Music of Latin American Masters," for they suggest a much richer musical culture south of our border than many of us would have guessed -- one that may be greater than our own.

The composers range from Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), who was a member of the generation immediately after that of Stravinsky, to Orbon, who died in 1991 at the age of 66. Taken together, these works suggest that Latin American classical music, perhaps because it more comfortably synthesizes indigenous folk music and popular music with the traditions of European art music, is more accessible than its North American counterpart -- and without the "dumbing down" one often senses in attempts at accessibility in the United States.

The Mexican, Chavez, for example, was a friend of Copland and each influenced the other. But the "Sinfonia India" (1936), while it shares many elements with the American's "El Salon Mexico" of the same period (and with the "Appalachian Spring" of a few years later) in its use of folk materials, does so without a hint of the sentimentality and pomposity (especially in "Appalachian Spring") that can mar Copland's work.

For this listener, the greatest discoveries on these discs were the music of the tragically short-lived Revueltas, a Mexican who composed with a psychic intensity that rivals that of Mahler, and the music of the Spanish-born and Cuban-raised and educated Orbon, whose "Tres Versiones Sinfonicas" seamlessly combines his intense study of medieval and Renaissance music with his immersion in the popular sounds of the Afro-Caribbean world. That "Tres Versiones Sinfonicas" was written more than 40 years ago and that it puts to shame most recent efforts in the United States at such a multi-cultural fusion says something unflattering about the state of culture and society north of the border.

*

Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor (opus 15), Gerhard Oppitz, piano, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor; Brahms, Ballades (opus 10), Oppitz, piano (RCA Victor 09026-61618-2).

Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major (opus 83), Oppitz, piano, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony, Davis, conductor; Brahms, Klavierstucke (opus 76), Oppitz, piano (RCA Victor 09026-61619-2).

Oppitz, a 40-year-old German, won Israel's Arthur Rubinstein Competition in 1977 but has enjoyed limited success in the United States. Now that he has recorded all the solo piano music of Brahms (the filler material on these discs is culled from those earlier records), he has turned his attention to the composer's concertos.

Pianists usually meet with mixed results with these behemoths, playing one or the other better, but the difference here is the proverbial night and day. At first, the Oppitz-Davis D Minor reminded me of the severe and stark version recorded about 40 years ago by Wilhelm Backhaus with Karl Bohm and the Vienna && Philharmonic. But Backhaus' unsmiling strength and no-nonsense approach did not eschew sensitivity, particularly in the slow movement, to the concerto's lyricism. Oppitz, however, seems unyielding, hammering out the notes in an almost mechanical manner. The difference between the Backhaus and Oppitz interpretations is like that between a gigantic conception carved in marble by Michelangelo and a modern skyscraper, gleaming soullessly in its sheath of glass and concrete.

But Oppitz's B-flat Concerto is impressive; it's big, rugged and played with what seems a streak of poetry. What makes one performance inadequate and the other good may not be entirely a mystery. A truly great interpretation of the B-flat -- which Oppitz's decidedly is not -- is even harder to achieve than of the D Minor. In both concertos, Brahms' major innovation was to treat the piano almost as it were an obbligato part in the orchestral texture -- and he was much more successful at this in his second, more mature, attempt.

A pianist with a massive technique sufficient to the B-flat work's transcendental needs -- which Oppitz has in abundance -- can pull off the Second Concerto even if he does not have the personality and ardor necessary for a successful D Minor. That such is the case is suggested by Oppitz's performances, delivered powerfully but prosaically, of the composer's opus 10 Ballades and the opus 76 Klavierstucke.

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