Recording of the Week, Xiayin Wang performs piano concertos by Ginastera
Over the last few years, conductor Juanjo Mena has been something of a champion of the lesser-trodden avenues of Spanish orchestral music, with several highly-acclaimed discs on Chandos of music by Albéniz, Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Turina, and Xavier Montsalvatge. Alongside this, he has also taken an occasional South American excursion by way of the music of Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, the third and final disc of which is released today.
The main event is the Piano Concerto No. 1, for which Mena and the BBC Philharmonic are joined by Xiayin Wang. No stranger to the music of Ginastera (Wang previously recorded the Second Piano Concerto with the same forces), she proves to be a most compelling interpreter of this magical, intoxicating piece. The first movement, a set of variations, moves between hushed passages of great beauty to outbursts of powerful rage, not least the stabbing attacks from the piano in the ninth variation. This tempestuous passage comes as quite a contrast to the preceding variations, including an eerie dialogue between celeste and piano in the seventh variation, and the eighth variation with a tender solo from principal cello.
The second movement showcases the high-quality playing of the BBC orchestra to great effect. Marked as Scherzo allucinante (i.e. in an hallucinatory or unreal manner), it begins with introverted wails from strings playing high harmonics in a nervous, edgy rhythm, moving to all sorts of fascinating effects including growling brass, cello pizzicato glissandos, and spooky tinklings from the harp. The whole movement is rather haunting and exquisitely handled on this recording. There’s virtuosity in abundance in the fiendishly fast last movement, which makes use of the rhythms of the malambo, a traditional dance of Argentine gauchos. It’s a relentlessly animated movement with a stunning display from Wang, who is afforded ample opportunity to show off her impressive double octaves, particularly in the piece’s final moments.
Wang takes a break for the orchestral Variaciones Concertantes. After the opening theme, presented by harp and solo cello, each variation is taken up by a different member of the orchestra. I don’t have space to mention all of the admirable contributions, but for me the highlights were an exceedingly nimble clarinet variation, a dramatic lament for solo viola with multiple double stops, an expressive Pastorale for solo horn, and a reprise of the theme where the cello line is taken over by a solo double bass playing mostly at the top of its range, here given a most remarkable performance by the BBC’s principal player.
Wang returns for the Concierto Argentino, written when the composer was nineteen, and actually withdrawn after the first performance. The manuscript was found in a library in Philadelphia only a few years ago, and the first modern performance was given in 2011. Even though you can hear that it’s the work of a much younger composer, there are flashes of the later Ginastera, particularly in the last movement, which also plays with malambo rhythms in much the same way as the First Piano Concerto did. Again, Wang gives an outstanding performance of the never-ending barrage of quavers, and the orchestra get to have some fun, too: there’s a phrase where two clarinets play a melody at the same time but a semitone apart, which creates a kazoo-like effect that is brought out with great cheekiness by the players.
I expect these works may well be unfamiliar to many, but I think they are fine pieces from a composer whose music is well worth exploring. As advocates for their brilliance they could not have more persuasive proponents than Wang, Mena, and the BBC Philharmonic; I have also included links below to the previous two volumes in the series, in case you are inspired to delve into this wonderful music further!