About this Recording
8.570780 - GINASTERA, A.: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 (Shelton, Enso Quartet)

Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983)
String Quartets


Alberto Ginastera, the foremost Argentinian composer of his epoch, developed his art over the years into a profound synthesis of national and contemporary elements. His style evolved from the vividly nationalistic works of his early years into a musical language that was modernistic yet constantly evoked the roots of his cultural identity.

Born in Buenos Aires to parents of Catalan and Italian descent, Ginastera showed musical aptitude from an early age. In 1936 he entered the National Conservatory of Music, the orchestral suite from his ballet Panambí, being given its première at the Teatro Colón soon after. The composer was to accept a number of academic posts throughout his life but, as a well known civil libertarian, he came under frequent scrutiny from the Perón regime. As a result, he moved to the United States for a short period between 1945 and 1947, taking the opportunity to study with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. In 1948 he became Director of the Conservatory of Music and Scenic Arts at the National University of La Plata. Three years later he made his first trip to Europe for a performance of his String Quartet No. 1 in Frankfurt. In 1958 Ginastera was appointed professor at La Plata and Dean at the Catholic University of Argentina (1958–1963). In 1962 he took charge of the Latin American Centre for Advanced Musical Studies at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella (1963–71). His opera Don Rodrigo (1963–4), based on a twelve-tone series, had its première at the Lincoln Center, New York in 1966. Its success brought about a further commission from the Opera Society of Washington for Bomarzo (1966–7). In 1971, having separated from his first wife, he married the Argentine cellist, Aurora Nátola, and moved to Europe, settling in Geneva. His final decade produced many outstanding works, among them the String Quartet No. 3. Ginastera’s prolific output comprised four operas, orchestral works, several concertos, choral and solo vocal pieces, a wide range of chamber and instrumental compositions, eleven film scores, and incidental music for half a dozen dramas.

String Quartet No. 1, Op. 20 (1948) was given its première by the Mozart Quartet in Buenos Aires on 24 October 1949. The work is representative of his second phase of compositional style which Ginastera called subjective nationalism (1947–1957), commenting that ‘it was time to drop ethnic realism in favour of the creation of an imagined folklore’. This contrasted with his former approach of objective nationalism (1934–1947), where works such as Panambí, Op. 1 (1937), a ballet on a legend of the Guaraní Indians, Danzas argentinas, Op. 2, (1937) for pianoforte, and Estancia, Op. 8, (1941), a ballet of a day on a ranch with the gauchos at the centre of the action, were all profoundly influenced by traditional Argentinian elements.

In his first String Quartet Alberto Ginastera incorporates rhythmic and thematic aspects of his country’s folk-music while advancing towards a rigorous, dissonant and varied vocabulary. Thus though the first movement, Allegro violento ed agitato, is propelled by rhythms which evoke images of gauchos, the cowboys of Argentina, the complexity of the textures is reminiscent of Bartók and Stravinsky. The fast second movement, a scherzo, may present distinct impressions of the pampas but the technically intricate string effects, accumulated trills, and interaction of parts, suggest wider horizons looking towards post-war Europe. The emotional centre of the quartet is the third movement, Calmo e poetico, where the first violin sings its melody before the lead is passed to the cello, an instrument for which Ginastera frequently composed. Allegramente rustico, a folk-inspired theme in the criolla tradition concludes the work, its rapidly changing time signatures expressing a fiery tension ultimately resolved within the triumphantly frenetic climax.

String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26, completed in 1958 and revised in 1968, was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation and had its première with the Juilliard String Quartet at the first Inter-American Music Festival in Washington D.C. on 19 April 1958. Ginastera had progressed to his third phase, that of neo-expressionism (1958–1983), involving serial composition, microtones, indeterminacy, and polytonality. A further development is the quartet’s five movement structure, a break from the traditional four movement classical quartet.

The opening establishes the twelve-tone row on which the movement is constructed but Ginastera allows himself sufficient freedom not to compose throughout in strict serialism. The Allegro rustico is divided between pulsating rhythms and quieter passages that are searching, intense, and reflective. The Adagio angoscioso (slow and anguished) movement expresses introspection rising to a dramatic climax. In ternary form the first part includes viola and cello solos. The middle section, freely atonal but not serial, progresses towards a finale heralded by a cello solo and the return of the first motif. The Presto magico, in rondo form, with two reprises of the main thematic material and two trio episodes, provides the hinge between the framing outer movements. This virtuosic scherzo exploits effects such as glissandi and pizzicato, with contrasting thematic fragments from the first violin. The fourth movement, Libero e rapsodico, begins with a violin cadenza stating the main theme, and moves to a cello cadenza, a solo by the second violin, and a final variation performed by the viola. Furioso, structured in the form of Sonata-Rondo, brings the quartet to an exciting conclusion with agitated rhythms, perpetual motion, syncopations and explosive energy.

String Quartet No. 3, Op. 40 (1973), had its première with the Juilliard String Quartet and the soprano Benita Valente in Dallas on 4 February 1974 and was written shortly after Ginastera’s move to Geneva and his marriage to Aurora Nátola. Following Schoenberg’s precedent in his String Quartet, Op. 10 (1908) of bringing a soprano voice into two movements, Ginastera goes further and sets four poems for voice, only the second movement being for instruments alone. An understanding of this work is therefore partially dependent on an awareness of the meaning of the songs.

The first movement, Contemplativo, a setting of Juan Ramón Jiménez’s poem La Música, celebrating love and the music of love, opens with an introduction evoking night, after which the singer presents the poem in four distinct sections in a mixture of song and speech. The first episode brings in the beautiful image of stars like lilies in the endless firmament, the woman’s passion giving meaning to the universe itself. The second part starts with the words De pronto (Suddenly), the ‘impassioned outcry shattering the darkness’. The third unit arrives out of quietness, moving towards a vividly dissonant conjunction of voice and strings and ending on amor (love). The final two lines are sung ‘normally’, long lingering notes evoking ¡La música,/ mujer desnuda/ corriendo loca por la noche pura! (Music, naked woman, running crazed through the pure night!). Fantastico allows the strings their nocturnal moment, with fragments of sound like voices in the night, first intermittent, later together, rising to a passionate chorus, and back into quiet poignancy, though the composer has the capacity to surprise at any time. The third movement, Amoroso, centres on Canción de Belisa, a song from Federico García Lorca’s play The Love of Don Perlimplín for Belisa in Their Garden. Perlimplín, a shy old bachelor, decides to marry the beautiful Belisa, who is half his age. He hears her singing this song and finds her irresistible:

Love, love.
Between my secret thighs,
The sun swims like a fish.
Calid water through the rushes,
Cock crow and the night is fleeing!
Do not let it go, Oh no!

As Perlimplín is unable to consummate the marriage, Belisa betrays him with a procession of other suitors while he lies asleep. In the morning he wakes with a pair of gilt horns on his head but in a strangely happy mood. Disguising himself as a young lover in a red cape Perlimplín manages to seduce Belisa, then goes off-stage and returns bleeding from a self-inflicted knife wound. Belisa removes his cape and finds that it is indeed Perlimplín though she does not as yet grasp the full truth of what has happened. He dies in her arms. In time Belisa will realise that she has killed her true love. Appropriately marked Drammatico, the fourth movement which features Rafael Alberti’s Morir al sol (Death in the Sun) contains the most tragic of the four songs. In a dramatic opening, where the soprano enters almost immediately, we hear that ‘The soldier has fallen, the woods weep each morning for him’. The mood intensifies in the central section where the singer is almost shouting with grief. Finally the singer re-creates the howling of a dog in lamentation for the dead soldier. For the last movement, Di nuovo contemplativo, Ginastera chose Ocaso (Twilight, sunset)), another poem by Jiménez. The movement starts with plaintive strings celebrating the duality of music and silence, ‘the sound of gold’ which ‘goes to eternity’, and evoking the sadness of listening to that ‘gold that goes to eternity and the silence that remains’. The soprano’s demanding rôle is characterized by a sustained high note on ‘eternidad’ (eternity), and a further extraordinarily prolonged note at the end of the exquisitely poignant finale.

Graham Wade

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