About this Recording
8.570999 - GINASTERA, A.: Popol vuh / Estancia (excerpts) / Panambi (excerpts) (London Symphony, Jerusalem Symphony, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ben-Dor)

Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983): Popol Vuh, Op. 44 • Estancia, Op. 8 (extended suite)
Suite de Danzas Criollas, Op. 15 • Panambí, Op. 1 (extended suite) • Ollantay, Op. 17


In the last third of the nineteenth century, Argentina experienced a wave of nationalism—pride of place, heritage and culture—as did many countries and peoples throughout Europe, the western hemisphere and elsewhere around the globe, and, as elsewhere, this celebration of Argentina’s past became fuel for the creative arts. The epic gauchesco narrative poem published in two parts by José Hernández (1834–86), El gaucho Martín Fierro (The Cowboy Martin Fierro) in 1872 and La vuelta de Martín Fierro (The Return of Martin Fierro) in 1879, is perhaps the greatest moment in Argentine letters.

For the five works on this disc, Ginastera drew upon Argentine and nearby Latin American subject matter as inspiration. The music, though evocative of native influences, shows just how much of the music of his time Ginastera absorbed with amazing fecundity. The works on this disc span this composer’s entire creative life, from his first acknowledged work, the ballet score Panambí, to one that occupied him off and on for about eight years, Popol Vuh, and remained unfinished at the time of his death.

Lincoln Kirstein’s American Ballet Caravan came to Buenos Aires during its much-acclaimed five-month tour of South America in mid-1941, sponsored by the American State Department. While in Buenos Aires, the Caravan performed, among other productions, the ballet it had commissioned from Aaron Copland in 1938, Billy the Kid. At the time, Ginastera’s ballet Panambí, which had had its premiere the previous year, was still in repertory at Buenos Aires’s famed Teatro Colón and it was there that Kirstein caught a performance of it. He commissioned Ginastera to compose a “Ballet in One Act and Five Scenes, based on Argentine country life”, and planned to present the commissioned work the following season in New York City. In October 1941, however, the American Ballet Caravan folded its tent. Thus, the commission was no longer forthcoming, but the composer had substantially completed the ballet score. For Kirstein’s commissioned ballet, Ginastera never seriously considered any subject other than the daily life of the gaucho on the pampas as depicted in the Hernández epic Martín Fierro, calling the work Estancia (an Argentine ranch). The nomadic, yet heroic, gauchesco existence was fast disappearing by the time Ginastera came to compose this music. The complete ballet, spanning the action of a single day—dawn to dawn—in the life on an estancia, included some passages of evocative verses patterned after the eight-syllable lines of the payadas, the poetic syntax of the gaucho, set by Hernández in Martín Fierro in rhyming six-line stanzas. These are included in the premiere recording of the complete Estancia ballet by Gisele Ben-Dor conducting the London Symphony Orchestra [Naxos 8.557582].

Just as was the case some five years before with the Panambí score, faced with no immediate prospects of a performance of the ballet, Ginastera extracted four of the more bravura numbers as an orchestral suite suitable for the concert hall. Four Dances from Estancia, Op. 8a, had their first performance on 12 May 1943 in Buenos Aires by the Teatro Colón Orchestra with Ferruccio Calusio conducting (the complete ballet was not staged there until 19 August 1952). The suite elicited cheers from the audience then, often still does as one of Ginastera’s most frequently performed works, and cemented the composer’s reputation as an interpreter of Argentine culture and character. Los Trabajadores Agrícolas (The Farm Labourers), from the morning sequence of the ballet, imparts the rough and tumble nature and machismo of the farm labourers on the ranch through fiercely energetic cross-rhythms driven relentlessly by a large percussion batterie. In the original ballet score, the percussion take a brief sixteen-bar hiatus, enhancing the contrasting chamber-like quality of the passage. In this recording Gisele Ben-Dor has opted for the original ballet version of this dance. The following Danza del Trigo (Wheat Dance) is a quieter, more lyrical, even sensual, interlude. At this juncture the selections included here by Gisele Ben-Dor depart from and expand on the four-part suite Ginastera prepared. Rather than Los Peones de Hacienda (The Cattlemen), Ben-Dor turns to La Doma (The Rodeo) and Idilio Crepuscular (Twilight Idyll), as afternoon turns to evening. These are the central events of the ballet, and their inclusion not only enhances the symmetry within the suite, but also makes this music more representative of the complete ballet. In the heartfelt Idilio the girl of the pampas realises her admiration for the boy who has come to the ranch from the city (the boy had fallen for the girl sometime before). The concluding Danza Final, which also closes the ballet, is a frenetic malambo, the competitive justa or jousting dance of the gauchos. Since the winner is the last gaucho standing, this cascading dance is repetitive and increasingly wicked in its complexity and tempo. These fireside justas routinely extended well into the night and pre-dawn morning hours; and, if Ginastera’s Danza Final is anything remotely illustrative of the justa skills of the gauchos, their blazing footwork must have been utterly astounding.

Ginastera’s Suite de Danzas Criollas (Suite of Native Dances), Op. 15, was composed in 1946 for piano during the year spent in the United States as a Guggenheim Fellow. It had its premiere with Rudolf Firkušný˘y´ in Buenos Aires on 26 July 1947. The Suite is heard here in a recorded World Premiere of an orchestration by Shimon Cohen*, commissioned by Gisele Ben-Dor. The title refers to Latin America’s criollo culture, which comprises the region’s native born peoples of European (usually Spanish) ancestry as opposed to those descended from indigenous stock (traditionally known in Argentina as gauchos). This music marked a stylistic transition for the composer as he strove for greater structural and dynamic clarity. Although Ginastera typically comes across most confidently in exuberant native dance rhythms, as in the second-movement Allegro rustico and concluding Scherzando, the delicate strains of the other three movements are more introspective. Ginastera derived much solitude when contemplating the immense expanse and mystery of the pampas, which surely occupied his thoughts periodically as he composed this music while away from his homeland. The composer came to use much of the material in the Scherzando six years later in his First Piano Sonata.

Following studies with composer Alberto Williams at the Williams Conservatory, Ginastera entered the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires in 1936. Although he had already composed about fifty pieces, he had been occupied for about two years with a ballet score that later in the year would become his first acknowledged work, Panambí, Leyenda Coreografica (Choreographic Legend), based on a Guaraní Indian folk-tale of love and the supernatural. The Guaraní are the indigenous, pre-Columbian inhabitants (that is, prior to European colonization) of the Paraná and Paraguay River basins.

From the Panambí score, which he had composed without any known prospects for its performance, Ginastera, extracted a four-movement suite for a concert performance on 27 November 1937 at the Teatro Colón with Juan José Castro conducting. The complete ballet was first performed, also at the Teatro Colón, on 12 July, 1940. For the present recording, Gisele Ben-Dor has selected five numbers from Panambí that, being performed here in the order in which they appear in the ballet, are a more satisfactory distillation of the larger work. The percussively powerful showpieces from the ballet are here: Danza de los Guerreros (Dance of the Warriors), Invocacion a los Espiritus Poderosos (Invocation to the Spirits of Power) and, though it builds from an impressionistic fog, Danza del Hechicero (Dance of the Sorcerer). Juego de las Deidades del Agua (Games of the Watersprites) is more playful, but the foreboding strains of the double basses give this number a dark specter. The concluding El Amanecer (Dawn), which also closes the ballet, paints a stirring canvas as the forest awakes, swelling to a spectacular affirmation as the sun breaks above the horizon.

Ginastera turned to the composition of Ollantay, Tres movimientos sinfónicos (A Symphonic Triptych), Op. 17, upon his return to Buenos Aires following his 1946–7 stay in the United States. It was inspired by a dramatic poem of Incan origin. Ginastera’s own brief note to his published score is quite cogent and complete:

“The theme turns around the myth of Ollantay, son of the Earth, who opposes Inca, son of the Sun. The latter declares war on Ollantay for profan[ing] the Temple of the Virgins in an attempt to rape Coyllur, the daughter of Inca. The tragedy stirred up the Empire. Ollantay resisted for a long period of time in his fortress until he was defeated and killed. The work is divided into three movements:

I. Paisaje de Ollantaytambo (The Ollantaytambo Landscape): In the lonely night of Ollantaytambo, Ollantay emerges evoking the outcry of disappeared cities.

II. Los Guerreros (The Warriors): The warriors of Ollantay dance while they prepare for war. Excited, they imitate the armies in battle.

III. La Muerte de Ollantay (The Death of Ollantay): Prisoner of Inca, Ollantay forecasts the destruction of the Empire and the disappearance of the race of the sons of the Sun. Ollantay dies and solitude invades the Andine valleys.”

The first performance of Ollantay was on 29 October 1949 at the Teatro Colón led by the internationally regarded Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber.

The Popol Vuh or Council Book came to be written down in Latin between 1554 and 1558 by an unknown Dominican missionary in Santa Cruz del Quiché in the highlands of present-day Guatemala. It contained the mythological Mayan narrative of creation and legendary gods, along with the genealogy of royal rulers back to Mayan supremacy, and its original purpose was to assert rule by divine right. The sources were local oral tradition and a few Mayan hieroglyphs subsequently destroyed. Popol Vuh is widely considered the single most important text of Mesoamerican literature in existence today.

When he received a commission from conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1957, Ginastera turned to Popol Vuh; but, not until 1982 did he work seriously on the score. When he died the following year, the composer had completed eight of nine projected sections, although what was left was certainly performable. When Ormandy died in 1985, the score was all but forgotten until the American pianist Barbara Nissman, an exponent of Ginastera’s piano music, brought the score to the attention of Leonard Slatkin, then conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony. Those forces gave the premiere of Popol Vuh: The Creation of the Mayan World, Op. 44, on 7 April 1989 at Saint Louis’s Powell Symphony Hall.

Low strings begin the dark, primal La Noche de los Tiempos (The Everlasting Night), a nocturne that is explosively shattered as the creation process begins. El Nacimiento de la Tierra (The Birth of the Earth) begins gently. The percussion pace a gradual awakening, in time arising to the cataclysmic force that is mountain-building. The animals are created in El Despertar de la Naturaleza (Nature Awakes), then commanded by the gods to praise their creators in El Grito de la Creación (The Cry of the Creation), resulting in a raucous noise followed by the sounds of individual animals heard again from the previous movement. La Gran Lluvia (The Great Rain), though it inundates the entire face of the earth, is tranquil resignation. The creation of mankind in La Ceremonia Magica del Maiz (The Magic Ceremony of Indian Corn) is filled with primal rhythms led by the huge percussion batterie, followed by the sonorous El Sol, la Luna y las Estrellas (The Sun, The Moon and The Stars) that recalls, more animatedly, the opening strains of this music, swelling to the celebratory fanfares that mark the conclusion of the work of the gods, El Amanecer de la Humanidad (The Dawn of Humankind).

Rudy Ennis
© 2009 The Mozart Works


* Composer, conductor, arranger Shimon Cohen (b. 1937 in Rishon LeZion, Israel) orchestrated the Suite de Danzas Criollas, Op. 15 (Suite of Native Dances) in 2002. He is one of the most sought after creative musicians in Israel, and his works include music for plays and films, concert pieces, concertos and chamber and vocal compositions performed throughout Israel, America and Europe. Cohen was also the founder of the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion and the Israel Chamber Orchestra, Ashdod. He served as Music Director of both ensembles.

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