About this Recording
8.573285 - PONCE, M.M.: Guitar Music, Vol. 4 - Sonatina Meridional / Thème varié et Finale (Perroy)

Manuel Ponce (1882–1948)
Guitar Music • 4: Sonatina Meridional • Thème varié et Finale (Versions 1 and 2) • Andante dalla Sonata II • Variations sur ‘Folia de España et Fugue’ • Variations on a Theme of Cabezón


Manuel Ponce has been acclaimed as the founding father of twentieth-century Mexican music. His pupil, Carlos Chávez (1899–1978) said of him: ‘It was Ponce who created a real consciousness of the richness of Mexican folk art.’ Segovia and Ponce met in Mexico in 1923, and from that time onwards the composer devoted himself to writing many pieces for the guitar, nearly all of them dedicated to Segovia. Of these compositions, which include preludes, suites, a concerto, variations, several sonatas, and works for guitar and harpsichord, Segovia has written: ‘Large or small, they are, all of them, pure and beautiful.’

Ponce, born in Fresnillo, Mexico, as well as being a composer was also a distinguished concert pianist and conductor. He first learned the piano with his older sister, Josefina. After further studies in Mexico City he travelled to Europe in 1904 where he took composition lessons in Bologna with Enrico Bossi (1861–1925) and Cesare Dall’Olio (1849–1906) (Puccini’s teacher). Later he studied in Berlin with the renowned pianist, Martin Krause (1853–1918), who in 1883 had performed for Liszt.

Ponce returned to his homeland in January 1907 and taught the piano at the Conservatorio Nacional, Mexico City. In 1912 he gave a concert of his own music including the first performance of his Piano Concerto. During this period he established his credentials as one of the central figures of the rising Mexican ‘nationalist’ school.

From 1915 to 1917 the composer lived in Cuba during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). After returning to Mexico in 1917 he resumed his teaching post at the Conservatorio and conducted the National Symphony Orchestra, but between 1925 and 1933 he settled in Paris, where he studied with Paul Dukas in the same class as Joaquín Rodrigo. Moving back to Mexico in 1933 he became director of the Conservatorio. As a prolific writer, he published many articles in Cultura musical, one of several magazines he founded over his lifetime. During these fruitful years his major works were written and performed.

In August 1930, Andrés Segovia wrote to Ponce requesting the composer to write a sonatina ‘of a purely Spanish character’. Segovia performed the second and third movements in Madrid on 19th February, 1932, and played the entire work for the first time at the Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona ten days later. In 1939 the guitarist had the work published with Schott under the title of Sonatina Meridional (Southern Sonatina), and provided a subtitle for each movement. He recorded the piece in June, 1949 for HMV.

The Sonatina evokes the lyrical warmth of Iberia. The first movement (named Campo by Segovia), suggests the atmosphere of the countryside, while the last movement, Fiesta, has the rhythmic excitement and vitality that its name implies. The slow movement, Copla, is a superb example of the composer’s lyrical gifts and his subtle mastery of harmony.

Two manuscripts of Thème varié et Finale exist and this recording is the first to offer the two versions. The first manuscript, dated 8th June, 1926, is similar to the actual published version (1928). In the second version the order of the variations is different and three of them, I, VIII, and IX are missed out. From a letter of 21st August, 1926, it seems the variations were first performed around that time by Segovia at Evian-les-Bains. Thème varié et Finale was published by Schott in 1928 and recorded for Decca in May, 1954.

Following the unusual opening theme with its reflective modulations, the Variations deploy a series of textures such as repeated chords, dialogue between bass and treble, a study in thirds, an agitato movement in triplets, a burst of scalic passages, and an emotive molto più lento section with a memorable melody and inspired harmonic progressions. The Finale (Vivo scherzando), a dance in 3/8 time with the dynamism of a tarantella, evolves from filigree semiquaver runs to glissando chords, the momentum gathering force as it proceeds to a middle section with snatches of melody, chromatic chords and intricate triplets. After the return of the Finale’s opening theme, a vigorous coda moves to a triumphant close.

Variations sur ‘Folia de España et Fugue’ were composed at Segovia’s request following a letter from the guitarist to the composer in December 1929. In the space of a few months Ponce completed a set of twenty variations as well as a fugue and a prelude (not included in Schott’s publication in 1932). Segovia first performed the work (including the Prélude) at the Grand Theatre, Geneva, Switzerland, on 2nd May, 1930 and recorded the composition (without the Prélude!) on 6th and 7th October of the same year.

Corazón Otero, one of the foremost Ponce scholars, described the work as ‘one of the monumental works of the guitar’. This extended composition, rare at a time when many guitar works were relatively brief, includes aspects of various guitar techniques used by traditional composers. Thus Ponce deploys chordal textures, arpeggios, monody, harmonics, tremolo sustained legato, etc., as well as fugue. Many players have considered this to be one of the most challenging peaks of the repertoire, an Everest to be conquered. The passing of time has not diminished its appeal to modern generations of virtuosic guitarists.

Variations on a Theme of Cabezón, Ponce’s final work for the guitar, was dedicated to his friend and confessor, Dr Antonio Brambila and completed only two months before the composer’s death. The theme is actually not from the music of Cabezón but from the sequence O Filii et Filiae, a Christian hymn attributed to Jean Tisserand (d. 1474).

The theme has altered time values from the original melody transforming it into a gentle dance in three-four rather than an ecclesiastical hymn. Of the six variations, four retain a firm allegiance to the theme with ingenious rhythmic embellishments while Variations I and V are permitted a little more freedom in quasi-baroque style. A fughetta concludes the work culminating in triumphant chordal patterns contrasted against elegant chromatic sequences.

The Andante from Ponce’s Sonata II remains as a fragment from a lost manuscript and this is the first ever recording of the work. Segovia mentioned the existence of an A minor Sonata in two letters of 1926. But in a letter of 26th August, 1939, Segovia refers to the loss of this and other pieces from his ransacked Barcelona apartment during the Spanish Civil War. A copy of the Andante, however, was fortunately discovered by the eminent Italian guitarist, scholar, and editor, Angelo Gilardino, who forwarded a copy to Judicaël Perroy for this recording.

The Andante is surely one of the most expressive of all Ponce’s compositions, moving from its tender opening chords towards a more vigorous chordal progression at the end. Such exquisite writing for the guitar raises many questions about what might have been the style and substance of the other movements of the lost sonata.

Graham Wade

Grateful acknowledgements are due to Miguel Alcázar’s Obra complete para guitarra de Manuel M. Ponce (Conaculta étoile, Mexico, 2000) and Angelo Gilardino’s comments on Andante (Sonata II).

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