"...one of the last pianists in the grand romantic tradition of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Rubinstein"
Alberto & Aurora Ginastera
with Eugene Ormandy, Edna Phillips, & harpist Nicanor Zabaleta
Three Piano Concertos by Ginastera
December 10, 2011
"Remembering Alberto Ginastera"
reprinted from Piano Today - July 1, 2007
I was first introduced to the music of Alberto Ginastera while a young piano student at the University of Michigan. In those days it seemed as if every pianist in the school was learning his First Piano Sonata. The infectious Latin American dance rhythms coming from the practice rooms communicated such joy and passion. This was pure "gut" music--music that teased the brain but also went directly to the heart, and was felt in the pit of the stomach. I confess that I was initially drawn to its visceral energy, its brilliant virtuosity and natural pianism, and those strong, driving rhythms. It was so much fun to learn and perform, and it was well crafted for the instrument.
Ginastera had an instinctive knowledge of the keyboard-an uncanny ability to exploit a wide range of its coloristic and rhythmic possibilities, its lyrical and percussive qualities. And yet he always knew what was innately "pianistic"--what would work and fit comfortably under the hand.
This talent was in evidence whether he was writing a string quartet, a harp concerto, or a violin concerto, or exploring the possibilities of the human voice in one of his remarkable operas. I asked him once if he had ever studied the harp-- what it could do and what it couldn't do. He laughed and replied, "Yes, and the things they said it couldn't but really could do. That's the creative imagination and also the technique."
One of his masterpieces, the Variaciones Concertantes, featuring twelve members of the orchestra as soloists, manifests this virtuosity perfectly. As he himself said, "I write as a spiritual necessity... and above all I want my work to be understood. The music must reach the public through an interpreter, and a successful work, I think, must emerge as a virtuoso piece for the players." We hear in all of his music the extraordinary level of his craft: the brilliance of the orchestration, the richness of the color palette, but most importantly, his unique gift to take us on a magical journey within his fertile musical imagination.
I remember my first encounter with Alberto Ginastera in 1970. He had been invited as the featured composer to the University of Michigan's Contemporary Festival. I had just learned his First Piano Concerto, written in 1961. The Concerto contained all the elements that initially attracted me to his First Piano Sonata, written nine years earlier: sharp contrasts, sudden accents, syncopations, Latin rhythms, motoric rhythmic energy, and a respect for form and structure, combined with an even wider palette of orchestral colors and fantastic effects. Even the rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer responded to its energy and orchestrated the toccata finale for one of their popular albums, thus bringing Ginastera's music to an even wider audience.
We first met at rehearsal. I remember him sitting alone in the empty hall, listening; he seemed to be enjoying himself. I also recall that he did not look at all as I had imagined. He was impeccably dressed in a well-cut pin-striped suit and could have easily passed for a rich, South American banker. The conductor had stopped the rehearsal and was asking him about specific measures in the hard-to-read orchestral parts: "what note did he want here, how should it be played?"
Observing him, I realized that this composition, written ten years earlier, was distant from his memory and consciousness. It was as if he were hearing the work for the first time. And, totally amazed by its wonderful effects, he was thoroughly enjoying the experience.
After that performance of the First Concerto, he promised to write a Piano Concerto for me. That was the beginning of our friendship.
Six years later in 1976, we met again when he invited me to perform the First Concerto at his 60th birthday celebration in Geneva. At the first rehearsal for this gala concert, the conductor wanted to rehearse with only the piano soloist, the harp and the percussion section; that was certainly a good idea considering the difficulty of the writing. Ginastera was in the hall listening and every one of us was amazed by what we heard. The Concerto had seemingly morphed into another self-contained composition.
It was after that first rehearsal that Alberto said, "Barbara, the work I write for you will be a concerto for one piano and percussion." (as opposed to the Bartok concerto for two pianos and percussion) How exciting--as far as we knew, no one had yet written a work for that medium.
As the years passed we spoke many times about "our concerto," but there were always other commissions awaiting completion. The Popol Vuh, his orchestral depiction of the birth of the world according to Mayan texts, a commission from Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, was long overdue. Ginastera was notorious for writing slowly--the birthing process of any new work took many years to come to life. Then sadly, Ginastera become ill with terminal cancer.
Because of these circumstances, my "piano concerto" evolved into the short Third Piano Sonata, Op, 55, written in 1982. This sonata, his final composition, is a one-movement work, "like Prokofiev's Third Sonata," he explained, "but similar in form to the earlier keyboard sonatas of Scarlatti--in two parts with an extended, virtuosic coda. This constant toccata-like rhythm, based on Amer-Indian and colonial dances of Latin America is reminiscent of Schumann's Toccata."
He intended to write an Adagio introduction, but unfortunately died before it could be realized. The sonata was written from his hospital bed and mailed to me in America, a few pages at a time. The only request I made involved the difficult right hand glissandi that he had written in parallel sixths. Since the piece moves at a remarkable clip, I suggested that these might be easier to play as octave glissandi, although they are still difficult to execute at this fast tempo. To honor the 90th anniversary year of his birth, I recently pulled out the Sonata to include on this season's recital programs. In the hands of a lesser composer, the thematic material might sound banal but Ginastera makes something special from these rhythms--what he managed to do with rhythmic variants is nothing short of miraculous.
Always in evidence in everything he wrote is the knowledge he acquired by studying the piano music of Liszt, Bartók and Prokofiev. His love and respect for the piano always shines through--quite amazing considering that he was not a virtuoso pianist himself. I discovered that fact when I asked him if he played his First Sonata; he nodded his head but with a grin on his face added--"one chord per second."
This is music that could only have been written by a "man of Latin America," as he liked to call himself. He does more than utilize folk-melodies; he creates his own brand of "imaginary folklore," definitely influenced by what Kodály and Bartok achieved with their use of Hungarian folk-material. The sounds of the South American plains are part of his color world: the "night" sounds, the Latin dance rhythms--all contribute to Ginastera's personal musical language. The gaucho (the Argentine cowboy) becomes the mythical hero, and we can see and hear him dancing the malambo--a virile dance where one gaucho tries to outdo the other by showing off his difficult dance steps. These dances sometimes went on for hours. Ginastera might have enjoyed the gauchos but according to his daughter, Georgina, this city boy from Buenos Aires never liked being around horses.
What I remember most from all of our musical discussions over the years was how important form and structure were to his craft. He said many times that "a work without form is a work de-formed. Music is architecture in movement and the form must always be born with the music. It is not a different thing; it is the same thing." He talked often about contrast within music as a vital element. "In aesthetics, as in nature, there exists the law of contrasts: day and night, the sun and the moon, black and white, allegro and adagio. We must return to contrasts within music."
Ginastera frequently incorporates polytonality in his compositions and employs a wide color palette. He makes repeated use of the chordal structures and patterns of the guitar, alternating expressively lyrical melodies, with violently accented and syncopated rhythms. The open strings of the guitar are used as a signature motif and this pattern can be found in practically every composition. When I played the First Piano Sonata for him, the only two words he wrote in my score were "como guitarra"--in the opening section of the second movement's presto misterioso.
On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I was surprised to discover a manuscript copy of an early piano concerto, Concierto Argentino, written by Ginastera in 1935. Nicolas Slonimsky had traveled to South America in the 1940's in search of Latin American music. His trip was sponsored by the WPA, and that is how the parts landed in the Fleisher Manuscript Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Written in the style of his later ballet Estancia, it is obviously a young work but already contains seeds of his later musical style. Ginastera subsequently withdrew the work from publication but later in his life reviewed the manuscript and did have intentions of revising the work. It is indeed an honor that Aurora Nátola-Ginastera, the widow of the composer, has granted me the exclusive right to perform and record this early work along with his First and Second Piano Concertos, thus presenting a historical continuum of Ginastera's special relationship with the piano concerto. The diversity between these three compositions, written for piano and orchestra, is quite stunning.
Perhaps Ginastera's greatest contribution to music was his gift for making magic and stirring the emotions of his listeners. The sheer physical act of playing his piano music has a cathartic effect, providing a release of raw, earthy emotions that seem to transcend thought. The driving intensity, the excitement of this exuberant, unrestrained music burst forth to engulf the listener, communicating with a directness that so often eludes many of today's composers.
How wonderful to rediscover a composer who can make us feel, who puts us back in touch with our passions and reaches deep into our soul. He has left us a rich legacy that, fortunately, will last forever. - Barbara Nissman