Classical Music Review: New Releases

Alejandro Escuer - El Tiempo and Jade Nocturno.
Onix Nuevo Ensamble de Mexico - El Tiempo.  Globe Classics GECD 1 4111.
Alejandro Escuer - Jade Nocturno.   Quindecim Recordings QP071.
Alejandro Escuer : music director.

Mexico is a vast, fascinating place with a rich, diverse culture. And though its geography has been thoroughly visited, its cultural one -- meaning, in this case, new music -- still awaits discovery. Mexican flutist-composer-professor-new music advocate Alejandro Escuer (1963 -) says he believes "in its quality and originality, even though government institutions prefer to support Visual Arts and Literature." The musician (he studied at NYU with Robert Dick), who serves as artistic director of Onix Nuevo Ensamble De Mexico, also plays on both of these CDs. The programs he's assembled here give a strong and varied picture of what's going on in sophisticated music circles south of our border. Few of these composers, with the possible exception of Mario Lavista (1943-), whom I first encountered through his filmscore for Nicolas Echeverria's Cabeza de vaca (1991), and Miguel Del Aquila (1957-) -- new to me -- are known in North America. Both modernist and folkloric styles are here, and sometimes mixed; and each composer has a distinctive and quite personal voice.

Arturo Marquez (1950-) is represented by the 1996 "Octeto Malandro", for flute, clarinet, soprano sax, bassoon, viola, percussion, piano and contrabass. While it suggest a citified Revueltas in its utilization of "native" elements like danzon and Caribbean rhythms, its piquant instrumentation recalls Weill, and sometimes Milhaud, and Chavez. It contrasts languid and perky rhythms to optimal effect, and it's more than a little charming, with an especially seductive clarinet solo by Fernando Dominguez a third of the way into the piece.

"Sonata De Camara Num. 1" (1993) by Armando Luna (1964-) is scored for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano. Cast in the classic three-movement layout common to this form, it cleverly references Stravinsky, Bartok, Honegger, and jazz. Though these "comments" are apparent upon close listening, the sonata's rhythmic drive and coloristic boldness grab one's attention, and hold it. This isn't schoolteacher music, but stark dramatic stuff, with powerful syncopations, and a sure sense of what Garcia Lorca called duende, that Arabo-Hispano word denoting demonic force or passion, and Balthazar Chavarria's astounding clarinet work makes it even hotter. Indeed, the playing throughout is extremely focussed and tight, and the sudden inexorable speed-up in the last movement burns the house down.

Federico Ibarra's "Decima Muerte (10th Death)" was conceived in 1992 and finished in 1998. The composer, who was born in Ciudad De Mexico in 1946, sets a poem of the same name by the melancholy modernist Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia -- he was also gay -- though its text is unfortunately not available here. The piece is scored for mezzo-soprano Adriana Diaz de Leon, for whom it was written and who sings it here, as well as two clarinets, viola, cello and contrabass, and Ibarra's writing cannily exploits their dark, seductive charms. And speaking of charming, the closer here, "Clocks (Relojes), Op. 58, by Uruguayan Miguel Del Aquila (1957-), has that in spades. It's also both technically accomplished and entertaining. The composer delights in Ravel-like clockwork patterns, and some of of his writing for string harmonics -- it's for quartet -- evoke bits of the French musician's Mallarme songs. The third movement -- there are five -- "Sundial 200o A.C. ( Reloj de Sol 2000 A.C.) is powered by a firmly accelerating ostinato, the succeeding "Romance of the Swiss Clock and the Old Clock" (Romance del Reloj Suizo y el Vejo Reloj) has magical writing for the quartet's intertwined voices. And I can't imagine the finale, "Keeping Time" (Contando Tiempo) not bringing down the house when performed live.

The ensemble's other CD is more private in nature -- chamber music, yes, but for smaller forces. Arturo Marquez's "De Pronto" (1987) is a much more spontaneous affair than "Octeto Malandro." Scored for alto flute, cello, and harp, it suggests but doesn't sound like Debussy's 1915 trio for a similar combination -- flute, viola, harp. But its free-floating harmonies make it seem like a contemporary extension of that composer's groundbreaking "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" (1892-94), though here the flute's arabesques are divided between the other instruments.

Escuer is represented by two pieces -- the title track work, which dates from 1998 -- and "Templos" (1993), and he plays both here. The first, which aims to describe the enigmatic qualities of jade, is a spontaneous, unwilled unfolding, an improvisation in the deepest sense -- sensuous, lyric, serious, playful. "Templos" concentrates on generally thinner, more "transparent" sonorities, with a very fluid sense of pulse, and musical time. It also uses percussive effects which sound electronic, but are entirely acoustic, which goes to show how fecund Escuer's imagination is.

But American Robert Rowe's 1996 "Color and Velocity", for flute and electronics, suffers from a surfeit of imagination and a dearth of passion. The composer, who was born in 1954, seems to merely continue the tired, interactive games of the academy -- acoustic sounds combined and/or contrasted with "processed" ones, so that it comes off like a composed version of Christain Marclay's turntable work.

The much vaunted Joseph Schwanter (1943- ) is showcased by a "synopsis" of a much larger orchestral piece. "Soaring" (1986) is for flute and piano, played here by Mauricio Nader. And though it's not especially profound, it's entirely engaging and evocative. Even more so is the 1995 "Meditaciones sobre Abya-Yala", for flute alone, by Graciela Agudelo which again brings Escuer's virtuousic art center stage, with Asiatic nuances redolent of Takemitsu, and thin, glassy sounds like some primeval panpipe.

Lavista's "Danza de las Bailarinas de Degas" (1992) is a more worldly, urban piece, with pronounced Indian rhythmic/melodic elements. It's a workout for flute and piano -- the redoubtable Nader again -- with a mostly driving pulse, and an imaginative use of space and dynamics. "Third Tribe" (1997), by Yuzuru Sadashige (1965-) is scored for flute, piano and the Afro-Cuban drums djembe (Juan Carlos Cirujeda ), and it combines seemingly opposed sonorities and traditions with a thrilling sense of drama, enhanced, no doubt, by the CD's emphatically "live" sound -- the djembe is wonderfully up-close and personal. Both albums have taken pains in the sonic department, and new material, always benefits from that kind of loving care. Strong works, expertly performed, and the notes are informative, and the packaging attractive

Michael McDonagh