Manuel Ponce, perhaps Mexico's first composer of international
importance, wrote relatively little chamber music: this disc
by US label Centaur contains three of his most significant works
in the genre. It is in direct competition with a CD released
on Mexican label Urtext in 2007 (JBCC 149), on which the Cuarteto
Latinoamericano celebrated their 25th anniversary not only with
these three works, but also Ponce's excellent String Trio
and a minor work, the Four Miniatures. On the face of
it, therefore, this is not as good a deal - the disc is undeniably
on the short side.
On the other hand, the Urtext release gave the world premiere
recordings, astonishingly, of both the String Quartet and the
Duo Sonata, so there is plenty of room on the market for the
very able competition brought by American soloists Robert and
Kimberly Lehmann, Jennifer Elowitch and William Rounds.
According to New Grove, Ponce's string quartet was written in
1929, but the booklet states that it was begun in 1935 and finished
the following year: obviously they cannot both be right. The
liner notes are unauthored, so it is difficult to know how much
faith to have in the handful of discrepancies with New Grove
over dates: according to the latter, the Duo Sonata was
written in 1939, but the booklet says 1935; and the Petite
Suite is dated 1933 in New Grove, and only listed as an
orchestral work, whereas the booklet says the chamber work was
written in 1935 and then arranged for string orchestra.
The four-movement Quartet is dedicated to Ponce's teacher,
Paul Dukas. Lehmann and co. play out the first movement over
nearly 15 minutes, whereas the Latinoamericanos whizz home in
under ten - as the other movements have broadly similar timings,
this recording presumably includes one or more repeats; certainly
Lehmann and co.'s allegro moderato tempo seems appropriate.
The Quartet is neither particularly Mexican nor French;
perhaps it most resembles some of Heitor Villa-Lobos's third-period
quartets (the Seventh onwards), with the earlier of which
it is roughly contemporaneous - and Villa-Lobos also met Dukas
and others in Paris at around the same time Ponce was there.
It is an inventive, serious work, clearly influenced also by
Schoenberg, but approachable for all that, and quite undeserving
of its almost total neglect by string quartets.
The dazzling counterpoint of the first movement of the Duo
Sonata keeps the soloists so busy that there sometimes seems
to be a third bow at work. The sarabanda second movement
is an odd but lovely neo-Renaissance meets neo-Baroque concoction,
whereas the brief finale is a lively Hispanic dance.
The Little Suite in the Ancient Style, in four concise
movements for violin, viola and cello, is neo-Baroque too, but
this time with neo-Classical leanings, not unlike Stravinsky's
Pulcinella music occasionally. Ponce's counterpoint is
once again masterly, and why this audience-pleasing little gem
has not found its way onto chamber programmes across the world
is a mystery. Nevertheless, the four soloists do their best
- which is very good indeed - to make a persuasive case for
this and the rest of Ponce's marvellous music.
Sound quality is generally very good. There are one or two points
in the String Quartet, in the first two movements, that
have the quality of editing joins, but it is hard to be sure
without a score. The detail in the booklet is brief but sufficient.
A short disc, but sweet - delicious, in fact.
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