REVUELTAS: Cinco canciones para niños (arr. Elias).* ZYMAN: Concerto for guitar and string orchestra. CORAL: Concerto for guitar and orchestra. RITTER: Fantasía Concertante.
Juan Carlos Laguna (guitar), Conjunto de Cámara de la Ciudad de México/Benjamín Juárez Echenique, Manuel de Elías*.
Urtext JBCC 091 TT: 73:27

Los bravos. Guitar fans have concentrated on the music of Tudor England, Spain, and South America, and with good reason. However, Mexico has also produced a bumper crop not only of great guitarists and but also of composers for the instrument. This CD features four of them, although Samuel Zyman has long resided in the United States.

Undoubtedly the best-known composer of the group, Silvestre Revueltas's reputation has surpassed those of all other Mexican composers, including the once-mighty Carlos Chávez. His very Stravinskian Sensemaya recalls techniques and even actual passages in Le sacre du printemps. He and Chávez delved deepest into European-influenced Modernism in their search for a Mexican nationalist style. Chávez tried to evoke the grandeur of the Aztecs, while Revueltas usually was inspired by the music of the streets -- mariachi bands, rancheros, corridos, and the like. Unfortunately, Revueltas died young, in his forties, from alcoholism. The Cinco canciones para niños (five children's songs, on texts by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca) appeared originally for voice and piano. Revueltas then scored it for voice and small chamber ensemble, including trumpet and percussion. It stands as an unusual piece in Revueltas's catalogue, in that it sounds more Spanish than Mexican. In a way, the version here is a bit of bait-and-switch. Manuel de Elías substantially reworked the piece in order to accommodate guitar and small orchestra. So that the guitar can be heard, he has had to smooth the rough original. The result not, of course, pure Revueltas, but it is a lovely work for the guitar.

Samuel Zyman now works in the United States at Juilliard, and studied there with Roger Sessions and David Diamond, among others. Compared to Chávez and Revueltas, he writes in a more international idiom -- Walter Piston more than Copland. Nevertheless, his guitar concerto, easily the most substantial piece on the program, brims with Hispanic elements, mostly rhythmic. The dramatic first movement begins with a three-minute introduction, laying out the two ideas that Zyman will develop over a span of more than ten minutes into a tight argument. Furthermore, the ideas fit the guitar like a Saville Row suit. The texture, highly contrapuntal, remains clear. In the second movement, the guitar sings tenderly, allowing Zyman to show his considerable melodic gifts. The song flows both tunefully and unpredictably. Drama returns in the "agitato" third movement, and the level of counterpoint rises. Large stretches proceed in fugato (not a full-blown fugue, but "fuguey-ness") and stretto (before one voice finishes, another joins in with the same material). Zyman looks to get a rise and possibly an ovation from the listener.

Leonardo Coral and Jorge Ritter look even more resolutely beyond the Mexican borders to Europe and the States. I'd be hard pressed to identify their music as Hispanic. They have written two very well-crafted scores. Coral takes a big risk in his slow movement by sounding a tonic pedal in the bass throughout. Ritter, who has also produced electronic works, creates some snappy rhythms and uses percussion delicately and in a novel way. However, compared to Revueltas and Zyman, both Coral and Ritter unfortunately lack a strongly individual artistic profile. In a blind listening test, I'd be sorely tried to guess which composer wrote what.

Juan Carlos Laguna plays crisply, but with a certain lightness of tone. Don't expect John Williams or any of the Romeros. The Conjunto de Cámara de la Ciudad de México is occasionally ragged, but doesn't fall apart. Rereading what I've written, I seem to damn with faint praise, yet I do like the disc quite a bit. I love guitar music, and these scores run above the common.

S.G.S. (November 2014)