Mark Laporta’s Music Review: Ginastera’s “Cello Concerto 2”

The bright, bold colors and intricate textures of this late work (1980) are enough on their own to recommend it to casual listeners of the last century’s music. But two other features, its flexible but powerful form and the at once torturous and thoroughly idiomatic solo line put this concerto into the top tier.

That is, not just for its limited genre, but also for large scale works in general. You can listen on YouTube and view the score online.

Written, apparently, for the composer’s second wife, Aurora Nátola, the concerto is also a stunning non-verbal testimony to her virtuosity. Yet, like every other aspect of the texture, the solo line is perfectly integrated, is never showy for its own sake, and sounds for all the world like an intimate monologue.

Particularly in the first movement’s five variations, the marvelous synergy between soloist and orchestra and between sonority and form is captivating. All told, the piece lies comfortably in the middle ground between late-century athematicism (with a light dusting of aleatoria) and the somewhat more conservative end of the spectrum inhabited by some composers in the 1950s.

While the concerto shares not a few traits with Ginastera’s “Pampeana No. 3” of 1954, it differs significantly in the absence of folk-derived tunefulness. More noticeable, perhaps, is the expansion of the orchestra’s sound palette, to include what an early reviewer referred to as “exotic percussion instruments.” Nearly forty years later, that comment sounds quaint, to the extent that it’s not also offensive. “Exotic” is, after all, only a code word for “primitive,” itself a code word.

In any case, far from being a trendy extra, the percussion array is essential to the concerto’s distinctive profile. That is partly because the work’s main theme, as I hear it, is it’s constantly evolving texture. It’s as if, like Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata, the concerto had a “technical program” and evolved directly from a series of sonoric and textural landmarks that Ginastera wanted to reach.

And yet, like any piece of music, it lives or dies on results rather than causes. That’s as true of Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” as of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Erwartung,” a work that, á propos of nothing, I recently heard live with the NY Philharmonic. The new conductor, Jaap van Zweden is such an improvement over his predecessor that words fail to describe the difference.

The first movement, which may be the most convincing is also the most tightly conceived. From the outset, it’s clear the composer is “workin’ a hexachord, although in an effortless organic way that keeps it from being obtrusive. The movement is cast as a series of variations, though in as much as the beginning of the movement is labeled “Prima metamorfosi,” you have to assume the theme is really the underlying logic of the movement ─ never stated, but always in the background.

The first variation, ethereal with bells, slides and whistling sounds, is interrupted by “nervous” rapid notes, which lead to the second variation. Variation 2 is agitated, as swirling whoops whoosh through the orchestra. It also feature gut wrenching double stops for the soloist.

In time this settles down, however, to an introspective “recitative” which leads into the third variation, where, for a moment, you can be excused for thinking of Berg’s Violin Concerto in tone and gesture. This variation evolves as a mournful piece, with string slides and the concerto’s first instance of aleatoric “repeat as needed” overlapping lines.

Considering how specific Ginastera’s choices have been up to that point, I wonder at the need for this blobby addition to the texture. Fortunately, this kind of thing happens only occasionally and, perhaps I’ve already ground that ax down to the nub. Regardless, this variation, too, proceeds in the same unerring way as its predecessors. The composer’s steady hand is audible in every measure: a rare sensation indeed. Soon, sustained notes in the orchestra and a ruminative solo lead the way into the fourth variation.

Broad arpeggios open that variation which, if played effortlessly, offer a welcome release of tension. That’s supplemented by fluttering winds, gossamer strings, bell sounds and placid horns. Despite a late climax that sounds a bit as if the bird-wing of the local zoo had been accidentally unlocked, that mood dominates.

By the time the fourth variation closes, the first movement dissolves, rather brilliantly, into the soloist’s highest, most wistful arpeggios yet. As you’ll hear as you listen, creating a coherent description of this music is a tad challenging. Like a rich meal, there are simply too many sensations to take in at once.

Ginastera’s cello writing continues to scintillate in the second movement, a skittish scherzo, full of slides and pizzicati for the soloist, while the orchestra flickers through a series of growls, tremolos, natty percussion riffs and a generalized atomization of the texture. Aleatoric gestures return after a time, part of the backdrop to the soloist’s slides to the upper stratosphere or grinding digs at the lowest register.

Here, as elsewhere so far, Ginastera asks the soloist to be anywhere at any time in the instrument’s register and leap, not just to distant notes but to greatly contrasting moods and intensities with pinpoint accuracy. The texture is masterfully realized and entirely consistent with the first movement. it is, at the same time, very much in the mold of hundreds of other such movements, old and new ─ a fact that does not, however, diminish its impact.

A mournful third movement of extraordinary delicacy follows, especially considering the forces amassed on stage. That’s just one way the concerto might remind you of an opera, albeit one, like Erwartung, with a single character. Also like an opera is the broad sweep of the piece and the distinct profile of the “scenario.”

For one of the concerto’s other distinguishing traits is its ability to define a world of its own. Your time spent with this piece will be decidedly otherworldly. Not, that is, because it’s so spare and ethereal, but because it has a solidity, a groundedness that gives you impression of light and shade, of the sun or the moon passing overhead.

In that sense, it seems clear that, whatever drama Ginastera attempted to unfold through music, it was set squarely in the natural world. No cynical urban fantasy, nor Camus-like launch into existential doubt, the piece is life-affirming, yet in a thoroughly realistic way.

The third movement expands on Bartók’s “night music” paradigm, though in an utterly original way. The movement’s title “Nottilucente” leaves this little in doubt, even if it defies Google Translate to deliver an English equivalent. Aurora? Starlight? Regardless, each sound effect is distinctive and carefully conceived and the total effect is a welcome evolution of this well-established Modernist template.

In this movement, the opening hexachord and related phenomena, which were never absent, come more to the fore, to lend and effortless unifying element. And yet, one of the most attractive feature of Ginastera’s concerto is the way it sounds as if every section were cut from the same cloth. A variegated, multicolored, highly patterned cloth, to be sure, but the sense of organic unity is palpable, both throughout and on a moment-to-moment basis.

Eventually, the movement grinds to a halt through a relatively thick chordal texture which leads to the concerto’s last movement, labeled “Cadenza e Finale Rustico.” Enroute, the solo line ascends to its highest possible register, as it has before, but perhaps nowhere so effectively.

In a work already saturated with astonishing yet tasteful virtuoso gestures, the cadenza hardly serves as “the” showcase for the soloists’ mastery of the instrument. Yet pulling it off requires the skill of a gifted actor delivering a monologue by Shakespeare or Chekov. It is, besides, the perfect foil to the boisterous finale which, with its predictable dithyrambic fury, the concerto’s only weak spot.

That doesn’t keep it from being exquisitely realized with great technical mastery. But it’s not, to my ear, the finale that the first movement deserves. It’s monochromatic, foot-stomping intensity is just a tad too obvious. And it is, above all much too brief, proportionately.

Yet nothing about those misgivings diminish this singular work or the enviable emotional honesty that infuses every measure. Was it a testament or the reenactment of countless memories? Or was it simply the product of a highly cultivated musical mind that had listened and learned well over the course of a lifetime? Regardless, I recommend it highly.


Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His new novel, Probability Shadow, is published by Chickadee Prince Books, and is available  in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. Or listen to his musical compositions here.