Music recorded by Fred Sturm

Mario Carro, Impromptu (2010)

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IBARRA Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-6. Páramo Pétreo. Piano Sonata No. 0 • Fred Sturm (pn) • STURM UND DRANG 6. Available from (70:32)

Federico Ibarra is a prolific Mexican composer, with a large body of symphonic, operatic, and chamber music to his credit. American pianist Fred Sturm has emerged as an ardent proponent of Ibarra’s still increasing collection of music for solo piano, including this recording of all seven of the extant piano sonatas. An eighth sonata (it will be called Sonata No. 7; Sonata No. 0 is a resurrected student work) has also been written, and is dedicated, with gratitude, to Sturm. Ibarra, who was born in 1946, is a thoroughly modern composer, forging a distinctive sound that follows no particular trend. His Mexican heritage is reflected in a kind of exciting visceral energy, without much discernable folkloric influence, in the manner of Carlos Chavez. There is certainly something of a cosmopolitan flavor to Ibarra’s writing as well. His sense of color and naturally flowing rhythm recalls the French impressionists; elsewhere he employs a kind of jazzy syncopation that conjures the inky world of film noir. Above all else, his music is overtly dramatic, with a strong narrative pulse present at all times. He conveys this sense with extreme dynamic contrasts, an expressive melodic component, and a masterful, if individualistic grasp of texture. One gets the sense that Ibarra completely exploits the technical capabilities of the instrument, with all 88 keys in use, and then some!

Fred Sturm, with his specialized interest in Latin piano music, and with his particular knowledge of piano mechanics, would seem to be the ideal interpreter of this work. Indeed, he plays the music of Ibarra as if he were writing it on the spot. It is rare to hear a musician so inhabited by the material. Sturm has played the piano his entire life, but did not have a typical conservatory training. Nevertheless, the technique he displays here can be astonishing, especially in his ability to draw out all of the inner voicings in the music, even as they are layered across a huge dynamic range (well captured by the recording). For the listener, this music can be challenging and even strange, but as an example of extraordinary artistry at the service of bold, iconoclastic music, this is a powerful release. I think that any adventuresome piano music lover would find this to be a uniquely compelling recording. Peter Burwasser

IBARRA Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-6. Páramo Pétreo. Piano Sonata No. 0 • Fred Sturm (pn) • STURM UND DRANG 6. Available from (70:32)

Federico Ibarra (b. 1946) is a Mexican composer whose work I didn’t know before this assignment. I’m glad it came my way. Himself a concert pianist, Ibarra (who may turn up as Ibarra Groth if you web-search him, probably through the matrilineal portion of his name in Spanish) has written extensively for the instrument. His sonatas 1 to 6 span 1978-2002, and show a remarkably consistent voice. He is very much a romantic, but an astringent one. The works are compact and economical; none is over 15 minutes, and four are at or under 10. The language is derived from the chromaticism of the early 20th century, with tinges of folkloric modalism and impressionistic harmony. All use very restricted motives and devices to make their points. Arpeggios, repeated gestures or individual notes, gradually paced crescendos and/or textural massings drive the music forward. There is successfully contrasting lyricism too. Several of the pieces build to shattering climaxes.

The First Sonata uses the most avant-garde techniques (clusters, inside-the-piano, etc.), but afterwards Ibarra’s reliance on a certain austerity of sound is what makes it most “modern.” (The “Sonata 0” is a student work.) The First Sonata reminded me of the monomaniacal drive of Galina Ustvolskaya; afterwards I felt Ibarra was in the company of such focused and driven composers as Ruggles and Gloria Coates, though his language is more richly tonal than theirs and the textures start to approach the sound of Romantic-era forebears. Other progenitors may be his fellow countrymen Revueltas and Chavez. At times the direction and development of the music can seem a little simplistic, especially when things transpose up in a series of chromatic shifts. But there is something really elemental about this that is quite compelling, perhaps because the form in such cases is “primitive” in a manner that matches the directness of the sounds.

Fred Sturm handles this material with strength and obvious love. He works as a piano technician in New Mexico, and has produced a number of recordings of Latin American piano music. I think his interpretations are extremely musical and insightful. His technique is powerful, and the only time I feel it’s pushing its limits is in the relentless Toccata movement of the Sonata No. 6. My only carp is that the silences between successive pieces are too short; because of the consistency of materials in the series, it makes it easy to miss where one piece ends and the next begins. I’m grateful for the chance this disc gives to learn of a strong-minded creator. Robert Carl

Under the title Spanish Dances, pianist Fred Sturm has assembled a delightful collection of short pieces by Mompou, Turina, and Granados. Sturm’s career path is distinct from that of most concert pianists, his having spent at least as much time as piano technician as performing on stage and in the studio. It’s hard to determine if his time as an “insider” informs his interpretations, but it’s safe to say that his surveys of Latin American, American, and Spanish music have earned him well-deserved prominence in this corner of the vast keyboard literature.
Mompou’s 15 Cançons i Danses (songs and dances in Catalan) span nearly his entire compositional career, an uncommon procedure for a relatively modest set of short pieces. They are finely crafted, evocative works, with more body and intrigue than garden-variety salon pieces. A few individual works from this set show up from time to time in recital and in collections on disc. Sturm brings a sense of mysterious serenity to four excerpts from these deceptively simple works. Música Callada translates literally as “music without sound” (from St. John of the Cross) but the meaning is far more ambiguous. Some of these seem to reach north of the border into French territory, with slight hints of Satie, Ravel, and even Messiaen. Sturm paces the works evenly and naturally, with gentle rubato and restrained dynamic range. Hearing this sampler whetted my appetite for more, and I found a terrific complete four-CD set on Nimbus by Martin Jones. Those wishing to pursue the subject further should refer to Peter Burwasser’s positive review of Javier Perianes’s reading of the set in Fanfare 30: 6.
Joaquin Turina occupies a similarly modest but growing presence on disc. His Danses Gitanes has a few complete recordings, though Sturm includes only five of the items from the set. They are a bit less ambitious harmonically than the Mompou, and the structures are more conventional. The whiff of French influence is more pronounced, and at their best they invoke early Debussy. Turina’s modesty can be quite touching, and the pianist captures this reticence beautifully.
GGranados’s piano music has many more champions than the other two Spaniards, most notably Alicia de Larrocha and Jorge Federico Osorio. In his six selections from Danzas Españolas Sturm can’t quite match them in terms of sheer flash, but he finds a poetic undercurrent that is often quite irresistible. “Oriental” in particular moves with an understated exoticism and smooth lyrical flow. Not surprisingly coming from one so well versed in a piano mechanics, the recorded sound is even and natural. Michael Cameron

These three CDs may not offer a complete education in Spanish and Latin American piano music—obviously, the field is so vast that many more would be required to compile an audio encyclopedia—but it does give a curious listener more than a smattering of intriguing, beautiful, and viscerally exciting music, enough to whet the appetite for further exploration. Familiar composers share the spotlight with others less well-known, and there are some major discoveries among them. Villa-Lobos, of course, is the presiding genius of Latin American composers, so it’s not surprising that he rates his own CD. Although his guitar music is world-famous and forms an essential part of any classical player’s development, his piano music, although equally colorful and diverse, is not as ubiquitous. Alma Brasileira (the “Brazilian Soul” of the CD title) is a passionate, indeed soulful piece that derives much of its potency from one of Villa-Lobos’s signature devices, specifically a syncopated alternation between adjacent harmonies supporting a deeply felt melody. A Lendo do Caboclo —according to Sturm, one of the composer’s most popular pieces—is romantically tender, without Alma ’s tempestuous central episode. The rest of the CD is devoted to two cycles, Cirandas and Ciclo Brasileiro. Cirandas , a collection of 16 pieces, fashions colorful vignettes from simple building blocks, the simple tunes associated with children’s circle games. These sophisticated and technically demanding evocations of childhood range from wild gaiety to wistful musings. The swirling or hammered piano figurations recall Debussy or Stravinsky, both composers Villa-Lobos would have been familiar with from his years in Paris. Ciclo Brasileiro ’s tranquil, pastoral opening is followed by a bittersweet Chopinesque waltz; two toccata-like movements conclude the suite. The first’s rapidly alternating chords segue into a lovely second subject that Villa-Lobos treats inventively, allocating melody and accompaniment to the left hand, thus allowing the right to scatter delicate ornamental figures in the treble. The concluding “Dansa do Indio Branco” is a tour de force requiring stamina and rhythmic precision. Relentless ostinatos combined with a “primitive” melody create a mesmerizing effect. Some hear it as a portrait of the larger-than-life composer, elemental in his overflowing creativity.

Danzas Españolas takes its title from Granados’s popular set, beloved for its insinuating rhythms, memorable melodies, and expressive central sections. All the dances have been arranged and transcribed for guitar and are so idiomatic it can come as a surprise to learn that the originals were written for the piano. Sturm plays six of the 12, noting, “They are all matchless in capturing the essence of the Spanish character.” Turina’s Danses Gitanes is closer to flamenco and alternately light and dark in mood. Mompou’s first four Cançons i Danses (Songs and Dances) are charming miniatures based on Catalan songs and pair slow, meditative melodies with animated dances. The boisterous third dance’s pungent chords and “wrong” notes suggest a Spanish Shostakovich. In Música Callada , Mompou set himself the task of writing music that would embody the voice of silence, “in which solitude itself becomes music.” Philosophical or mystical aspirations aside, the pieces are predominantly slow, subdued in dynamics (with a few startling exceptions), melodious, and even seductive. Number 25’s atonal landscape breaks the mold and shows the composer to have been more adventurous than a casual acquaintance with his reputation would suggest.

Sonidos de Nueva España brings us works by Mexican composers. Ibarra is perhaps the most original. He’s developed a captivating individual language that’s modern, impressionistic—in my notes I wondered if his Sonata No. 2 might be a distant cousin to “Scarbo”—and exciting for its novel approach to the piano. As Sturm points out in our conversation, Ibarra transforms his chromatic figures and potentially dissonant intervals into compelling music that transcends its components. Rodolfo Halffter is the only non-native Mexican composer here, having emigrated from Spain following the Civil War. The playful first movement of his Homenaje a Antonio Machado is light in texture, slightly acerbic, and wears its modernity gracefully. A few brief Baroque measures strike an incongruous note, so much so that I wonder if Halffter was indulging in a private joke. However, since the second movement, too, has a subtle Baroque flavor, albeit intermixed with a gentle, Spanish melodiousness, perhaps that period was dear to his heart. The third movement reminds me of the slower numbers in Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin , and the freely flowing fourth could be a cousin to the Sonatine. Secuencia , from a later period in Halffter’s career, is written in a personal adaptation of 12-tone technique. The music is severe, forceful, and concentrated; here and there I’m reminded of Stravinsky. There’s the same focus on short motifs, with splashes of color scattered along the way. Moncayo’s Muros Verdes ’s pastoral introduction leads to slowly moving block chords, vaguely hymnlike and growing in intensity, which are succeeded by vigorous passagework and the joyously syncopated melody that brings the work to an exciting close. To my ears, Galindo, Moncayo, and Moncada share a 20th-century Mexican aesthetic; while not clones, they could be heard as part of a “school.” At first, Galindo’s Seven Pieces resembles the opening of the Moncayo, but then the second piece’s crashing chords displace any lingering reveries. Modified folkloric elements abound and lend the sometimes sharply-etched piano writing extra layers of vitality or sentimentality. Moncada’s festive Costeña bears a family resemblance to Leonard Bernstein’s “America” (from West Side Story ).

Sturm plays this varied repertoire with relish, sensitivity, and an individual response to each composer. Energetic and rhythmically adroit in extroverted music, he doesn’t dawdle or break the flow in slow or languid measures but uses beautifully gauged rubatos, ritardandos, dynamics, and colorful pedaling to express the composers’ thoughts. He’s stylistically flexible, performing everything from Ibarra to Granados with finesse and fine attention to detail without imperiling the grand design. The music from the first two CDs has all been recorded before and sometimes often, but I don’t have the space to delve into detailed comparisons. Suffice it to say that Sturm’s versions deserve a place on your Spanish/Latin piano music shelf. As to Sonidos de Nueva España , here is a well-performed selection of music that’s probably new to most general listeners and that would require the purchase of four or five CDs to duplicate. If you’re interested in hearing some of what’s been happening south of the border during the latter half of the 20th century, this would be an excellent place to start.