Federico Ibarra: Music for Piano

Fred Sturm

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Federico Ibarra’s music for piano has an extraordinarily magical quality about it. It is emotionally charged, ranging from ethereally delicate to intensely passionate. The overall sound has an immediacy that invites the listener to connect with it on first hearing, yet there is ample underlying complexity to reward repeated and detailed listening.

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Liner notes

Federico Ibarra’s music for piano has an extraordinarily magical quality about it. It is emotionally charged, ranging from ethereally delicate to intensely passionate. The overall sound has an immediacy that invites the listener to connect with it on first hearing, yet there is ample underlying complexity to reward repeated and detailed listening.

 The overall character of Ibarra’s music is fresh and new, looking forward in a creative way rather than haunted by music of the past. An outstanding characteristic of his work for piano is the exploration of new timbres and sonic effects, often based on virtuosic techniques that are related to those possessed by accomplished classical pianists – though Ibarra’s creations demand the development of new technical skills. Some of his most characteristic figurations include chromatic triplets, alternating between hands in a number of different contexts and designs; arpeggiated figures of quartal chords, sometimes with an additional interior note, divided between hands in cascades of sound; notes, octaves or chords repeated rapidly by a single finger or the whole hand (no other solution being possible).

 Almost all Ibarra’s work for solo piano is in the form of the sonata, a genre harkening back to the classical era, and largely abandoned by 20th century composers, with some notable exceptions. One of those exceptions was Prokofiev, who wrote a significant series of sonatas, mostly in a consciously neo-classical style. Another is Ginastera, who gave the sonata form his own, more modern interpretation.

 Ibarra took an approach similar to Ginastera’s. In his own words, “My love of the theater, literature and opera moved me to construct my musical thought in accordance with the sonata form, not imitating the works of the past, but constructing a coherent discourse using musical elements belonging to our own epoch, which give a personal vision to its structure without avoiding the original meaning of the term: ‘piece to be sounded’ (sonare in Italian means to sound).” He notes that in his sonatas, “the interpreter has the opportunity to display his technique and abilities, sometimes forgotten in recent works.”

 Ibarra’s sonatas comprise a series that has considerable unity of style and content, while at the same time each individual sonata is very distinct from all the others. Certain elements appear in many sonatas, including some of the figurations mentioned above, like the chromatic triplets (Sonatas 2, 3, 4 and 6), but their use is varied enough that what is familiar is not repetitive. His approach to the sonata takes the classical ideal as a point of departure, but he follows the logic contained within the material of each work, so that each of his sonatas has its own unique form.

 Sonata 1 (1978) is perhaps the least characteristic, but it does contain many elements that recur in the later sonatas. It is the only sonata that uses “inside the piano” techniques (strumming strings and the like), and the only one where the pianist is asked to choose how many times to play something or precisely which notes to play. The basic theme is a repeated note growing in both directions into a cluster of ten notes a half step apart. This theme is developed in a number of ways, and then gives way to a variety of different material, exploring the timbral resources of the piano. The opening theme returns in abbreviated form at the end.

 Sonata 2 (1982) is one movement in three sections, each introduced by the same opening flourish of ascending arpeggios, which is echoed a fourth time at the very end. The sections are quite distinct from one another, in theme and in texture. The opening section has chromatic melodic themes in the bass, then in the high treble, and finally again in the bass, against three sharply contrasting harmonic backgrounds. The middle section is bipartite, building to an enormous climax. The closing section is pianissimo against a constant chromatic trill, with melody in double octaves on both sides of the trill, and fades into a pianississimo.

 Sonata 3 (1988) has the subtitle “Madre Juana,” as it is based in part on themes from Ibarra’s opera of that name (based in turn on a Polish film about demonic possession in a convent). It is in three movements, and follows the classical sonata pattern more closely than Ibarra’s first two sonatas. The first movement has a mostly delicate opening thematic section, featuring descending broken major sevenths. This is followed by a contrasting section that is based on ascending repeated notes in octaves, building in intensity. The opening figure returns, and then material from both sections is combined and brought to a stunning climax. The second movement is based on four quartal chords that appear throughout, first as background for a scherzando staccato theme in the bass, later as the theme, with a return of the opening material at the end. The third movement has a murmuring figure of chromatic triplets alternating between hands, providing the background for a characteristic Ibarra melody, moving slowly by half steps. Material from the first movement appears, giving the sonata a cyclic form.

 Sonata 4 (1990) is also based on the themes of an Ibarra opera, this time “Alicia” (based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice). The opening theme is a single note, a mid treble G, repeated in various rhythms and decorated by murmuring chromatic triplets. This theme is followed by a rhythmic theme in the bass. After a recitativo section, new material appears based on a pedal point A flat, with chromatically descending minor thirds as an accompaniment pattern for a meandering melody. This material builds very slowly in intensity, with themes from the earlier sections being introduced gradually, culminating in a powerful climax. A closing section, based on the opening material, fades into a pianississimo.

 Sonata 5 (1996) is probably the most classical of Ibarra’s sonatas. Its first movement can be heard fairly easily as an opening theme, second theme, development, and return of the opening material in an altered form. The melodic themes are more extended than in most of his piano music, and are developed and juxtaposed with one another in a very organic way. The movement’s ending is hauntingly poignant, some of Ibarra’s most sensitive writing. The second movement is a scherzo, based on chromatic minor thirds moving in various directions. It is very lively and playful in character. The third movement has a slow introduction, expressively written with alternating quiet and fortissimo segments. This is followed by a theme that repeats many times, each time at a higher pitch level, with growing intensity. When its conclusion has been reached, a new theme is introduced, adding virtuosity and volume to build to a towering climax.

 Sonata 6 (2002) is in two movements. The first opens with Ibarra’s familiar chromatic triplets, in yet another guise, and figurations based on that motive occur as both thematic material and as coloristic background material. The movement is cyclical in form, with the opening material recurring at the end, and receiving further development. The second movement is in the form of a toccata, based on rapid staccato notes played with alternating hands, with thematic material appearing against that background. Themes from the first movement are incorporated as the movement progresses, and it closes with a virtuosic flourish.

 Páramo Pétreo (2006) was commissioned by pianist Ana Cervantes as part of a project commemorating the literary works of Mexican author Juan Rulfo, and his novel Pedro Páramo in particular. It is constructed similarly to a Chaconne or a theme and variations, with a short melodic single theme appearing repeatedly throughout, accompanied by different material in each iteration. The theme is transposed upward about halfway through the piece, extended by the use of sequences, and finally inverted, before reappearing at the end in its original form.

 Sonata 0 (1971) is an early, student work, the first movement of what had been projected to be a three movement, neo-classical sonata in the style of Prokofiev. This is a charming work, tightly composed, but it bears no relationship to the other six sonatas in style or in content. It was first published in 2006, along with Páramo Pétreo.

 Federico Ibarra Groth was born in 1946, and has spent most of his life in his native Mexico. He is an accomplished pianist, who combined performance and composition careers in his youth. He gave world or Mexican premiers of works by many composers (including himself) before retiring from active performance and devoting himself entirely to composition.

 In addition to his solo piano works, Ibarra has written operas, symphonies, choral works, and works for a number of chamber ensembles. His stature in Mexico is such that he was commissioned to write a symphony to commemorate the 100th birthday of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2010.

 Fred Sturm makes his home in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he earns his living as a piano technician. He has specialized in the music of a number of composers from Latin America and Spain, including Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alberto Ginastera, Ernesto Nazareth, Frederic Mompou, Rodolfo Halffter, and Federico Ibarra. His previous recordings include Brazilian Soul – Piano Music of Villa-Lobos; American Rags, Brazilian Tangos, and Afrocuban Dances; Piano Music of Ginastera and Villa-Lobos; Spanish Dances, Music of Mompou, Turina and Granados; and Sonidos de Nueva España – Piano Music by Mexican Composers.