Federico Ibarra, Music for Piano

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, Fanfare Magazine, March/April, 2013


Spanish Dances

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, Fanfare Magazine, March/April, 2012


Alma Brasileira, Danzas Españolas, Sonidos de Nueva España

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.

Robert Schulslaper, Fanfare Magazine, March/April, 2012