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Classical 101

New recording features Mexican romantic piano works

 Jorge Federico Osorio shown in profile playing the piano
Todd Rosenberg
courtesy of the artist
Pianist Jorge Federico Osorio

Recent decades have seen efforts to bring underrepresented voices into the classical music mainstream. These efforts have resulted in a growing number of performances and recordings of musical works by women, composers of non-European descent and composers working outside classical music’s major European centers.

A new recording spotlights Mexico, where the traditions of European classical and traditional Mexican music have coexisted for centuries. Conciertos Románticos (Cedille Records) features the Piano Concerto in A minor by Ricardo Castro (1864-1907), the Piano Concerto No. 1 “Romántico” by Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) and short solo piano works by both composers. Pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, the Minería Symphony Orchestra and conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto give noteworthy performances of this music of their homeland.

The works on the recording – all substantial and beautiful enough to be welcomed into the standard repertoire – exemplify the rich blend of late-romantic European classical and traditional Mexican musical idioms from before the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s. They’re also important reminders of the tribulation with which the Mexican nation later in the 20th century strove to find its unique and alluring musical voice.

Castro and Ponce were trained in the European tradition, but both composers also integrated Mexican musical elements into their works. A virtuoso pianist, Castro channeled the habanera dance form into a number of original solo piano works and composed the Aztec-inspired opera Atzimba. Ponce traveled throughout Mexico researching the country’s folk music and made arrangements of dozens of traditional Mexican songs.

 cover of Jorge Federico Osorio's "Conciertos Romanticos" recording
Cedille Records
courtesy of the artist

For Osorio, Ponce’s attention to the indigenous music of his country also manifests in the distinctly Mexican feel of his original works.

“To me, the music of Manuel Ponce always sounds very Mexican,” Osorio said. “There’s something very Mexican, even if he had so many European influences.”

Both of the concertos on Conciertos Románticos embody the late 19th-century piano concerto form in striking ways. Castro’s Piano Concerto in A minor showcases pianistic virtuosity in a novel and dazzling series of solo piano cadenzas in its first movement and in the sparkling rondo of the work’s finale. Unfolding in three movements with no breaks in between, Ponce’s First Piano Concerto embodies the formal freedom and virtuosic spirit of the piano concertos of Franz Liszt, who taught Ponce’s teacher Martin Krause.

The solo piano works on the recording place Castro and Ponce in an even more intimate conversation. Castro’s Canto de amor (Love Song) and Ponce’s Romanza explore the quiet longing and passion of love. Castro’s Berceuse and Ponce’s Arrulladora mexicana (Mexican Lulling) draw upon the tender tradition of Mexican lullabies.

“It has a folk theme, it’s very Mexican. And the way he uses the singing line is very Mexican culturally, I think,” Osorio said.

The final track on the recording, Ponce’s Intermezzo is imbued with a particularly Mexican brand of longing.

“It’s very añorando – nostalgic. There’s nostalgia in his (Ponce’s) music, always,” Osorio said.

The musical aftermath of the Mexican Revolution places the works on Conciertos Romanticos in relief. From 1920, decades of authoritarian rule brought with them the imposition of a program of cultural nationalism, in which Mexican composers were expected to turn away from foreign musical influences and construct a distinctly Mexican musical identity. In addition, the sound world of Mexican music changed dramatically over the 20th century, as Carlo Chavez, José Moncayo, Silvestre Revueltas and other Mexican composers embraced modernist musical languages.

Conciertos Románticos is not only a beautiful recording, it’s also an important one. The works on it are exquisite examples of the mixture of European classical and traditional Mexican musical traditions that characterizes Mexican music at the dawn of the 20th century. They’re also cultural artifacts, prefiguring the new Mexican nation’s efforts to create its cultural identity.

“Romanticism and struggle within ourselves in Mexico – it’s complicated,” Osorio said, “and it’s going to be there, always.”

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.