Camargo Guarnieri: Piano Concertos Nos. 4, 5, and 6
Program Notes by James Melo
In 1941, following an extended trip through South America, Aaron Copland reflected on his experiences and his exposure to the musical trends then in vogue in the continent. He was particularly struck with the diversity of musical traditions in Brazil, and his discovery of a thriving art music culture was undoubtedly surprising to him. Among the composers he met was Guarnieri, whom he assessed in highly complimentary terms:
Guarnieri is the most exciting talent among Latin American composers. He possesses all the necessary credentials, as well as an impeccable compositional technique, a fertile imagination, and an uncommon personality…His works are more organically integrated than those of Villa- Lobos, without being any less reflective of Brazilian traditions. But what I like best about his music is its healthy emotional expression. He is the most authentic musician of the continent.
The Piano Concertos Nos. 4, 5, and 6 were the product of a significant stylistic change in Guarnieri’s career. They display a number of avant-garde features that are fundamentally distinct from the more nationalist vocabulary that informed the earlier three piano concertos (Naxos 8.557666).
Copland’s assessment remains as pertinent today as it was more than 60 years ago. Mozart Camargo Guarnieri belonged to the generation of composers who brought Brazilian music into the twentieth century and to the attention of the international community. As discussed in the previous volume, he practised a brand of nationalism that was superbly integrated in its blend of sophisticated compositional techniques and the improvisational character of Brazilian folk-music. The Brazilian flavour in Guarnieri’s works, however, is not the result of direct quotations from folk music, which he avoided doing, but rather of his talent in creating original themes and rhythmic structures that had all the markings of authentic folk-lore. He is the supreme master of this technique among all Brazilian composers, and the ingenious devices that he employed to reconcile disparate techniques and materials emerge with consummate grace, energy, and elegance throughout his music. This second volume in the complete recording of his piano concertos offers further opportunities to explore Guarnieri’s rich musical landscapes.
The Piano Concerto No. 4, composed in 1968, has a rather unusual instrumentation: there are no violins, and the orchestral palette is shifted toward the wind instruments. The textures are often thick, with edgy and aggressive sonorities at times, and virtuosic writing for both the orchestra and the piano, which here is treated with unsurpassed brilliance. The concerto is an ingenious take on serialism, a technique that Guarnieri had abhorred in his famous Open Letter to Brazilian Musicians and Critics, published in 1950 and discussed in the first volume of this series. The main argument of the letter is worth revisiting:
In this document, I want to alert you of the great threats to the musical culture of Brazil, due to our young composers’ infatuation with progressive theories of music that are inimical to the true interests of Brazilian music…These composers preferred to ignore the rich musical traditions of Brazil and produce music according to false and sterile aesthetic principles…that favor improvisation and charlatanism, pseudo-science instead of original research, and scorn talent, culture, and the exploration of the rich experiences of the past, which are the bases of the true work of art.
Clearly, Guarnieri had a change of heart. The first movement of the Concerto No. 4 not only is based on distinctly serial themes, but the form of the movement is based on a quintessentially serial device: the recapitulation, which unfolds backward, creates a palindrome of the exposition. The cadenza reflects Guarnieri’s experimentation with unorthodox sonorities, as the piano plays accompanied by a vibraphone. The slow movement has some formal and thematic similarities with that of the Piano Concerto No. 2. The form, a well balanced A-B-A that includes a livelier central section, is typical of Guarnieri’s slow movements, which are often cast in a type of ternary song form. The overall vocabulary of the second movement is highly atonal, but serial techniques are not used in this movement nor in the finale. The third movement recalls nationalist elements in its use of dance rhythms, particularly the shifting meters and syncopated accents that give Guarnieri’s style such an energetic and lively character. The Piano Concerto No. 4 had its premiere in Porto Alegre on 6 September 1972, with Roberto Szidon as the soloist.
The Piano Concerto No. 5, composed in 1970 and dedicated to Lais de Souza Brasil, still contains some serial features—the accompaniment of the first theme of the first movement, for example, is an augmented inversion of the theme itself—but its musical language veers toward a freer treatment of atonality. Within this atonal framework, Guarnieri unfolds a cyclical structure in which elements derived from the first theme appears in all the movements. The compositional history of the concerto departed from Guarnieri’s usual procedure. Here, he composed the second movement first, and then the two outer movements. Each movement has a heading that clearly summarizes its prevailing character: Improvisando (Improvising), Sideral (Astral), and Jocoso (Playful). Unique among Guarnieri’s piano concertos, the Concerto No. 5 begins already with a cadenza for the piano, possibly a hint of the intense dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, which is a hallmark of this concerto. Much of the thematic material of the first movement is a reworking of the opening theme, echoes of which will reappear in the second movement. This slow movement is one of the most haunting pieces in Guarnieri’s oeuvre, depicting a state of cosmic and metaphysical contemplation. The translucent and ethereal sonorities recall some electronic experiments, and this feature was singled out by critics, who were particularly struck by the beauty of this movement. The calm that pervades the movement is disturbed only by a brief appearance of the theme in its energetic and aggressive guise from the first movement. This brief intrusion was likened by Guarnieri himself to “a black cloud that passes quickly and finally disappears altogether”. Guarnieri had a marvelous talent for creating exceedingly lyrical melodies, and this ability is in full display in the lingering beauty of the themes and textures of this central movement. In the third movement, Guarnieri employs traditional Brazilian percussion instruments in order to highlight the popular derivation of its three main themes, which are reminiscent of popular musical genres such as the choro and the samba. These themes are combined to create an arch form (ABCBA), which also harks back to the opening movement by quoting a varied form of its main theme. This cyclical procedure is quite unusual for Guarnieri, who preferred to have the freedom to unfold his lyrical melodies without having to defer to preset formal conditions. The Concerto No. 5 had its premiere with Lais de Souza Brasil in Sao Paulo, and she also gave the United States premiere on 8 December 1975, with Guarnieri himself conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Symphony Orchestra.
In his Piano Concerto No. 6, composed on 22 February 1987, Guarnieri abandoned serial and avantgarde procedures and returned to an earlier style. The concerto has a chamber-like, intimate character, reflected not only in its relatively short dimensions but also in its subdued instrumentation, which calls only for strings and percussion. This intimate character is also apparent in the original title of the work, Sarati: Três Momentos para Piano e Orquestra de Câmara (Sarati: Three Moments for Piano and Chamber Orchestra). The “Three Moments” in the subtitle was unquestionably intended to suggest the almost fleeting quality of each movement, as if Guarnieri were attempting to capture a fugitive emotion or mood and fix it in time. Interestingly, the individual movements are linked by the recurrence of themes that merge and are transformed from movement to movement, as if reflecting the nuances of a prevailing emotion. The cyclical form becomes explicit when the third movement concludes with a recall of the opening theme of the first movement. This work has important personal overtones for Guarnieri. He finished the piece shortly after his eightieth birthday, and named it after the building where he had lived for most of his life, in the heart of Sao Paulo. In many ways, the concerto has the character of a personal summation, a tribute to his own creative life and the place in which much of his career unfolded. However, he never left any precise statement as to why he decided to attach a programmatic title to this concerto.
Guarnieri’s six piano concertos are landmarks of this genre in Brazil, rivalled only by the concertos of Villa-Lobos. In the breadth, variety, energy, and lyrical beauty of their material, however, these concertos have no equivalent in Brazil. They offer a complete panorama of Guarnieri’s stylistic evolution and display some of his most individual traits. Four other works for piano and orchestra, in different genres, complete Guarnieri’s output for this medium: the Concertino, the Seresta, the Variações sobre um Tema Nordestino, and the Choro. Together, these works cover 56 years of the creative life of one of the resourceful, prolific, and inspired Brazilian composers.
James Melo, musicologist, is the author of numerous articles about Brazilian composers and their music. He has written program notes for over sixty CDs, including the Naxos recording of the complete piano music of Heitor Villa-Lobos. He is a Senior Editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, City University of New York.