José F Vásquez: The Complete Impresiones for Piano. Vladimir Curiel. © 2023 Toccata Classics

CD Spotlight

Rethinking First Impressions

JOHN DANTE PREVEDINI listens to piano music by Mexican composer José F Vásquez

'... we are urged by releases like this to rethink our approach to composers like Vásquez ...'


José F Vásquez: The Complete Impresiones for Piano is the recent release from Toccata Classics featuring the Impresiones (c1922-1927), a cycle of solo piano suites by the Mexican composer, conductor and educator José F Vásquez (1896-1961) performed by Vladimir Curiel and heard here in its first digital recording. The Impresiones, whose lost manuscript was recently rediscovered by the composer's son - the writer José Jesús Vásquez Torres - showcase early ventures into the Impressionistic style that would eventually influence the basis of the composer's voice and, thus, shape his subsequent contributions to the emerging twentieth-century Mexican classical idiom. The sixty-four-minute album is available in both CD and streaming format, and it includes a booklet with an extensive essay by musicologist Bernardo Jiménez Casillas explaining the historical significance of this rediscovered repertoire and outlining a detailed summary of salient qualities for which to listen.

Upon reading Casillas's remarks, it becomes clear that the goal of this album is more than simply an expansion of the twentieth-century Mexican piano canon. This release also aims to shine light on one of the great ironies of Mexican music history, that Impressionism was both an essential ingredient in the formation of Mexican modern classical practice in the 1920s and one that was nonetheless eventually forgotten in favor of 'a nationalist cultural identity through the use of popular, folkloric or indigenous materials'. For this reason, Casillas tells us, the emerging standard canon would ultimately exclude composers like Vásquez and instead emphasize those like Chávez, Ponce and Revueltas. As a result, relatively sparse efforts were subsequently made to preserve the legacy of composers like Vásquez in terms of conservation, scholarship or performance. To this end, Casillas is motivated to encourage listeners to focus on those aspects of the Impresiones that are both innovative and distinctly indebted to Impressionism. To clarify, 'Impressonism' in this context is a term usually given by historians to the broad aesthetic movement inspired by composers like Debussy and Ravel around the beginning of the twentieth century, regardless of whether those composers would have identified with such a term themselves. Because of these factors, Casillas's detailed essay understandably covers much of the same ground that any review of the album will also cover. The analysis in this review thus aims to focus on audible aspects of the music which differ somewhat from those he describes.

The Impresiones are grouped into five 'Series' of three movements each, for a total of fifteen movements overall. The movements themselves range from two to six minutes in length and have titles alluding to various traditional keyboard forms or, in some cases, somewhat programmatic scenarios. Casillas notes that the titles are apparently meant to be evocative of exotic subjects and that the music is characterized by a focus on ternary form, a thick layering of musical voices and a harmonic palette following some general tendencies of Impressionism. Specifically, he refers to Vásquez weakening the effect of perceived functional tonality by focusing on the immediate atmospheric or coloristic effect of the harmony in each moment, usually by blending diatonicism with chromatic or whole-tone scales. Some audible characteristics of the collection beyond those mentioned by Casillas include the predilection for melodies that appear in middle voices of counterpoint rather than the highest voice, subtle effects of polymeter, the use of wide registral ranges, truncated fragments of tonal gestures, a general lack of abrupt shifts in tempo or style and a preference for legato passages with almost no appearance of staccato. Nonetheless, even within these unifying parameters, the fifteen movements showcase a great deal of textural, harmonic and rhythmic variety.

The 'First Series' opens with the 'Romanza', a slow quadruple-meter movement with wide separation between the top voice and the bass line. The movement is strongly tonal for the most part, though the unusual chord voicings at the end seem to deliberately disrupt the sense of final tonic resolution. Next is the 'Barcarola', a movement having the expected effect of 6/8 time with a blend of minor tonality and coloristic chromatic harmony. The series closes with the 'Melodía', characterized by a highly chromatic melody in the middle range of the piano and two-against-three polyrhythms.

The 'Second Series' begins with the very sonorous 'Nocturno', another example of a movement whose final gesture seems deliberately unfinished from a tonal progression standpoint.

Listen — José F Vásquez: Nocturno (Impresiones, Second Series)
(TOCC0693 track 4, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2023 Toccata Classics :

Afterward is 'La oración de la tarde', a slow and quasi-fugal movement featuring suspended chordal sonorities in the middle range of the instrument. The series ends with the 'Elegía', perhaps the least tonal movement in the entire collection in that the harmony is organized almost completely around sonorities of the augmented triad. (Casillas instead analyzes this in terms of the whole-tone scale.)

Listen — José F Vásquez: Elegía (Impresiones, Second Series)
(TOCC0693 track 6, 0:45-1:15) ℗ 2023 Toccata Classics :

The 'Third Series' opens with the slow 'Reverie' which blends augmented triads with chromatic neighboring tones. Next is the 'Impromptu', characterized by octave-fifth parallelism strongly evocative of Debussy. This series ends with the harmonically complex 'Berceuse', which blends elements of tonal mode mixture with augmented triads and chromaticism.

The 'Fourth Series' begins with the 'Preludio', unique within the Impresiones for its highly abrupt change in dynamic, tempo and style halfway through; such a sudden shift occurs nowhere else in the collection.

Listen — José F Vásquez: Preludio (Impresiones, Fourth Series)
(TOCC0693 track 10, 2:00-2:30) ℗ 2023 Toccata Classics :

Next are the brief and Chopin-esque (Casillas concurs) 'Hoja de álbum' and the chorale-like 'Plegaria'.

The 'Fifth Series' opens with the 'Madrigal', a slow movement in which chromatic and diatonic melodies arise gradually out of a simple chordal ostinato with voicings almost reminiscent of the Tallis Canon. This is followed by the chromatic and waltz-like 'Serenata' and then the closing movement of the entire collection, the 'Intermezzo'. Here, chromatic sonorities and augmented triads combine with apparent 3/4-9/8 polyrhythms in what is the collection's longest movement. Notably, the closing is tonal - a minor plagal cadence ending on a suspended tonic resolving to a Picardy third.

In conclusion, José F Vásquez: The Complete Impresiones for Piano is a release that challenges the notion of historical teleology in musical canons and serves as a stark reminder that not all pioneers who fundamentally shape a musical tradition will necessarily make it into that tradition's standard repertoire. In this case, building on Casillas's observations, it seems clear that the nationalist composers who now form the backbone of Mexico's twentieth-century canon - Revueltas and others - needed the opposing dialectic force of the Impressionists to galvanize the articulation of their own idiom. If it really is innovation that we admire in our composers, and not just canonization, then we are urged by releases like this to rethink our approach to composers like Vásquez and not simply default to the precedent of curatorial habit. Otherwise, we may risk propagating the misleading impression that musical aesthetics can only be fruitfully advanced through the dichotomous model of 'winners' and 'losers' - by prioritizing the adversarial over the symbiotic.

Copyright © 26 August 2023 John Dante Prevedini,
Connecticut, USA



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