Thursday 4 June 2020

A remarkable achievement: Gustavo Díaz-Jerez's Maghek, a cycle of seven symphonic poems inspired by the Canary Islands recorded on Signum Classics

Gustavo Díaz-Jerez Maghek; Cristo Barrios, Ricardo Descalzo, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Eduardo Portal; Signum Classics
Gustavo Díaz-Jerez Maghek; Cristo Barrios, Ricardo Descalzo, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Eduardo Portal; Signum Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A remarkable cycle of symphonic poems by the contemporary Spanish composer, evoking the landscapes of his native Canary Islands

Born in Tenerife in the Canary Islands, composer Gustavo Díaz-Jerez studied both in Tenerife and at the Manhattan School of Music. And it is his native Canary Islands which form the inspiration for the remarkable project which is documented on these discs. Díaz-Jerez's Maghek is a stupendous cycle of seven symphonic poems inspired by the Canary Islands, each one named for a different place and the entire cycle lasting over two hours, and using a large orchestra with triple woodwind, five horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, five percussionists, harp, celeste and strings.

In a striking demonstration of support for a contemporary composer, Signum Classics has issued Gustavo Díaz-Jerez's Maghek as a two disc set performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Eduardo Portal with clarinettist Cristo Barrios and pianist Ricardo Descalzo.

Gustavo Díaz-Jerez's style combines spectralism, where timbre and timbre-harmony duality are essential elements, the use of mathematical and computational processes as generators of musical material, and a final element of what he terms "emergence" where the intelligent combination of apparently simple musical elements generates a whole of greater richness and complexity than the sum of those elements. If all this sounds rather theoretical and complex, then worry not as Díaz-Jerez also says in his booklet note that his 'material is later modelled in a much more practical and intuitive way, without losing the essence of the underlying processes'.  The results, as witnessed on this set, have a remarkable coherence and whilst he was concerned to give each of the seven symphonic poems a distinct character, the music has the sense of a continuous complex flow of material.

The seven symphonic poems (in fact two are concertos) are each named for a particular place, using words from the language of the Guanches, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands. (The Guanches were probably of Berber origin, and the Canary Islands were conquered by Spain during the 15th century). The cycle's title, Maghek  means 'the one who creates brightness' from the Guanches' sun goddess.
We start with Ymarxa which means brilliant/new and is a place in Tenerife in what is now Monte de la Esperanza. The orchestral textures are intended to evoke light in its many manifestations, and the result is a sense of fluid shimmering as timbres and textures shift and change constantly, with the music very much evoking a landscape in sounds.

Ayssuragan, 'the place where they froze' refers to a location where, in the last moments of the European conquest of the island of La Palma, the non-combatant population took refuge and died. It is a concerto, written for the composer's friend, clarinettist Cristo Barrios, but this is less of a display piece than one along the Baroque model where the orchestral part is as important as the solo clarinet. For all the complexity of the descriptions of Díaz-Jerez' music, the results have a fluidity and sense of colour which is appealing. In this concerto, the solo clarinet seems to simply emerge from nothing, creating at first an intimate, yet sombre sound world where the clarinet's keening seems to relate to the narrative of what happened on the island. By the end, we have been on a journey with Barrios demonstrating both poetry and virtuosity in the solo part.

Guanapay, a location in the municipality of Teguise in Lanzarote, is an ancient extinct volcanic cone. The area also houses the Santa Bárbara Castle (also known as Guanapay Castle), which dates back to the 16th Century and is the oldest in the Canary Islands archipelago. The volcanic element is a fundamental idea in the musical construction, and the piece is piano concerto written for the composer's friend Ricardo Descalzo though, like the previous piece, the orchestral part is as equally as important. The piece opens with an explosion, from piano and orchestra, and we certainly think of the eruptive nature of the volcano, but then Díaz-Jerez' writing becomes more subtle and combines the sounds of the prepared piano with the orchestra in striking ways. Like the clarinet piece, we go on a journey and the soloist contributes some striking moments.

Chigaday is a Guanche word referring to a rocky formation on the island of La Gomera, where in 1488 the last islanders killed themselves before surrendering to enemy soldiers. The atmosphere here is bleak and unsettling, with percussion at first causing disruption to the musical timbres and textures, later there are shimmering textures, and a feeling of slow evolution in the musical material

Azaenegue, a place on the island of Gran Canaria known today as Montaña de Altavista, owes its name to its height and the spectacular view that is contemplated from it. We start spare and sparse, and the piece continues to be highly evocative, though not without drama. Here, and elsewhere, the French inspiration for Díaz-Jerez is apparent.

Erbane was the name given by the first settlers to the Canary Island of Fuerteventura, before its conquest in the 15th Century. It literally means “stone border”, in clear allusion to the wall that crossed its two socio-territorial tribal demarcations. Again Díaz-Jerez' music starts out evocative, emerging from textures rather than pitched material, building gradually into terrific drama, yet dying out at the end. An intriguing piece.

Aranfaybo is a Guanche word associated with the island of El Hierro. It literally means “the one that provokes rain”. Aranfaybo was a male divinity invoked by the Bimbaches (aborigines from El Hierro) when rain was scarce. Here the music is by turns austerely poetic and terrifying.

This is a striking cycle, over two hours of music which is complex and evocative. I am unfamiliar with the Canary Islands, but Díaz-Jerez' music brings out a very definite sense of landscape both in its poetry, its use of colour and its drama. The music itself is richly complex and Eduardo Portal brings out the fluidity of Díaz-Jerez' writing, whilst the Royal Scottish National Orchestra are dazzling in their sympathy for Díaz-Jerez striking palate of instrumental writing.

We are unlikely to hear many performances of Díaz-Jerez' complete cycle of symphonic poems, and so we must be grateful to Signum Classics for having the confidence to give us the works on disc.

Gustavo Díaz-Jerez (born 1970) - Maghek [137.50]
Cristo Barrios (clarinet)
Ricardo Descalzo (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Eduardo Portal (conductor)
Recorded 17-20 September 2019, New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

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