The Cuarteto LatinoAmericano is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and to connote the occasion Mexican label Urtext has released this recording, made in 2003, of the slim number of works Manuel Ponce left behind for string chamber ensembles. Of the five works featured on Manuel M. Ponce: Musica para Instrumentos de Arco, only the Trio and the Petite Suite dans le style ancien have been recorded before, and these will come as a genuine surprise to listeners who only know Ponce through his guitar music and the popular song "Estrellita," which remains his signature piece. Ponce was very aware of international currents in music, and in 1927 (at age 45) entered into the class of Paul Dukas at the Paris Conservatoire in order to broaden his understanding of contemporary techniques. He emerged from Dukas' class able to compose music of a complexity worthy of Schoenberg or Bartók, but did not manage to misplace his cultural identity; these pieces are as serious as any chamber music written in the 1930s or '40s, but are in most cases undoubtedly Mexican even though they sound nowhere near the idioms of Chávez or Revueltas.
Ponce's only string quartet (Cuarteto) is a really odd, yet captivating admixture of Mexican folk gestures and near-serial techniques. Listening to the opening of Cuarteto blindfolded, you would guess it a product of the Second Vienna School, a minute later you would not be so sure and five minutes later, you would be completely dumbfounded as to its composer or origin. The independence of individual voices within the quartet is quite striking, almost approaching what Schoenberg achieved in his pre-atonal works, and yet one does not feel that Ponce's quartet hits its stride until the middle of the third movement, where it reaches a plateau of confluence for long enough that it begins to register in the mind. From there it is fairly easy to follow; while it is perhaps not a masterpiece, the Cuarteto is a highly interesting chamber work that would well reward patient, repeated listening. The Trio for 1943, however, is unquestionably a major and accomplished effort, a work that successfully projects the fruits of Ponce's Mexican folk heritage through a modernist filter that cannot be identified with any specific school of thought. It is organic, original, and unpredictable, emphasizing lyricism without resorting to sentiment or straying into a mixed vocabulary. The opening of the Sonate en Duo (1938) revisits the more advanced harmonic language and thinking of the Cuarteto, but is a more polished and assured application of such concepts; the remaining movements are more folksy and neo-classical sounding.
The English-language part of the book could have used more careful copyediting, and there seems to be a problem with dating the Cuarteto; in the track list we are told 1932, whereas in the liner notes the work is dated to 1934-1935. This is significant, as the work was dedicated to Dukas, who could have heard it in 1932, but not in 1935, as Dukas died in 1934. The Petite Suite dans le style Ancien is dated 1938 in the track list, but 1929 in the booklet; it really sounds more like the 1920s. Firmly dated to 1927, the Miniatures date from the early part of Ponce's study with Dukas and are strongly reminiscent of Bartók. The recording is just right -- up close, intimate, but crystal clear. These are by no means easy pieces to play, particularly the Cuarteto, but the Cuarteto LatinoAmericano admirably acquits itself here in music for which there is no ready interpretive model. Ponce's string chamber music is important literature that well deserves to be known; a special thanks to Urtext and the Cuarteto LatinoAmericano for making it available at long last.