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ClassicsOnline Home » HALFFTER, R.: Chamber Music, Vol. 3 - String Quartet / Cello Sonata / 3 Movements / 8 Tientos (Breton String Quartet, Stokes, F.J. Segovia)
With its vibrant lightness of touch and warmth of expression, Rodolfo Halffter’s music is both approachable and stimulating. Volume 3 of this series (volumes 1 and 2 are available on 8.572418 and 8.572419) brings his complete string quartets, each with its own power and expression, exploratory intellectual curiosity and impish wit. The composer’s only Cello Sonata inhabits a world of neoclassical refinement with hints of Hispanic rhythm and melodic gesture, and Halffter’s Spanish/Mexican idiom is second nature to the Madrid based Bretón Quartet.
Rodolfo Halffter (1900–1987)
Chamber Music • 3
Rodolfo Halffter’s catalogue embraces almost every genre, from stage works to solo miniatures, but he was primarily an instrumental composer, his thinking shaped and inspired by what we tend to think of as pure or absolute music.
Halffter was born in Madrid on 30 October 1900 and died in Mexico City on 14 October 1987, his life having been divided between his native and his adopted countries. He studied in Madrid with his mother and with Francisco Esbrí, and soon discovered the European avant-garde, including Schoenberg. He was part of the group of Spanish intellectuals known as the Generation of ’27 and played a key rôle in the cultural regeneration efforts associated with Spain’s Second Republic. He benefited from the support of figures such as pianist Fernando Ember and critic Adolfo Salazar, and was active as a composer from 1922 onwards, travelling the paths from neoclassicism to atonality, from external, principally French influences to Falla’s new nationalist idiom.
After the Civil War, Halffter emigrated to Mexico. He became professor of musical analysis at the National Conservatory, a post he held for thirty years, and played a full part in the country’s musical and cultural life, to the extent, indeed, that he became a national symbol. He founded the magazine Nuestra Música (29 issues of which were published between 1946 and 1953) and the publishing house Ediciones Mexicanas de Música, and taught several generations of Mexican composers.
Although he integrated fully into Mexican life, he never forgot his roots, and in later years increased his contacts with Spain. His musical idiom, though it retained its basic tenets, did evolve over time, moving closer to an avant-garde aesthetic which he handled with both freedom and individuality.
Halffter broached the quartet genre on three occasions, but the first of these did not arise until he was well into his fifties. The String Quartet, Op. 24, was written between 1957 and 1958 in response to a commission from the Stanley Quartet resident at the University of Michigan. They gave its first performance at Ann Arbor on 18 April 1958 as part of the university’s Exhibition of Mexican Art.
Cast in four movements, the quartet comes up with an interesting solution to the problem of combining classical forms with twelve-tone practice, something the composer was already trying to do at that time. The rows are skilfully handled in such a way that, at times, some aspects appear more diatonic than chromatic in nature. The first movement is entitled Sonata and its thematic elements arise from transposition rather than modulation. Either way, what we hear is a solidly constructed form with extraordinary powers of expression. The Cavatina is basically in Lied form although treated with a sense of melos that has much to do with the emphasis involved in operatic singing. There is also a sense of irony lurking about the melodic treatment of the tone row and its accompaniments. The Scherzo is a lively dance, and what was irony in the previous movement now turns into a kind of driving force, even into joy, although the latter sentiment is more evident in the final Fanfare which works towards one of the most striking optimistic conclusions Halffter ever wrote.
The composer’s only Cello Sonata, Op. 26, was written between 1959 and 1960 for the second Inter-American Festival, held in Washington in 1961. It is dedicated to the Argentinian cellist Adolfo Odnoposoff and pianist Berta Huberman. Odnoposoff gave the premiere alongside the Mexican pianist and composer Alicia Urreta on 26 April 1961 in the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium.
In this work the composer moves away, temporarily, from out-and-out twelve-tone technique, although traces of serialism remain, and back towards a certain modal neoclassicism, with occasional excursions into polytonality, and the introduction of Hispanic elements here and there within the music. The first of the three movements is an Allegro deciso which is in concentrated sonata form. What matters is not so much the development as the way in which the roots of the two themes are called into play, and the fact that the recapitulation is really a variation. In the Tempo di siciliana we once again find Lied form and a number of expressive melodic passages which in the cello part achieve a genuine warmth. The work ends with a Rondo allegro which the composer uses to establish a very typical (and Spanish) refrain; this alternates with other sections that incorporate new elements, always both surprising and pertinent. The sonata was published by Ediciones Mexicanas de Música and Peer Music, USA.
Halffter’s second piece for string quartet, the Tres movimientos, Op. 28, was commissioned in 1962 for a concert series organised by the UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico). It was given its première at the university on 21 April by the Cuarteto de Bellas Artes, and was published four years later by Ediciones Mexicanas de Música.
Although this is really Halffter’s second quartet, he preferred not to label it as such, choosing instead to call it simply Three movements, perhaps because he had gone back to the twelve-tone idiom and was therefore distancing himself from traditional formal models (the work nonetheless retains a certain neoclassical air). While there is a coherent line between its three movements, each has an independent spirit. Rather than being in straightforward sonata form, the opening Allegro develops and varies a four-note cell which will act as the movement’s leitmotif and will continue to make itself heard at times throughout the rest of the piece as a whole. The second movement, Larghetto, is sober in tone, with pared-down melodies, and the concluding Allegro has the measured impulse that characterizes so many of Halffter’s finales.
Ocho tientos, Op. 35, his third work for quartet, probably marks the end of Halffter’s journey in this territory and is a summation of his multifaceted musical idiom and aesthetic. It was written in 1973, a commission from Granada’s International Festival of Music and Dance, then in its twelfth year, and was first performed on 2 July that year in the Alhambra’s Lion Courtyard. The quartet on that occasion was made up of some of the eminent names involved in that year’s “Manuel de Falla” music courses, run in tandem with the Festival: violinists Agustín León Ara and Antonio Gorostiaga, viola-player Enrique de Santiago and cellist Pedro Corostola. Ocho tientos was published in 1975 by Ediciones Mexicanas de Música.
This is no standard string quartet, and Halffter deliberately chose the word tiento (“attempt”, or “test”) for the title. This was the term used by sixteenth-century Spanish composers to designate a piece of music similar to the Italian ricercare. Halffter himself said that he had tried to write eight short test or experimental pieces to offer a wide range of contrasting music and achieve what he called a “kaleidoscope of timbres”. He wanted to go beyond serialism, polytonality and tonality in a changing and expressive continuum. Tonal harmonic resonances and serial counterpoint can thus rub shoulders in a work that is changing, evocative and hugely expressive, as well as being a remarkable achievement in formal terms. None of the eight tientos has a title, and they are to be played without any thought for continuity. The first is a study in parallel dissonances in the violins, the second is marked out by its rhythmical nature and the third reflects its composer’s innate sense of irony. The fourth combines pizzicati with polytonal harmonies, the fifth returns to sarcasm and this mood extends to the sixth with its dialogues between high and low strings. There is a mournful polyphony to the seventh which some have related to flamenco cante jondo, but the eighth is full of life and vigour, bringing the work to an end in optimistic vein.
English translation: Susannah Howe
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