Mignone Delvizio Da Vinci

Francisco Mignone (1897-1986)
Twelve Studies for Guitar (1970)
Cyro Delvizio (b.1986)
Fantasia on a Theme by Francisco Mignone
Cyro Delvizio (guitar)
rec. 2018/21, Rio de Janiero
Da Vinci Classics C00614 [51]

Mignone’s ‘Twelve Studies’ occupy all but five minutes of this disc, so my review will concentrate on this work and its composer.

Mignone is a significant, one might say a major, figure in Brazilian classical music, though beyond Brazil he is not as widely known as he should be. What Alexander Mascolo-David wrote some twenty years ago remains largely true (‘Francisco Mignone and his Valsas Brasilianas for Piano’, Mediterranean Studies, 12, 2003, 169-185): “In Brazil, the composer Francisco Paulo Mignone (1897-1986) achieved much success, and his reputation equals that of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) and Camargo Guarnieri (1907-93) Yet Mignone’s name is rarely heard outside of his home country” (p.169). His compositions include five operas, several ballet scores, a good number of symphonic poems and two string quartets.

The composer was born in São Paolo, to where his Italian parents had emigrated in the year before his birth (i.e 1896). His father, Alfieri was a flautist who taught and was also a member of the orchestra of the city’s Teatro Municipale. Under his father’s tutelage, the young Francisco studied flute and piano. From the age of ten he also had piano lessons with the pianist and composer Silvio Motto. By his early teens he was active as a pianist, flautist and conductor with bands playing chorinho music around the city, sometimes using the pseudonym Chico Bororó, to ‘distance’ himself from his classical studies, since it was generally thought demeaning for ‘classical’ musicians to involve themselves in popular music. He pursued his classical studies further when, in 1913 (at the age of 15) he enrolled at the Conservatorio Dramatico e Musical de São Paolo to study composition, piano and flute. While still in his first year as a student at the Conservatory he won public prizes for two piano compositions, a waltz (‘Manon’) and a tango (‘Não se impressione’). In the following year he won a further prize for an orchestral ‘Romance in A major’.  

During his time at the Conservatory, Mignone continued a friendship, begun when he was at High School, with Mario de Andrade (1893-1945), who was also studying music and who was later to achieve fame as a poet, novelist, musicologist, art historian and critic. Andrade was very responsive to European modernism and did much to open Brazil to such influences, while never being neglectful of his Brazilian heritage. He was an important influence on Mignone’s later development as a composer, as he too sought to find a way of balancing/reconciling European and Brazilian influences.

After graduating from the Conservatory, he staged a concert of two of his orchestral compositions – ‘Suite Campestre’ and ‘Caramura’. The success of these compositions was such that the Commissario de Pensionato Artistico de São Paolo awarded him a scholarship which would allow him to undertake further musical studies in Europe. He chose to study at Milan’s Giuseppe Verdi Conservatorio, beginning in 1920. Though he made several brief returns to Brazil he was based in Europe, spending some years in Spain, until 1929, when he made a permanent return to Brazil. While in Milan he studied with the Italian composer Vincenzo Ferrone (who was educated in Paris). It is clear from Mignone’s later work that during his years in Europe he must have taken an interest in the works of – amongst others – Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Respighi. On his return to Brazil he taught harmony at the São Paolo Conservatorio. In 1931 he married the pianist and teacher Liddy Chiaffarelli (on whom much information can be found in a dissertation by Inés de Almeida Rocha, Liddy Chiaffarelli Mignone: reconstruide sua trajetório, Conservatorio Brasiliero de Música, Rio de Janeiro, 1997). The two were based in Rio de Janeiro from 1933, when Mignone was appointed official conductor, and teacher of conducting, at the Instituto Nacional de Musica. 

Before and after this appointment, Mignone was a prolific composer; indeed Cyro Delvizio tells us that he “composed, more than 1000 works”, but in reaching that total he may perhaps have counted each of the individual pieces in the many sets of short works that Mignone wrote, such as his Quatre liricas (1938), the 4 Fantasias brasilieras (written between 1929 and 1936), the 12 Valsas Choros (written between 1938 and 1943) and the 16 Valsas para fagoto solo – i.e waltzes for solo bassoon (1982).

I haven’t, unfortunately, heard more than a small proportion of Mignone’s output, but some of what I have heard – particularly his two string quartets (1956-7), the ballet score Maracuto  do Chico Rei (1932), for orchestra and chorus, the Afro-Brazilian dance, ‘Congada’, from his 1921 opera O contratador de diamantes, whether in orchestral form or in the version for piano and, with some reservations, the linked sequence of four tone poems on historic Brazilian churches, Festas das igrejas (1940), and his Piano Concerto (1958) – has made a very favourable impression on me. That experience, along with my interest in the repertoire for classical guitar made me request this disc for review and I have been far from disappointed with it.

If we were to regard Mignone’s Twelve Studies – Doze Estudos, to give them their Portuguese title – as practice pieces for the guitarist then that guitarist would have to be at a very advanced stage, for these are highly demanding pieces and were surely written with as much or more attention to what one might call aesthetic qualities than to didactic purposes. Given their complexity, for the player, and in some senses for the listener, it is surprising to realise that this was Mignone’s first published work for guitar, being written and published in 1970 when he was over 70. The guitarist Cyro Delvizio undertook a doctoral dissertation at the University of São Paulo, with this work as its main subject. In his booklet note, translated by the pianist Chiara Bertoglio, he tells us that “these studies have been celebrated worldwide as technically challenging”. It also informs us that in his research Delvizio applied “multiple and creative problem-solving tools to [the] work, creating more than 875 different solutions” to various passages in this set of études. 

The understanding of the instrument’s possibilities is, as suggested above, remarkable in what was the composer’s first work for the guitar. Delvizio’s notes contain the striking observation that for a long while Mignone did not “believe in the artistic value of the guitar, probably due to the prejudices against this instrument found in Brazil in the first half of the twentieth century. But when listening to a live performance by the great guitarist Carlos Barbosa Lima in 1970 he seems to have become suddenly convinced of the instrument’s potential and composed, within just three months, not only his Twelve Studies, but also his Twelve Waltzes for guitar, in all minor keys, and later a Concerto for guitar and orchestra”.

Most of these twelve études have traditional forms of Brazilian music at their heart. So, to take a few examples, No.2, as its title (‘Seresteiro’) suggests, is based on the Brazilian form of the serenade, the seresta, often rather introspective in mood and manner (as this étude is), while No.3, ‘Tempo de Chorinho’, draws on more than what is suggested by its title. Its nature is illuminated both by Cyro Delvizio’s performance of it and by what he says of it in his booklet notes where he writes of this étude that “despite being called ‘Tempo de chorinho’ [it] presents more than that: it promotes an integration between Choro (an urban genre) and Sertanejo (a rural music) by putting the “baixarias” (choro bass licks) in dialogue with country strumming and parallel thirds”. (The name sertanejo is derived from the term sertão, which refers to the rural territories of north eastern Brazil). The fifth étude, ‘Vagaroso’ (i.e. slow) is in the manner of a modhina, a sentimental song. No.8 is reminiscent of the frevo, a fast carnival dance – I am indebted to Cyro Delvizio’s notes for some of these identifications, notably of the frevo.

In all these cases, even where the debt is very clear or indicated in the piece’s title, the sophistication of Mignone’s writing ensures that the music transcends any limitations which its source(s) might imply.

Two prerequisites for a successful interpretation of Mignone’s Twelve Études are a formidable technique and a deep understanding of the traditions of Brazilian music. Guitarist Cyro Delvizio is clearly very well qualified on both counts. From the opening bars of the first study I had every confidence in Delvizio’s performance and as it proceeded that confidence only grew.

There is an attractive aesthetic and emotional shape to this set of studies. So, after Mignone has dazzled the listener with the first study which, as Delvizio suggests, is akin to Francisco Tarrega’s ‘Estudio Brillante’, the second étude is tenderly contemplative and full of lyrical emotion. Delvizio responds perfectly to both of these contrasting pieces; indeed, I don’t feel disappointed by his performance of any of the pieces making up this set.

Particular favourites of mine here include the sequence from No.6 to No.8. No.6 is eminently danceable (though not, sadly, by my aged legs!); the transition to No.7 takes us into a kind of lullaby, mixing sustained individual notes with somewhat melancholy chords to create a cradle song which has a genuine sense of the surrounding darkness – even of some of the dangers it might contain. After the prevailing intimacy of No.6 its successor, with its insistent dance rhythms suggests a public occasion like a carnival. Its main theme is repeated several times in different keys, though the underlying rhythm is constant.

Even such brief notes as these on one phase in these 12 studies will, I hope, suggest that these are far more than practice pieces for an advanced guitarist, though they doubtless have such a value; they are evocative and emotionally charged in ways which are capable of enticing (and satisfying) the attention of a listener who has no special interest in guitar technique, but is alert and responsive to imaginatively rich music.

The set ends with a relatively lengthy (almost five minutes) study which, as Delvizio notes, opens with a “demanding first section that seems more suited to a piano than to a guitar (especially for the left hand”; this is succeeded by a very different central section which is altogether simpler, with a charming melody which sounds traditional. Of this particular study one might say what could also be said about the set as a whole, that it is effectively a dialogue between complex modernity and inherited ‘simplicity’. These 12 etudes constitute, beyond any sense of them as advanced practice pieces, a sequence of free-standing musical inventions which give the listener far more than just an admiration of the performer’s skill, as they engage that listener’s mind and emotions as well as, at least metaphorically, his/her dancing feet.

The CD closes with what is described – with more justification than is often the case – as a ‘bonus track’. This is Cyro Delvizio’s ‘Fantasia on a theme by Francisco Mignone’. This fantasia is “built […] on the beautiful Waltz n.3 by Francisco Mignone” and is offered by Delvizio “in humble homage” to the composer. As a guitarist Delvizio has won prizes in a good many guitar competitions; but is also establishing himself as a composer. Compositions by him, including his ‘Dragações Intervalares’ for piano and string orchestra, a ‘Forest Suite’ for recorder orchestra, an ‘Indian Requiem’ for soloists, chorus and orchestra, as well as works for solo guitar have been performed in Brazil and, in some cases, further afield. As such it is far from presumptuous that he should write a piece in honour of a composer for whom he clearly has much respect.

Delvizio’s ‘Fantasia’ is an eloquent meditation on Mignone’s theme, subtle in phrasing and respectful without being slavishly imitative. It rounds off, very nicely, an enjoyable and rewarding disc.

Glyn Pursglove 

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