santillan symphonies da vinci

Luis Felipe Ramírez Santillán (b. 1970)
Symphony No 3 (Symfónia z dial’ky) (2020)
FES-C (1995)
Symphony No 1 (2004)
El Piano for piano and orchestra (2007)
Irina Popova (piano)
Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Polianichko 
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sergei Skripka
rec. 2007/20, Moscow
Da Vinci Classics C00513 [54] 

Da Vinci Publishing was established in Japan; its discs frequently seem to feature accomplished Italian artists (regularly performing little-known native repertoire). However this recent issue showcases orchestral music by a contemporary Mexican composer performed by two Russian orchestras – it was recorded and released just before the catastrophic invasion of Ukraine. I selected it for review as I was tempted by the opportunity to hear some recent Mexican music. Disappointingly, it proves to be disconcertingly unconvincing– a disc I find difficult to recommend on a number of levels. 

I didn’t refer to it before listening to the four works presented here, but a poorly designed booklet inadvertently offers a portent of what one is likely to encounter; it provides little insight into the music itself due to a fatal combination of avoidance and ponderous translation. Three of its eight pages are devoted to glossy (if moody) portraits of Santillán, whilst another lists the disc’s contents. Half of what is left incorporates an exhaustive inventory of the composer’s qualifications, teaching experience and awards as well as a list of his compositions not included in this release. Indeed, the only substantive content regarding his artistic aims pertains to the recent Symphony No 3; I will address this work in due course as I wish to deal with each piece in chronological order of composition.

FES-C from 1995 is a brief symphonic poem which takes its name from an academic establishment in Mexico City to which it is dedicated. A sequence of vaguely cinematic tropes (including cheesy fanfare-like material) emerges from an ominous Brucknerian chord. Gaunt string tremolandi underpin the texture. The piece seems clichéd and over-loud to my ears. This performance by the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra sounds like a run-through. The recording from 2007 lacks any sort of focus – percussion and brass are way too loud; balances elsewhere seem exaggerated or distorted.  Whilst the lack of information in the booklet might suggest that FES-C is completely abstract, to my ears the piece intermittently resembled one of those pastiche themes which invariably pre-empt coverage of Europa League group stage football matches. 

Santillán’s twelve minute Symphony No 1 emerged in 2004. Beyond a reference to its dedication (to yet another Mexican academic institution)  and to the fact that the work won the IBLA composition prize a year after its completion, there is no further commentary in the booklet. Santillán employs a markedly different language here, one characterised by two-note motifs which bend and overlap into rather formless melodies. These are broken up by sharp dissonances, abrupt percussion interjections, or isolated phrases on harp and piano. At no stage do these components seem to cohere convincingly. I was left wondering what the IBLA judges actually heard in this work and perhaps the answer lies in another rough and somewhat unready performance and recording. There seems to be a palpable lack of preparation in the playing. I suspect there is some microtonal content shortly after the halfway point of the symphony, but both lacklustre intonation from the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra players as well as chaotic sonics from the engineers might have compromised my judgement. The screeching dissonances at the work’s conclusion are harsh on the ear, but the ensuing silence is balm.

We are informed that El Piano, a syrupy interlude for piano and orchestra did feature in a short film drama called Matices (Shades). Santillán seems to be aiming at something Claydermanesque – that it falls short is probably due to a performance (and recording) which I can only describe as brutal. The Moscow RSO are once again the culprits.

The disc opens with Santillan’s recent Symphony No 3; this half-hour three movement work is blessed at least by more committed playing from a different band (the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra) and a more credible recording. We are told that this symphony constituted the composer’s graduation piece for his doctorate from the Slovak Academy of Performing Arts. In this case the booklet does provide a detailed synopsis. The bad news is that the English translation is largely incomprehensible. I have deduced that its Slovak subtitle – Symfónia z dial’ky – equates to ‘Symphony from Afar’. Santillan’s (translated) comments about his first movement conclude with the following thought: 

“The first movement is based on the events that took place between the day I took my flight to Bratislava and the time of the end of my entry exam to do the doctoral studies in composition. Which involves carrying your illusions in two suitcases and leaving many of luggage ,behind me” (sic). 

How this undoubtedly sincere but grotesquely mistranslated thought is meant to impact on the music I have no idea; what I heard (on each of the three attempts I have made with this piece ) were (a) a theme derived fragmentarily from small motifs delivered by single instruments pitted against brief, admittedly colourful flurries in winds, brass and percussion. (b) a jagged violin solo with intermittent sprung rhythms eventually countered by a succession of disparate instrumental elements. The stop-start nature of these unconnected phrases made it profoundly difficult to make any coherent sense of the whole. This movement at least projects a degree of colour. The engineers moreover seem to have done a better job here with the balance. In addition this orchestra seems a tad more comfortable with the material than their fellow Muscovites (although I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if many of the musicians are the same).

The second movement is more unambiguously inspired by Santillán’s response in absentia to the terrible earthquake endured by the people of Mexico City in September 2017. The commentary for the movement he provides seems extremely literal and incorporates physical, emotional, social and indeed political elements. In fact, the sounds to which it alludes are again so fractured and diffuse that the intended structure is surely sequential or episodic, although whether the emotions triggered are truly in keeping with those intended by the composer is another matter entirely. Halfway through this movement a rather grim ‘last post’-style folk-inflected fanfare emerges which is evidently significant, yet it seems to pose more questions than it answers.

Santillán explains that in the final movement he attempts to effect some sort of resolution through reference to both indigenous and imported Mexican folk elements – he specifically mentions Huapango, Son and Danzón. Folk elements do emerge from the clicking percussion rhythms which punctuate the movement but listening repeatedly I’m afraid that at no stage did I get the feeling that these colourful, vernacular fragments had been woven together or even juxtaposed in a way that clarified the symphony as a whole. 

Although the performance and recording of this later symphony represent an improvement compared to the earlier pieces on this disc, I still didn’t ever sense that the players projected a great deal of sympathy with this composer’s stylistic approach.

Whilst I do wish I could be more enthusiastic about Santillán’s music I regret to say that I found this disc decidedly unsatisfying. Other listeners may feel differently. The engineers and performers involved have done his cause few favours. Indeed, I can only speculate why the earlier recordings here have taken fifteen years to see the light of day.  

Da Vinci have issued several excellent discs in recent years – for example, I’m currently working my way through Chiara Bertoglio’s fine complete survey of Busoni’s Bach transcriptions and arrangements. In my view, the present disc under consideration represents something of a misfire. 

Richard Hanlon

Availability: Da Vinci Edition