Manuel Ponce – 24 Preludes

Manuel PonceMexican composer Manuel Ponce was living in Paris when he composed his 24 Preludes for guitar during the late 1920s. As with so much twentieth-century guitar music, these pieces were written with Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia in mind, and it was at Segovia’s instigation that twelve of them were published by Schott in 1930. This, however, was the end for the Preludes as far as any publication was concerned: only in 1981 did the rest of them appear, thanks to the digging of guitarist Miguel Alcázar, who knew from Ponce’s personal documents that Ponce had written 24 preludes using all the major and minor keys and who was determined to unearth them all. He succeeded in finding eleven of the remaining pieces, and, by craftily adapting another Ponce piece to fill the sole empty spot, edited, published, and recorded them. This music is a guitarist’s treasure-trove, only very recently come to light.

The 24 Preludes are ordered by Alcázar so as to mimic the preludes of Chopin by moving around the circle of fifths (so that Nos. 1 and 2 in C major and A minor, respectively, are followed by preludes in G major and E minor, then D major and B minor, and so on), but they were not composed in that order or ever planned by Ponce to appear in that order. None is very long, and some of the preludes take up just a handful of measures (like No.6 in B minor, at 17 measures, or No.4 in E minor, at 13). Most of Ponce’s manuscripts were never prepared for publication, and so tempos, dynamics, articulations are often sketchy and are sometimes absent altogether, leaving editor and performer to use their best judgment.

The Preludes make a very traditional guitar sound, and yet Segovia complained that many were quite unidiomatic for the instrument. The C major prelude moves up and down the fretboard in eighth-note scales, with an occasional arpeggio twist thrown in. No.3 in G major, a pleasant little two-voice canon, is the one prelude that Acázar never found and is a transcription of a non-guitar piece. One of the most traditionally “guitar-like” of them all is the G sharp minor prelude, in which little three-note arpeggios drive a moving bassline through two pages of moto perpetuo. But there is plenty of contrast in the volume: the very next prelude, No.13 in F sharp major, is a thin-textured Andante that sometimes has just a single unaccompanied, unharmonized melodic voice. Some, like the G minor prelude, are exercises in virtuosic leaps. Most draw to some degree on folk-guitar traditions, some, like the very last prelude—which is marked “Chant populaire espagnol” and moves through that peculiar Spanish D minor that, by sheer emphasis on the dominant and avoidance of the tonic, sounds instead like a modally-inflected A major—, more obviously than others.

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