The Variaciones concertantes were composed in 1953, during a difficult period for Ginastera, as political conflicts with the Perón government forced him to resign as director of the music conservatory at the National University of La Plata. He supported himself by scoring films, as he had been since 1942, and accepting commissions such as the Variaciones, which came to him from the Asociación Amigos de la Música in Buenos Aires, where Igor Markevitch conducted the premiere in June 1953.
This was a central work of the “subjective nationalism” of Ginastera’s second stylistic period, in which folkloric and traditional materials are idealized and sublimated in a personal way. One characteristic musical symbol of this is harmony derived from the open strings of the guitar, as heard in the harp under the solo cello statement of the theme at the beginning, and again before the final variation. (These pitches – E, A, D, G, B – also supply variation material and represent the main key areas of the whole set.)
Two interludes (the first for strings, the second for winds) then frame seven character variations featuring different solo instruments with the orchestra. The first is a spunky scamper for the flute (Variazione giocosa), which leads directly into an edgier romp featuring clarinet (Variazione in modo di Scherzo). The haunting elegy for the viola (Variazione drammatica) is much the longest of the group. Its modal chords seem to spill over into the next variation, a dusky duet for oboe and bassoon (Variazione canonica). The brief, brilliant variation for trumpet and trombone (Variazione ritmica) is basically a splashy fanfare for the ensuing violin whirlwind (Variazione in modo di Moto perpetuo). To close this central group of variations, the horn offers a lyrically poised take on the original theme (Variazione pastorale).
Ginastera rounds this off with a reprise of the main theme, again accompanied by the harp but this time with double bass taking up the tune. A final variation, for the full ensemble, ensues (Variazione in modo di Rondo). This is a high-voltage malambo, the competitive gaucho dance that was another prime symbol for Ginastera. The steady repeated notes represent tapping feet, with virtuosic and jazzy flourishes coming from all instrumental points.