The piano music of Xavier Montsalvatge (Volume 2) 

Xavier Montsalvatge was one of the most important composers to emerge from Catalonia in the course of the twentieth century. He studied at the Barcelona Conservatory with Francesc Costa (violin) and Lluís Millet, Enric Morera and Jaume Pahissa (composition). His 5 Canciones negras (5 Black songs) launched his international career, a career whose dazzling trajectory took in all genres of music, while his works were given their premières by some of the greatest soloists of the age (Alicia de Larrocha, Henryk Szeryng, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Victoria de los Ángeles, Narciso Yepes and Nicanor Zabaleta, to name but a few).
Where the first volume of Montsalvatge’s complete piano music (8.570744) covered works dating from the beginning of the composer’s career to his early maturity (1933–66), this CD focuses on the piano pieces he wrote in the last 25 years or so of his life, many of which came about as the result of commissions. This is true of the first four works on the album, the first of which, Alegoría a Turina, was written in 1982 in response to a request from the Spanish Culture Ministry for a piece to mark the centenary of the birth of Andalusian composer Joaquín Turina. Montsalvatge chose to open and close his work with a quotation from Turina’s Orgía, the third of his Danzas fantásticas. Although he makes frequent use in the Alegoría of Andalusian rhythmic inflexions, the work has little in common with the picturesque quality that characterizes Turina’s music: the dissonant harmonies, hints of polytonality and sarcastic, uninhibited nature of the music are pure Montsalvatge.
The Tres piezas para la mano izquierda (Three Pieces for the Left Hand, 1983–87) also resulted from commissions. In 1983 the Catalan Composers Association decided to pay tribute to Frederic Mompou on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday by commissioning a number of new short works from some of his fellow composers. Sí, a Mompou was Montsalvatge’s contribution, a hypnotic piece reminiscent of his beloved Ravel’s Le gibet. Its title plays on different meanings of the word “sí/si” in Spanish: “sí”—“yes”—affirming his admiration for Mompou’s music (the two were not only friends but also held the same aesthetic ideals), and “si”—the musical note B—which is repeated up to 42 times throughout the work. Four years later, in 1987, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the death of composer Óscar Esplá, Montsalvatge wrote Berceuse a la memoria de Óscar Esplá for a tribute concert which, in the event, never took place. Here he made use of a Berceuse that Esplá had included in his piano suite Cantos de antaño. This “melodic diversion”, in Montsalvatge’s words, is one of his most intense and successful piano works. The last of the pieces for left hand was written when the Albéniz Foundation (presided over by Paloma O’Shea) commissioned music from twenty of the most renowned Spanish composers of the day with the intention of publishing a volume to include, alongside the scores, articles, photos and other documentation illustrating the links between Spain and the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Montsalvatge’s Una página para Rubinstein (A Page for Rubinstein) is, suitably enough, subtitled “Balada”, and features moments of virtuosity that demand considerable agility from the pianist if the listener is not to tell that the music is written for just one hand. He brought the three left-hand pieces together to form a triptych, although each piece also stands alone in its own right.
El arca de Noé (Noah’s Ark, 1990) was Montsalvatge’s response to the challenge of writing a piece that children who were just learning the piano would be able to play, along the lines of Schumann’s Album für die Jugend. The result was this delightful collection of miniatures, full of humour, the music imitating the sounds or movements of the six animals concerned [sheep, cockerel, elephant, flea, cat and kangaroo]. The little suite ends with a Waltz “to be danced by all the animals on the ark”, according to the note on the score (a waltz which, Montsalvatge states, tongue in cheek, can be played “slowly or quickly, depending on the performer”).
Schubertiana was composed in 1993, when the Vilabertrán Schubertiade commissioned six Catalan composers to write a “variation” on the famous Impromptu, D. 935, No. 2 in A flat major. The collective work that came out of this was performed—as a “Theme and variations”—at one of the Vilabertrán Schubert Festival concerts.
Also forming part of a larger overall work was the Pastoral d’automne (Autumn Pastoral): in 1994 Cecilia Colien Honegger asked forty well-known Spanish and Portuguese composers to write short, technically straightforward pieces suitable for piano students. Montsalvatge’s bucolic Pastoral was one of those included in a volume entitled Álbum de Colien which paints a picture of the various different musical aesthetics flourishing in the Iberian Peninsula in the late twentieth century.
The Milonga of 1996 was a further exploration by Montsalvatge of Latin American rhythms, in this case those of a Uruguayan dance similar to the tango. It had its première in London with its dedicatee, pianist Enrique Pérez de Guzmán.
Also dating from 1996 is the Impromptu en el Generalife, a revision, or more accurately, a transformation of his much earlier Impromptu No. 3 (1933). This adaptation was made to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Manuel de Falla, hence the quotation in the final bars from the first movement of Nights in the Gardens of Spain. The première was given by Alicia de Larrocha
The original title of Cinc ocells en llibertat (Five Free Birds) was Cinc ocells engabiats (Five Caged Birds), but the composer altered his original idea on realising that the birds evoked by his music could not live behind bars. Written in 1997, this is a suite of far more modest dimensions and ambition than Messiaen’s birdsong works, although the great French composer’s influence is apparent at certain points, for example in the final piece, El cucut (The Cuckoo). El rossinyol (The Nightingale) includes a quotation from the traditional Catalan song Rossinyol que vas a França (Nightingale, on your way to France), while La merla (The Blackbird)—perhaps the most virtuosic of the five—features little scherzando note “clusters” that would characterize the latter part of the composer’s career (they were present as early as 1977 in the Concierto de Albayzín). Montsalvatge dedicated each of the pieces in the suite to one of his grandchildren, and the last to his two dogs. Bressoleig (Lullaby), written in 1998, is also dedicated to a child: Martí, the son of Llorenç Caballero, publisher of Montsalvatge’s later works. The composer wrote this simple berceuse on the day the little boy was born.
The technical demands and virtuosity of Alborada en Aurinx (1999) are fully justified, given that this piece was commissioned by the 43rd Jaén International Piano Competition, held in 2001, and was a compulsory work for all those taking part. According to Montsalvatge, the work evokes an imaginary dawn in Aurinx, or Auringia, the Roman name for the city of Jaén. It is considerably longer than his other piano works of this period and, with its voluptuous and energetic character, recalls the music of the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, a composer Montsalvatge knew and admired.
The last piece Montsalvatge composed for piano, the Improviso epilogal of 2001, was commissioned by Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando and is dedicated to its director, Ramón González de Amezua on his eightieth birthday. Despite being an “epilogue”, and therefore having an air of farewell about it (the composer was already seriously ill when he wrote it), this short piece is essentially lively and light-hearted: the central section is clearly marked con allegrezza, and there is a reappearance of the playful clusters that he liked so much. The Improviso was given its première by Alicia de Larrocha.
The final work on this disc was the first to be composed: Montsalvatge began work on the Concierto de Albayzín in 1976, completing it a year later. The concerto, written for the Colombian harpsichordist Rafael Puyana, was commissioned by Granada’s International Music Festival, and although the title refers to one of that city’s most picturesque districts, the music contains no other Andalusian influences. This was one of the works with which the composer was most satisfied: “The Concierto de Albayzín”, he wrote, “is, along with Laberinto, the orchestral work that most faithfully reflects my musical thinking”. Although Montsalvatge insisted that he was keen to distance himself from two harpsichord works he greatly admired (Poulenc’s Concert champêtre and Falla’s Concerto for harpsichord, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin and cello), the influence of the latter can clearly be heard in certain particularly austere passages of the second movement. The première took place in Granada in 1978; years later the composer adapted the work for piano and orchestra it is this version that is recorded here.

Jordi Masó

(Booklet notes for the CD “Xavier Montsalvatge: Piano Music 2”. Naxos 8.570756)