The catalan piano album

This disc features a selection of works written by Catalan composers during the first decades of the twentieth century, a particularly fertile and stimulating period in the history of piano music in Catalonia. They were years ofenormous stylistic diversity: on the one hand two internationally revered figures, Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados, provided a link with the Romantic tradition (their roots lying in the pianism of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt), while at the same time often incorporating into their music nationalistic elements taken from Spanish folklore (in the same way as figures such as Grieg, Dvorák, Smetana and Sibelius were inspired by the folk traditions of their respective countries). On the other hand, a growing admiration for the work of Richard Wagner led to the creation of an influential “Wagner Association” in Barcelona in 1901, its adherents including composers such as Enric Morera, Juli Garreta and Jaume Pahissa. Perhaps the most significant influence in those years, however, was French music, principally that of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel – clearly present in the works of Frederic Mompou and Manuel Blancafort – but also that of Les Six, the group of young composers who gathered around Erik Satie – Xavier Montsalvatge was a particular admirer of theirs. Some Catalan composers were also influenced by Stravinsky, who, on a visit to Barcelona, expressed his admiration for the music of Juli Garreta, and specifically for his sardanas (the folk dance of Catalonia, traditionally accompanied by a wind ensemble called a cobla). More marginal was the influence of the Second Viennese School, although Schoenberg’s nine-month stay in Barcelona – facilitated by his pupil Roberto Gerhard – was an historic event in Catalan musical life, as was the fourteenth Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in 1936, which saw the première of Berg’s Violin Concerto “To the memory of an angel”. Only months later, civil war broke out in Spain, and the subsequent post-war period was to mark a decline in the musical activity of the country.

This recording begins and ends with music by Frederic Mompou (1893–1987), one of the most internationally recognised Catalan composers. Mompou was, however, an atypical composer, self-taught and an admirer of the music of Gabriel Fauré and Francis Poulenc. His music – intimate in character, refined and sparse (his stated aim was “to write works in which nothing is missing and nothing is superfluous”) –never flirted with the avant-garde and innovative compositional techniques (“first and foremost is the work, then the theory”). Being an excellent pianist, he wrote most of his music for this instrument. His collection of 15 Songs and Dances, inspired by Catalan folk tunes, were all written for piano except Nos. 13 and 15, originally for guitar and organ respectively. My piano version of Song and Dance No.13 scrupulously respects Mompou’s 1972 original, except for some occasional changes in register. The Song is El cant dels ocells (The song of the birds) a traditional Christmas tune made famous by cellist Pablo Casals; the Dance recreates the song El bon caçador (The Good Hunter).

One of the first performers of the works of Mompou was the pianist Ricardo Viñes (1875–1943), a friend of the composer and the man chiefly responsible for introducing his music to Parisian audiences. Viñes was undoubtedly one of the great virtuosos of the early decades of the twentieth century; dedicated to the music of his time, he boosted the careers of many young Spanish, French and Russian composers (he gave premières of works by Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc, Satie, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Falla, Turina and Granados, among others). His only known piano compositions were published posthumously in 1945 by the Institut Français en Espagne under the title Quatre Hommages pour le piano (Four tributes for piano). To this collection belong the exquisite, elegiac miniatures En Verlaine mineur (à la mémoire de Gabriel Fauré) written between 1938 and 1939 and Menuet spectral (à la mémoire de Maurice Ravel) of 1937–38. Between 1927 and 1930 Josep María Ruera (1900–88) wrote his concert sardana Tocs de festa (Festival Fanfares). A pupil of Enric Morera and Joan Lamote de Grignon, Ruera had a special talent for writing sardanas of a complexity and ambition unusual for the genre. He was also a notable composer in other areas, and his 3 Moviments simfónics (3 Symphonic movements) were premièred at the previously mentioned ISCM Festival in Barcelona in 1936. However, Ruera’s career, like that of so many other Catalan composers, was cut short by the Civil War and its tragic consequences. He lost his wife in the bombing of Granollers in 1938 and after the war his creative activity was severely limited by the financial hardship in which he found himself. Tocs de festa, conceived as a tribute to Stravinsky, is an excellent example of the “exultant force of his music” (in the apt words of pianist Josep María Roger, who gave the première of this luminous piece). The Tres divertimentos sobre temas de autores olvidados (Three divertimentos on themes by forgotten composers, 1941) are one of the first works by Xavier Montsalvatge (1912–2002). In them, the composer used melodies which he had heard played by a friend who was an itinerant musician. As he wrote in his autobiography, “I fell in love with these ineffable rhythms and harmonies, and  wanted to use them for a number of polytonal piano pieces, taking my inspiration from the idiom developed so wonderfully by Milhaud”. The second Divertimento is a charming habanera, a dance rhythm which Montsalvatge often used in his early “West Indian” period.

The Mazurka is the first of the Escenas románticas (1904), one of the most substantial suites composed by Enrique Granados (1867–1916). Although Granados is justly famous for his works based on Spanish folk music (such as Goyescas or the 12 Spanish Dances), a large part of his output is not based on nationalist elements, being instead closer to the Romantic piano works of Schumann or Chopin. This melancholy, passionate Mazurka contains the distinctive improvisatory character and the voluptuous harmonies of the best of Granados’ music. The career of Joaquim Nin-Culmell (1908–2004) was one of the most cosmopolitan of all Catalan composers. Trained in Barcelona and Paris (where he studied with Ricardo Viñes, Alfred Cortot and Paul Dukas), in 1938 he moved to the United States, where he was to live for the rest of his life. Between 1956 and 1961 he wrote an extensive collection of 48 Tonadas based on folk tunes from all over Spain. For this album I have selected three sparkling pieces based on Catalan dances. Joan Massià (1890–1969) was a virtuoso violinist trained in Brussels by Alfred Marchot (himself a pupil of the legendary Eugène Ysaÿe). In his youth, Massià formed a magnificent duo with Blanche Selva – the French pianist who gave the première in Paris of Albéniz’s Iberia– and for some years they undertook intensive and successful concert tours throughout Europe. Many of Massìa’s compositions were for the piano –he was a distinguished amateur pianist and a talented improviser. Composed in 1924, El gorg negre (The black pond) was his first piano piece, a miniature gem, descriptive in nature, with its origins in late Romanticism. Ten years later, in 1934, Massià wrote the Scherzo, following the model of Chopin’s scherzos, with a virtuoso first section, a softer and more lyrical central interlude – the Trio – and concluding with a brilliant coda. This piece contains some of the elements that would come to typify Massià´s music: the use of bare fifths, chords with parallel fourths and fifths, polytonal fragments and melodic phrases suggestive of Catalan folk music. Manuel Blancafort (1897–1987) was a close friend of Mompou, and his early works clearly reflect the latter’s influence. His Polka de l’equilibrista (Tightrope-walker’s Polka), however, is closer to the rebellious spirit of Les Six or Stravinsky. Included in the suite of six pieces El parc d’atraccions (The funfair), the Polka was first performed with great success by Ricardo Viñes, who frequently included it as a encore in his concerts.

Before composing his masterpiece, Iberia, Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909) wrote many salon pieces of unquestionable charm, such as the barcarolle Mallorca. Written in London in 1890 (published by Stanley Lucas, Weber & Co.), Mallorcais a work brimming with lyricism and, although the composer was always very self-critical about his pre-Iberia compositions, this was one of his favourites. “I think that people are right still to be moved by Mallorca”, he commented in 1909. “I can now see that it contains less theory and fewer big ideas, but is full of warmth, sunlight and the taste of olives”. One of the first to perform Albeniz’s Iberiawas the formidable Barcelona pianist Joaquim Malats (1872–1912). “I am writing Iberia… essentially because of you and for you”, Albéniz wrote in a letter dated 1907. An admired virtuoso in Europe and the United States, Malats composed a lot of salon music, of which the Serenata española is the most popular. Ricard Lamote de Grignon (1899–1962) studied with his father, the composer and conductor Joan Lamote de Grignon, from whom he acquired a solid training. The composer himself highlighted the influence of Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss on his extraordinarily eclectic output. The enigmatically titled El convent dels peixos (The Convent of the Fishes) is a decidedly impressionistic miniature, probably written in 1945. Joaquim Serra (1907–57) has gone down in Catalan musical history for his extensive catalogue of sardanas. Serra was a composer of extraordinary talent and his catalogue includes symphonic and chamber music and a dozen superb songs for voice and piano. His only contribution to the piano repertory was the Dansa (Dance) of 1931 and the 3 peces breus (3 Short Pieces) of 1932. One of the latter is the evocative Canço de bressol (Lullaby), reminiscent of the refined and diaphanous sonorities of Mompou. Enric Morera (1865–1942) is also remembered for his sardanas, but was a prolific composer, particularly in the field of opera, as well as being a highly respected and influential teacher. His Dansa nº 1 – dedicated to Blanche Selva – belongs to a series of 3 Danses and demonstrates a talent for melody approaching that of Granados.

The exquisite Dos apunts (Two sketches) are among the earliest compositions of Roberto Gerhard (1896–1970), perhaps the most remarkable Catalan composer of the twentieth century. Gerhard wrote the first sketch in December 1921 and the second in March 1922, creating a diptych to be performed without a break and which reveals a surprising affinity with Scriabin’s later works. In spite of the extreme brevity of the two pieces, Gerhard must have been satisfied with the result, since this was one of the works he sent to Schoenberg, asking to study with him in Vienna. Agustí Grau (1893–1964) is the least well-known member of the CIC (Independent Composers of Catalonia), made up of Mompou, Gerhard, Blancafort, Ricard Lamote de Grignon, Baltasar Samper, Eduard Toldrà and the pianist Joan Gilbert Camins. The CIC was short-lived because of the enormous aesthetic divergences of its members, although they did give one monographic concert in Barcelona on 25th June 1931. One year earlier, in 1930, Grau composed the barcarolle Tamarit, a fairly ambitious work, which makes use in its central section of folk songs with mozarabic inflections from the area of Tarragona (in the south of Catalonia). It was in Tarragona that Xavier Gols (1902–38) was born, a pianist and composer who died prematurely of peritonitis during the Spanish Civil War. Ametllers florits, al lluny (Blossoming almond trees, in the distance) opens the suite entitled De les terres altes (From the high lands, 1936), the composer’s last work for solo piano. Gols based his suite on folk songs from the Priorat area (in the Montsant mountain range), hence the title. Ametllers florits, al lluny features the folk tune Ara ve lo mes de Març, treated with the composer’s very individual brand of harshly dissonant harmonisation. Joaquim Zamacóis (1894–1976) was very well-known in the Catalan music world as a writer of set books for music schools conservatories. His music, however, is practically unknown, in spite of its excellent construction and the skill it demonstrates. The brilliant Sardana is part of his suite of five pieces entitled Aiguaforts (Etchings) written in 1939. The CD closes with the last of a series of twelve preludes which Mompou wrote over a period of more than thirty years. Written in 1960, the Prelude No.12 is a desolate, obsessive piece, similar in feel to the Música callada – the composer’s indisputable masterpiece and most personal work. It is played here for the first time from the definitive edition revised in 2004 by the musicologist Raül Benavides, and published in Barcelona by Tritó.

Jordi Masó
November 2006