The piano music of Xavier Montsalvatge (Volume 1) 

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).
Composed in 1933, the Three Impromptus were Montsalvatge’s first work, written while he was still studying with Enric Morera in Barcelona. Its three pieces could not be further removed from the Wagnerian idiom instilled by Morera into his students (for which reason Montsalvatge never showed them to his teacher). The young composer’s preferences already lay with French music: the influence of Debussy can be clearly heard in the first Impromptu, while there are obvious echoes of the Satie of the Gymnopédies in the second. The work won first prize at the twelfth Concepció Rabell Composition Competition (1932–33) and Montsalvatge used the prize money to finance his first trip to Paris. For many years he thought the score had disappeared, although apparently he was not overly concerned by the loss (“I seem to remember it was very poor music,” he wrote, “with rather simple, Frenchified mannerisms”.) It did eventually surface, however, and was published in 2008.
Montsalvatge was a great lover of dance music and in the early part of his career wrote more than twenty ballet scores. The Siciliana was part of a ballet commissioned by Colonel de Basil of the Monte Carlo Ballet, composed in 1940 but never staged. The piano version was written almost half a century later and was dedicated to the Spanish pianist Joaquín Achúcarro.
One of the first works to make Montsalvatge’s name was the 3 Divertimentos sobre temas de autores olvidados (3 Divertimentos on themes by forgotten composers, 1941), which resulted from his fascination with the music of Les Six, in particular the polytonal experimentation of Darius Milhaud. In these three pieces, a schottische, a habanera and a waltz-jota, he used melodies he had heard played by itinerant musicians (tunes so well-known that nobody now knows who originally wrote them, hence the unusual title). It was in the second Divertimento that he first tried out the West Indian rhythms that would characterize several later works, notably his most famous composition, the 5 Canciones negras.
A year later, in 1942, Montsalvatge wrote Ritmes. He retained a special affection for this piece as it was the first of his to be performed in Barcelona’s Palau de la Música (by pianist Maria Canals on 10th November 1942). Here too he employs Latin-American rhythms, although the jazz influence is also obvious, particularly in the beguiling central section. Nine years later he transcribed Ritmes for string quartet and it became the finale—Allegro rítmico—of the Cuarteto indiano.
The Elegia a Ravel of 1945 is a revision of the second of the Three Impromptus, although so substantially modified as to transform it into an independent entity.
Divagación (Digression, 1950) was originally an orchestral interlude in the composer’s first opera, El gato con botas (Puss-in-Boots). Montsalvatge was commissioned by Frank Marshall, the renowned pedagogue who had himself studied under Granados, to create a piano transcription for his pupil Alicia de Larrocha. This was to be the first collaboration between the composer and De Larrocha, to whom he would later dedicate his Concerto breve for piano and orchestra (1953). She would become one of the principal exponents of his piano music, performing it throughout her career in concerts all over the world as well as making a number of recordings of his works.
The aforementioned Concerto breve is, in a way, linked to the genesis of the Sonatine pour Yvette of 1961. As Montsalvatge explained in his autobiography (Papeles autobiográficos), the idea of writing a longer piano work grew from his desire to dedicate a piece to his pianist friend Gonzalo Soriano, their relationship having soured a little after Alicia de Larrocha gave the première of the concerto in Barcelona in 1953. (Soriano had also committed himself to giving the première but had been passed over for his more illustrious colleague.) Montsalvatge then proposed writing a piano sonata for Soriano, but thought that this would be “disproportionate, beyond the scope of my ambition, and [that] a Sonatina would better fit the bill”. The work, dedicated logically enough to Gonzalo Soriano and first performed by him in 1962, has since become one of the composer’s most frequently performed scores. Cast in the traditional three movements it is a compendium of the various resources employed by Montsalvatge in that period: an abundance of polytonal fragments, sinuous and jazzy melodic lines—especially in the second movement—and some dazzling writing culminating in the third movement with the quotation of the traditional children’s song Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman (a song often sung by his daughter, the Yvette of the title, who at the time was five years old).
The brief Sketch underwent a long series of transformations: at first it was part of a ballet written “à la manière du Groupe Les Six”, then it was included in the orchestral suite Calidoscopi simfònic (Symphonic Kaleidoscope), before being turned into a piece for piano and violin entitled Spanish Sketch, from which, in 1966, this version for solo piano was derived. In it Montsalvatge once again explores the world of habanera rhythms of which he was so fond.
The final work on this disc, Recóndita armonía, also went through an unusual gestation period. The initial germ of inspiration came from a string quintet that Montsalvatge wrote in his youth, while he was studying at the Barcelona Conservatory. It was never performed and it was only many years later, in 1995, that the composer adapted the same music to create three new versions: one for piano quartet, a second for piano quintet and a third for solo piano and string orchestra, which is the one featured on this recording. The four-movement Recóndita armonía is an essentially lyrical work, with elements of this lyricism evident in the central section of the first movement, despite the energy of the opening bars. The second movement is characterized by a broad, romantic melody introduced by the cello and then adopted by the rest of the orchestra and the soloist. The mysterious third movement—an extremely short scherzo—leads into the finale, whose music is more sinuous and unstable, a long way from the grand finale that might be expected (although Montsalvatge adds a coda in tarantella rhythm so that the work ends with the impetus felt at the first movement of the piece). Throughout the work the piano takes on a concertante rôle rather than purely that of a soloist, reflecting the chamber origins of the score.

Jordi Masó

(Booklet notes for the CD “Xavier Montsalvatge: Piano Music 1”. Naxos 8.570744)