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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

Joaquín NIN (1879-1949)
10 Villancicos (1932), 20 Canciones populares españolas (1923), Le chant du veilleur (1937)*
Elena Gragera (mezzosoprano), Antón Cardó (piano), Miquel Bofill (saxophone)*
Recorded 6th-8th September 1999, Estudis Albert Moraleda
COLUMNA MÚSICA 1CM0072 [78:04]

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Joaquín NIN-CULMELL (b. 1908)

3 poemas de Gil Vincente (1950), 4 canciones populares de Salamanca (1960), 4 canciones populares de Cataluña (1960), 4 canciones populares de Andalucía (1960), 5 canciones tradicionales españolas (1971), 6 canciones populares sefardies (1982), 2 canciones populares cubanas (1984-90), Si ves un monte de espumas (1985-90), Canciones de la barraca (1997)
Elena Gragera (mezzosoprano), Antón Cardó (piano)
Recorded 6th-8th September 1999, Estudis Albert Moraleda
COLUMNA MÚSICA 1CM0053 [55:17]

 

This puts me in mind of a Sunday afternoon a while back, trudging round some stately home, garden or caves, I donít remember which, in the wake of a guide; all of a sudden my memory was pricked and I realised I had been there some twenty years before, trudging round in the wake of the very same guide, who had said all the same things, down to the same jokes, the same repartee with children, the same mock-galanterie with the ladies. And the remarkable thing was that the performance hadnít staled in the least. All the props he needed were a few children and a couple of old ladies (did he never come up against a group that had none?) and he was off and away, spinning his art like a new cloth. At the end I remarked on this to someone present, considerably older than myself, and got the astonishing reply that "I first came here before the war and the guide was this same manís father, and he said all these same things and told all these same jokes".

So here we have Nin, father and son (Culmell was the motherís surname), in two CDs of folk-derived Spanish songs spanning 74 years, with little apparent variation in style, especially if we make the comparison with Nin pèreís sparer-textured 10 Villancicos (Christmas songs) rather than the more elaborate 20 popular Spanish songs. Nin the elder was quite up-to-date harmonically for 1923 (his birdsong in El Cant dels Ocells occupies a midway point between Debussy and Messaien), while Nin-Culmell is a tonally-based composer of the type we have come to accept as modern only recently. You really might think they were contemporaries. And yet, how freshly-minted and alluring it all sounds, in 1997 as in 1950 and as it did back in 1923!

However, as the attractive picture forms in oneís mind of a family cottage industry, two generations of songsmiths based somewhere deep in Spain, it turns out that life is rarely so simple, for Nin the father abandoned the family in 1912 and virtually none of Nin-Culmellís life was actually spent in Spain. What relations he had with his father is a story not told in the booklets to these discs, which offer detailed information on the purely musical activities of the two musicians. So Iíll fill out what I can.

Joaquín Nin y Castellanos, to give him his full name, was born in Cuba in 1879, the son of a Spanish (Catalan) soldier posted in the then colony and his Cuban wife. The family moved to Barcelona in 1880 but Cuba seems to have acted as a leitmotiv in Ninís life. He returned there at the turn of the century and married Rosa Culmell Vaurigaud. Of Danish-French parentage, Rosa Culmell belonged to a family of wealthy landowners in Cuba who were none too keen on her liaison with the struggling young pianist-composer; nevertheless, the young couple enjoyed the financial support of Ninís parents-in-law in the peripatetic years that followed. They were living in Paris when their daughter Anaïs, later to become a major writer, was born in 1903, they were back in Cuba for the birth of their second child Thorvald in 1905, and Nin-Culmell himself was born in Berlin in 1908. There followed another return to Cuba in 1909, a failed attempt to create a National Conservatoire, after which the family moved to Brussels. At this stage the financial support of Rosaís parents appears to have been no longer forthcoming. In 1912 Nin, who has been described as a "philandering, abusive and immature" man who made no secret of his sexual adventures, sent his wife and children to live with his parents in Barcelona and abandoned the family for ever. He moved to Paris and in 1913 paid his attentions to a 16-year-old pupil of rich family, Maruca Rodriguez.

In 1914 Rosa, finding life impossible with her severe father-in-law (though her mother-in-law was kindly), set sail with her children for New York, where a sister of hers lived. The lacerating psychological scars all this wrought on Anaïs are well-known, for while on board the ship she began what was to become her most famous work, a diary in the form of unposted letters to her father, beseeching his return. The effect on Nin-Culmell has not been told, so far as I know; maybe he has no wish to tell it. He remained close to his sister till her death in 1977 (Thorvald became a businessman and rather dropped out of the picture).

Nin the fatherís career as a pianist now took off and he became a leading member of that élite group of Spanish musicians living in Paris, including Albéniz, Granados, de Falla, Turina and the pianist Ricardo Viñes. He was particularly noted for his researches into old keyboard music, both French and Spanish, of which he became pioneering exponent. He edited modern editions of works by Soler and others. He also lived, according to Turina, "like a prince" in the elegant suburb of St. Cloud, where he kept a salon which vied with that of Albéniz as a milieu where the best of Parisian musical society could be met.

The CD booklet virtually brushes under the carpet Ninís failings as a family man to draw a rather different picture of him as an artist. "Joaquín Nin built an ethical framework in which he developed his activity. Art was for him a serious obligation with a mission, to which the interpreter is committed, that requires renunciations and strict duties. ĎRather than serving the masses and the audiences, he devoted himself to serving musicí, said Jean-Aubry". Nin was first and foremost a pianist and his output of compositions is small, consists almost entirely of works for piano, violin and piano, and voice and piano, and is mostly folksong-based. Nonetheless, such is the imagination and invention he brought to bear on the folk-melodies included on the present CD that his work has to be considered a treasure-house of beautiful music. The piano introductions and interludes are often quite extended and, though Ninís admiration for Debussy is evident, the music possesses a sharper-edged, austere personality of its own. The Spanish spirit is always present but without recourse to cheap picture-postcard effects. The effect is rather more elaborate than its ostensible model, de Fallaís 7 Canciones populares españolas and a possible parallel could be found in Canteloubeís Songs of the Auvergne which are, however, thanks to their orchestral garb, much lusher in effect and maybe ultimately less distinguished. The 10 Villancicos are more concise and perhaps finer still; they also point the way towards the work of Nin-Culmell. The Chant du veilleur is, at just under six minutes, the longest piece on the disc and despite the haunting effect of the saxophone obbligato, perhaps shows that Nin was best at miniatures.

From 1924 to 1938 Nin-Culmell lived in Paris, at first to study at the Schola Cantorum and later to attend Paul Dukasís classes at the Conservatoire. He also obtained advice and encouragement from de Falla. His sister Anaïs was also in Paris from 1924-1939, a period principally spent in betraying her husband, most famously and publicly with Henry Miller, and thereby obtaining rich source material for the explicit sexuality of the novels which followed. The brother and daughter certainly saw their father during this period, though in Anaïsís case, at least, the wounds created by his early abandonment of the family were too deep to heal. By the outbreak of the Second World War all three were safely across the Atlantic. Cuba had again drawn Nin the elder like a magnet, and this time he remained there, a forgotten figure in Europe, until his death in 1949. Nin-Culmell undertook an active career in the United States as pianist and teacher; he has been Professor Emeritus of the University of Berkeley since 1974. Also in the United States, Anaïs embarked on her notable literary career, culminating in the posthumous publication of her diaries in their unexpurgated form in 1985; unfaithful to her husband in so many ways, she maintained her promise that certain passages which regarded him would not be published in his lifetime.

Nin-Culmell had shown some of his earliest compositions to de Falla in 1929 and had built up quite an impressive portfolio of works by the time he moved definitively to the United States. His interest in song dates from 1950, however, and demonstrates his almost obsessive identification with Spain, a country he hardly knew at first hand; all his vocal music uses texts in some form of Spanish and the writing is pervaded by Spanish rhythms and turns of phrase. This is an art which wastes no time in frills or padding; though the piano parts must be rewarding to play there are no long preludes or interludes. The music is tonally rooted, if with a higher level of dissonance than the composerís father would have allowed. On the other hand, Nin-Culmell does not hesitate to open one of the most recent pieces with a C major arpeggio.

If this suggests a limited art, I would say that Nin-Culmellís achievement exceeds that of his father; the sheer succinctness and precision with which he makes his points are things to be wondered at. If Nin suggests a parallel with Canteloube, Nin-Culmell, in his ability to suggest so much with so little, makes us think of another Spanish miniaturist, Mompou. If I donít single out any songs in particular it is because the level is so uniformly high. I would say, though, that any singer wanting to take just one song into the repertoire might try Si ves un monte de espumas, a touching piece and at 3í 15" the longest on the disc.

The lack of texts and translations is regrettable; the Nin disc has them, but a fairly haphazard job has been done, with some omitted, with the result that the track numbers in the booklet do not correspond to the disc (the listings on the back cover are correct); one text is printed twice under different titles, and the English of whatís left is often weird. Fortunately the booklet notes themselves seem to have posed less difficulty for the translator.

That the music gets over this obstacle is due in no small measure to the truly outstanding singer, Elena Gragera. A new name to me, she has a voice which is perfectly even over the not very wide range demanded by this music, totally free of wobble, with every note taken truly and precisely, acquiring natural vibrations Ė rather than vibrato as such Ė in the long notes. What arouses my curiosity is that, while very high notes are not called for (a fleeting A flat at the end of one song is the maximum), many of the songs lie around the medium-high range of C to F, an area where mezzos normally do not like singing since it lies across the break in the voice. Most of the mezzos I know would, I think, wish to sing these songs in lower keys. Gragera seems perfectly happy up there and her timbre, while not losing the mezzo richness of her lower octave, acquires a virginal quality that might lead the uninformed listener to suppose she is singing stratospherically high Ė without any effort. Clearly there is not the body of voice required for most 19th and 20th Century operas, but Grageraís curriculum shows that she concentrates on recital work, and has studied lieder with Irmgard Seefried and Edith Mathis and Bach with Aafie Heynis. So far as I can tell without a working knowledge of the language being sung she puts over her words with care and is unfailingly musical in her phrasing. Since she would seem to have all that is needed to be an outstanding interpreter of a wide range of lieder, mélodies and the like, I hope her future career on disc will not be dedicated wholly to Spanish song, welcome though that will always be from her. Add an excellent pianist and a fine recording and these two discs represent a discovery of major importance, both for the music and the singer.

Christopher Howell

 

 



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