Any music-lover finding him or herself in Barcelona will surely
head – before too long – for the Palau de la Música, designed
at the beginning of the last century by Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
One of the great monuments of Catalan modernism, it is a dazzling
assemblage of the decorative arts. The moving spirit behind the
creation of the Palau – a building of remarkable beauty, designated
a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 – was the city’s choral society,
the Orfeó Català. The Palau, which still hosts a very impressive
series of high-quality concerts, is an effective symbol of the
Catalan musical tradition in general, and of the importance of
choral works within that tradition. It is a tradition which has
perhaps not yet received its full due beyond the borders of Catalonia
– so it is a delight to encounter this American-performed collection
of music by some of the finest modern composers of Catalonia.
They include Granados and Blancafort - a number of works by both
had their premieres in Barcelona’s Palau - and also the great
cellist Casals, whose bust graces the Palau. No less than seven
of the works – Morera’s El Rossinyol and Ave Maria,
Blancafort’s Cant d’Amor, Oltra’s Eco and Preludio
and Granados’s Escena religiosa and Cant de les
estrelles – are recorded here for the first time.
The most substantial
work here is Granados’s Cant de les estrelles. It is
a work that has had an odd history and for a piece of such
quality it is remarkable that this should be its first recorded
performance. It was premiered on 11 March 1911 in the Palau
de la Música at a concert devoted entirely to the music of
Granados, a concert at which Goyescas and Azulejos
were also premiered. It must have been quite a night.
Though Cant de les estrelles was much admired it received
no further performances and in 1938 the manuscripts of the
work were taken to America by the composer’s son Victor, where
they were sold. Legal disputes followed – in part concerned
with questions about Victor’s right to sell the manuscripts.
After the War the manuscripts remained in the collection of
Nathaniel Shilkret and were then believed lost in a fire in
1964. Eventually, primarily through the efforts of pianist
Douglas Riva and Shilkret’s son Niel Shell, the score came
to light again. It has therefore had to wait almost a century
for its second performance and its first recording. Cant
des estrelles might be described as a piano concerto in
which an organ and three choirs replace the orchestra. The
piano part - fittingly played by Douglas Riva - is far more
Germanic than Spanish in nature, with a general indebtedness
to Schumann and Chopin and some late-Romantic chordal writing.
The text is a poetic response - by an unknown author, just
possibly Granados himself - to Heine. The work carries the
subtitle of “poem for piano, organ and voices inspired by
a poem by Heine. It isn’t a setting of a poem by Heine, but
explores themes of “infinite vastness” and of the imprisonment
of love in a manner that echoes texts by Heine. The resulting
work is grand, even grandiose, but full of interesting detail
and possessed of some genuine power. All those involved in
its performance acquit themselves admirably and the work makes
a considerable impact. It surely won’t have to wait another
century for its next performance.
Granados is elsewhere
represented by a pleasant but conventional Salve Regina
of 1896; by Escena religiosa, scored for piano,
violin and organ which has an elegiac, even funereal quality,
and in which a moving violin line played with unforced expressiveness
by Erica Kiesewetter; by Romanza, for violin and piano,
a piece of sophisticated salon music, in which Riva and Kiesewetter
play with sensitivity and appropriate sentiment.
The music of Pau
(Pablo) Casals has always taken second place to his playing.
It is good, then, to hear some pieces from what is, I believe,
a relatively small output as a composer. These three choral
works - it is a pity that no dates are provided, it would
have been interesting to know how they fitted, chronologically
speaking, into his career - were written for the male choir
of the Monastery at Montserrat, near Barcelona. The music
is uncomplicated, but exudes an air of Catholic piety and
is often movingly beautiful.
Born in Barcelona,
Enric Morera was a very important figure in the musical revival
of the Catalan modernist movement. The list of his works stretches
to over 800, including operas, orchestral works, symphonies,
choral works, settings of Catalan folk music and much else.
Too much of his work remains unexplored – especially beyond
Catalonia. Such exploration will surely only be encouraged
by the hearing of his two pieces included here. His Ave
Maria for soprano, women’s voices and organ is a marvellous
gem, a setting of real beauty in which the writing for soprano
is exquisite and gets a very fine performance from Melissa
Kelley. El Rossinyol is a pleasant choral arrangement
of a Catalan folk-song, a genre to which Morera made a major
Cant d’amor has charm and a certain harmonic unexpectedness to recommend it in its
setting of a traditional text. Though pleasant, it lacks the
memorability of the two compositions by Manuel Oltra which
constitute two of the highlights of this very interesting
disc. Oltra was born in Valencia, but his family moved to
Barcelona in the year of his birth. Oltra was later to study
at the Barcelona Municipal Conservatory
of Music, where he went on to teach harmony, counterpoint
and musical form there, from 1959 until his retirement in
1987. Such pieces of his as I have heard suggest an absolute
master of the craft with a distinctive and personal voice,
albeit one which seems always to suggest the Catalonian tradition.
The two pieces recorded here, Eco and
Preludio, come from his Tres Canciones de Amor, settings of poems by Lorca. The
music and the performances are alike quite splendid and my
only complaint is that we don’t have the third song which
completes the set, Madrigalillo. These are pieces of magical
beauty, intelligently responsive to the Lorca texts - unfortunately
not provided, for copyright reasons but readily accessible
elsewhere - and with a glorious sense of musical proportion
perhaps all, of these pieces were recorded live in concert.
But there are no distracting off-stage noises and the sound
quality is excellent.