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Federico MOMPOU (1893 – 1987)
Música callada
Books 1-4
Haskell Small (piano)
rec. July, November and December 2007, Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ, Bethesda, Maryland
MSR CLASSICS MS 1282 [74:15]
Experience Classicsonline

Book One (1959)
1. Angelico [2:29]
2. Lent [1:55]
3. Placide [1:40]
4. Afflitto e penoso [2:43]
5. Legato metallico [2:18]
6. Lento molto cantabile [2:28]
7. Lento profound [3:43]
8. Semplice [0:31]
9. Lento [2:35]
Book Two (1962)
10. Lento – cantabile [1:44]
11. Allegretto [1:26]
12. Lento [2:38]
13. Tranquilo – très calme [2:11]
14. Severo – sérieux [1:58]
15. Lento – plaintif [2:30]
16. Calme [2:59]
Book Three (1966)
17. Lento [2:56]
18. Luminoso [2:26]
19. Tranquilo [2:45]
20. Calme [4:03]
21. Lento [3:07]
Book Four (1974)
22. Molto lento e tranquilo [2:26]
23. Calme, avec clarté [2:33]
24. Moderato [2:54]
25. Lento molto [3:02]
26. Lento [3:47]
27. Lento molto [3:23]
28. Lento [5:07]

Federico Mompou was born in Catalonia to a mother of French descent and a Catalan father. He learnt to play the piano early but after hearing Marguerite Long when he was 16 he decided that he should be a composer, not a pianist. He studied in Paris from 1911 until the outbreak of the war and then returned to the French capital in 1921 and remained there for two decades. He was influenced by French music but also found inspiration in Catalan folk material and from the Spanish renaissance. Harmonically he was drawn to impressionism but found a highly personal tonal language and carved out his own individual niche in mid-20th century art music. Though he wrote other kinds of music as well it is as a composer of piano music that he will be remembered.

The four books of Música Callada were Mompou’s last works of importance and he worked on them between 1959 and 1967. The title is difficult to translate but it is derived from a poem by the mystic San Juan de la Cruz (1542–1591) (in English known as St. John of the Cross). The Spanish text says ‘La Música Callada, la Soledad Sonora’ which could be interpreted as ‘Silent Music, Sonorous Solitude’ - it is intended to be music that expresses silence.

As can be seen from the tempo indications most of the twenty-eight pieces are slow and introspective. Harmonically the music is partly quite daring, there are few simple chords. On the other hand many of the compositions are very sparse, often only a single melody line leading to a chord, sometimes frighteningly dissonant. The first piece, Angelico, in many ways typifies the whole concept. The music breathes slowly, laboriously, hesitantly; pauses are important building blocks. The Debussian impressionism may be seen as a forefather with Satie as a second cousin. In Placide (tr. 3) he suddenly presents a melody of the kind I was prepared for from my acquaintance with his earlier piano works, often based on Catalonian folk music. But this is a momentary deviation from the main road; in the next piece he returns to heavily breathing, sighing music. The fifth movement, Legato metallico, presents another side of the coin: a thrusting, aggressive ‘silence’, which is a contradiction in terms, but as Laurie Shulman puts it in his interesting liner-notes: ‘one does not necessarily find peace in silence.’ Another recurring feature in this work is the sounds of bells. Bells are a natural part of the reclusive life of a monastery but Mompou also grew up with those sounds since his father ran a bell foundry. A natural parallel could be Gustav Mahler whose childhood was spent in the close vicinity of a military camp and trumpet signals are frequently heard in his music.

The meditative and ever more mystic atmosphere prevails throughout most of Música Callada and in the end the effect becomes almost hypnotic. Occasionally a melody of the kind described above is heard but essentially ‘melodies’ are limited to melodic germs, a three-note phrase that is repeated and gradually develops but rarely blossoms. In Semplice (tr. 8) the piano briefly dances – and then stops short.

Book Three is the most inward of the four sections and one gets the feeling that this is music far beyond everyday life. This sense remains in the fourth book as well, the music becoming ever more thinned out and transparent. Even when the tempo marking is Moderato (tr. 24) there is little actual movement, but compared to the surrounding music it stands out as lively. Fascinating it certainly is and there is a logic all of its own throughout the composition. In the penultimate piece, Lento molto, the music just drifts away, out of reach. Is this nirvana? It may be, but in that case the otherworldliness isn’t the ultimate goal since the final Lento decidedly returns to the earth, landing in solid C major! A surprise? A disappointment? Is that the outcome of this spiritual excursion? Or is it just a confirmation that the earth is our home?

Was it worth the effort and the mental stranglehold during five quarters of an hour just to land in a prosaic C major? For me it was and this is a kind of confirmation that it isn’t the destination but the journey in itself that is the goal. I am prepared to follow Haskell Small through these twenty-eight stations again, knowing that he probably is the living guide who knows this destination better than anyone and the Blüthner piano seems the perfect vehicle for the journey. I hope my travelogue has provided enough information for readers to decide whether Música Callada is for them or whether they should book a different destination.

Göran Forsling



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