Xavier MONTSALVATGE ( 1912 - 2002)
Partita 1958 [16:40]
Cinco Canciones Negras (1946, orch. 1949)a [12:14]
Calidoscopi simfònic (1955, rev. 2001) [15:59]
Simfonia da Rèquiem (1985)b [22:38]
Clara Mouriz (mezzo)a; Ruby Hughes (soprano)b
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
rec. MediaCity UK, Salford, 8-9 December 2011
CHANDOS CHAN 10735 [68:00] 

Although the name was familiar, Montsalvatge's music is new to me so that I really welcomed the opportunity to review this disc released to mark the composer's centenary. The four works recorded here usefully span his long creative life and encompass different parts of his large and varied output while also providing a welcome opportunity to appreciate his stylistic progress over all these years. 

Montsalvatge's idiom is clearly of its time and often embraces various influences without ever attempting at pastiche or parody. His global outlook is that of a composer happy to work within some well-meaning Neo-classicism often spiced with piquant dissonances and polytonality that sometimes bring Milhaud to mind. This is fairly clear in the Partita which earned him the 1958 Oscar Esplà Prize. The Partita as well as the Cincos Canciones Negras and the Calidoscopi simfònic also displays another characteristic of Montsalvatge's music at the time, i.e. the reliance on some exotic dance rhythms such as the habanera. The Partita is in four compact movements without any real connection between them. The Neo-classical tone of most of the music is still more evident at the close of the third movement when it nods (consciously or not) to the Gavotte from Prokofiev's First Symphony. This most attractive work ends with a joyful final, at times fugal movement that also includes a section for percussion alone. 

The Cincos Canciones Negras were originally written for voice and piano in 1946 and arranged for orchestra in 1949. This short song cycle abounds with niceties, infectious rhythms as well as moments of great tenderness, such as the fourth song Canción de Cuna para Dormir a un Negrito (“Lullaby for a little black boy”). It is not difficult to understand why this very fine work has become - and remains - popular. Clara Mouriz sings beautifully throughout and is superbly partnered by the BBC Philharmonic. I would only suggest that the very end of the beautiful fourth song (“Lullaby”) sounds a bit artificial to me in term of recording for it seems hardly possible for a singer to sustain such soft singing, but I may be wrong. 

The Calidoscopi simfònic seems to have had a rather chequered genesis. Gerald Larner's excellent insert notes state that the music derives from an early, unfinished ballet El Angel de la Guarda that was first reworked as an orchestral suite under the Spanish title of Calidoscopio in 1955. This score was lost, rediscovered decades later, revised and reintroduced under its present Catalan title in 2001. The music as such has much in common with that of the Partita and the Cincos Canciones Negras. It shares their colourful scoring, lively rhythms and melodic invention. The music of the final movement Final 'a la Indiana' brings Villa Lobos to mind, and none the worse for that. 

This might induce that Montsalvatge had no real personality of his own, which is of course entirely wrong because he obviously managed to absorb different influences and - by so doing - to find his own voice. However, the Simfonia de Rèquiem vastly demonstrates the breadth of vision of the mature composer. Although the title might hint at Britten's own Sinfonia da Requiem, the intent behind Montsalvatge's work was a symphonic version of the Requiem Mass. “I intended to ignore the orthodox religious aspect and to concentrate on bringing out its profound, forceful message, which is both sad and sublime, solely by means of the orchestra”. After several hearings I came to the conclusion that this is an imposing and quite substantial piece of music that has apparently been composed out of inner compulsion on the composer's part although one is not told how or why he came to write this mighty work. A good deal of the music is based on the Dies Irae that keeps appearing and reappearing in varied guises throughout the work. Stylistically it is clear that the composer has progressed from some well-meaning Neo-classicism to some more abrasive writing with shades of Honegger in the more troubled sections. There are also moments of great peace and tenderness as in the Agnus Dei that has a soft, decorative piano part reminiscent of some quiet moment from Messiaen's gigantic symphony. The final Libera me, Domine opens with solemn brass fanfares leading to the first and last entry of the soprano on the words Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine. Amen as a final prayer for peace. The Simfonia de Réquiem is a deeply felt and sincere piece of music that definitely repays repeated hearings and clearly deserves to be much better known. It undoubtedly ranks among Montsalvatge's finest achievements. 

Performances and recording are excellent and up to Chandos' best standards. A most welcome introduction to Montsalvatge's world and a superb tribute to the composer in his centenary year. 

Hubert Culot 

A splendid introduction to Montsalvatge's world and a superb centenary release.