Xavier Montsalvatge i Bassols was one of the most important Catalan
composers during the second half of the 20th
century – even
longer than that in fact: his best known work, Cinco canciones
was published as early as 1945. There he was influenced of the
music of the Antilles, but his style, or rather styles, underwent many
changes, from an early interest in twelve-tone music and Wagner to the
free-tonality of Messiaen, whom he knew and with whom he was frequently in
If this sounds somewhat forbidding to more traditionally inclined readers
it should be added that even though much of his music is rather complex it
is also highly accessible and permeated with enticing rhythms, lavish and
often surprising orchestral colours, attractive melodies, fresh vitality and
humour. This is also what characterises the works on this disc, spanning
more than 25 years. They are presented chronologically backwards, beginning
with music he wrote when he was well past 80 and ending with a work from his
is a sinfonietta for four woodwind soloists,
strings and percussion. It is based on the 16th
, which has often been used as ground for variations.
Literally it means ‘folly’ and Montsalvatge adopts this meaning by
introducing some rather weird sounds, produced on odd instruments by the
percussionists, as well as in the sense that Salvador Dali, who is portrayed
in the work, made a lot of ‘mad’ paintings. This is rhythmically alert music
with thrilling colouring and a lot of exposure of the solo instruments.
Virtuosity is paired with melodious lyrical episodes, including a very
beautiful and atmospheric one for the oboe after circa four minutes. The
clarinet has some eerie growling noises before he reluctantly hands over the
baton to the bassoon. The plangent tone of the bassoon contrasts well with
the other three woodwind colleagues. At around 13:30 comes the crazy finale,
short but efficient.
was written for the closing ceremony of the 1992
Summer Olympics in Barcelona, where it was performed by Victoria de los
Angeles and Lluis Claret. It is based on a Catalan Christmas Carol, which
the legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals in all his concerts ‘as a symbol
of love for his homeland’, having left Spain in 1939 when Franco seized
power. In 1971, at the age of 96, he played it at the United Nations General
Assembly. Sasha Cooke has a bigger, meatier voice than de los Angeles but
sings marvellously and Wendy Sutter plays the cello part truly beautifully.
A little gem.
was a commission for the XIII International Music
Festival of Barcelona in 1975. Written for a solo violin and 13 strings this
is harmonically rather daring. The first movement sets the soloist against
the string band’s ostinato and Tim Fain excels in rhythmically taut playing.
The more lyrical middle movement opens with plucked strings in the
orchestra. The soloist then weaves a long affecting melody over this
background but then indulges in some amazing technical wizardry. In the
short finale thematic material from the previous movements is reintroduced.
A lot of testosterone is required here.
The Festival Internacional de Musica de Cadaqués commissioned Montsalvatge
to write a piece for Jean-Pierre Rampal, Serenata a Lydia de
Cadaqués is a seaside town in Catalonia, and many Spanish
artists went there, Dali, Picasso and Miró among them, as well as the author
Eugeni d’Ors. The Lidia of the title was a fishmonger and ran a
boarding-house, where both Dali and d’Ors stayed. Lidia wrote to Dali,
believing that she was the model for one of his works. After her death d’Ors
and Dali wrote a book about her. Around the turn of the last century people
from Cadaqués went to Cuba and when they returned they brought with them the
habanera, music which Montsalvatge had learnt from locals and published in
1948. When he got this commission he remembered the book about Lidia and
made use of the habanera rhythms, composing this rather unusual work. It
opens with a three-minute cadenza for solo flute, starting on a single
repeated note before it sails away in virtuoso cascades, brilliantly played
by Sato Moughalian. After this follows an extended dialogue for flute and
piano, which grows in intensity, then there is a passage of habanera
rhythms. After another outburst the music is phased out, ending as it began,
on an extended single note.
The longest work on the disc, Cinco invocaciones al Crucificado
from 1969, also employs Caribbean rhythms. It is an interesting and deeply
gripping composition with unusual instrumentation. The second movement,
Pianto della Madonna,
is especially ethereal with flutes, piano and
harp accompanying the solo mezzo. Movement 3 is a beautiful cantilena with
three flutes and harp. In the two concluding movements the textures thicken
but are still transparent. The short final movement is rather incisive and
even ecstatic — a great conclusion to a great work. Sasha Cooke sings
marvellously throughout and the playing is immensely assured and
Technically the recording is spotless and Sato Moughalian’s informative
liner notes, from which I have culled most of the background information in
the review, are exemplary.
Those whose only acquaintance with Montsalvatge’s music so far has been
the Cinco canciones negras
should grab the opportunity to
expand their knowledge by acquiring the present disc. Why not start with the
Madrigal sobre un tema popular
(tr. 2). You are most likely to
recognise the beautiful melody. From there you can explore the more
demanding pieces. They are worth the effort. Montsalvatge should definitely
be better known.