Although Naxos do not claim that any of the works featured on this disc are world première recordings, the current catalogues do not appear to show any alternative versions of either Manfred or Bric à brac. The Simfonia da Requiem made its first appearance on disc as long ago as 1995 in a live Madrid concert performance, and has also been included in a Chandos anthology issued in 2012. It is the most substantial work on this disc, which is described as an “overview” of Montsalvatge’s orchestral music. Like the similarly named Britten Sinfonia da Requiem, it consists of a series of movements taking their title from various sections of the Requiem Mass. Unlike the Britten, it also includes a vocal section in the shape of a soprano soloist who enters towards the end of the final movement to sing the words “Requiem aeternam dona nobis, Domine, Amen” in a brief contribution. The informative booklet notes (in English and Spanish) by David Puertas Esteve inform us that this soprano solo is shown in the score as “optional”, but all the recordings feature a soprano to bring the work to a conclusion. Marta Matheu is effective here.
Again unlike Britten, Montsalvatge makes some use of plainchant in the shape of the familiar “Dies irae” during the third movement with that title (track 8). However the work, with its six disparate movements, does not make the same impact as Britten’s piece written over forty years earlier. It may be that the individual movements are too brief - all under four minutes - to build up a real symphonic head of steam. The orchestra play excellently throughout, and the sound is thoroughly acceptable even if I imagine it lacks the richness of the standard Chandos acoustic (although I have not heard that disc). It is certainly a decided improvement on the earlier Madrid performance which appeared on Naxos’s sister label Marco Polo … which I have heard. That was also considerably slower: all of the movements in the earlier version were over four minutes long, with the Lux aeterna (track 10) extended from three-and-a-half minutes here to over five minutes. That’s an extraordinary difference in such a short movement. The playing of the Barcelona orchestra in the studio is considerably ahead of the sometimes rather tentative approach of the Madrid instrumentalists under concert conditions.
The other two works on this disc come from opposite ends of Montsalvatge’s composing career. Manfred is a suite extracted from a ballet, but the music sounds very symphonic indeed during the opening pages, more like a tone poem than a score designed for dancing. The booklet notes refer to the “rhythmic influence of Stravinsky” but certainly during the first half of the score one detects more the shade of Richard Strauss, with the darting woodwind figuration - presumably intended to depict the Alpine fairy appearing to Manfred in a waterfall - oddly reminiscent of the music for the trainbearer and confidante in Elektra. Quite suddenly, about half-way through, the music becomes much more balletic in mood, with overtones of Russian scores in the same medium - although not so much Stravinsky as Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. The booklet note does not give us the scenario of the ballet; but presumably it closely follows Byron’s poem, in the same manner as Schumann and Tchaikovsky’s works on the same subject. The complete ballet apparently lasts about an hour, and the excerpts we are given here whet the appetite for the rest.
Bric à brac, Montsalvatge’s rather discouragingly titled last orchestral work, lacks the sheer profile of the music for the earlier ballet. It consists of four brief tone pictures, and the conductor on this disc gave the first performance of the work with the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra - not this orchestra, as claimed on the back of the disc. The first movement quotes a folksong from the Canary Islands. I cannot say that any of the movements made much of an impact on me, but the music is eminently approachable and the orchestral playing makes a good case for the work. These players have given performances of virtually all Montsalvatge’s orchestral works over the years, including no fewer than twelve world premières. They clearly have the feeling for their fellow Catalan in their bones.
For many years the reputation of Montsalvatge outside Spain rested largely on the occasional appearances of his songs in recitals by Spanish singers. In more recent years his music, always well constructed and appealing to audiences, has gained a wider circulation through such works as the Concierto breve. This Naxos release is a valuable contribution to this continuing process. Is there any possibility that the series could be extended?
Paul Corfield Godfrey
And a second review ...
The Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge was born in Girona. His music studies took him to Barcelona where he developed Gallic sympathies. These are reflected somewhat in his music. For many music enthusiasts, if they know him at all it is through the Cinco canciones negrasof 1946. These were once recorded by Victoria de los Angeles for EMI Classics in 1962.
The notes tell us that Alicia de Larrocha championed his Concierto breve (1953) (review review) and Narciso Yepes his guitar concerto Metamorfosis de concierto (1981); the latter unrecorded as far as I am aware. There are also three operas (El gato con botas, Una voce and Babel 46), twenty film soundtracks, choral works and chamber pieces.
Montsalvatge has written of his music that:-
“I do not need serial techniques because I am against rigid orthodoxy, whether left- or right-wing. I admire Béla Bartók, Hindemith and, above all, Stravinsky, whom I see as the prototype composer of my time. In the contrast between consonance and dissonance, and between tonality and atonality, I look for an element that will light up my music. I believe that art should have ancestry, breeding, and be rooted in a clearly defined age. With this in mind, I try to follow my own path. … I have never thought of music as being radically abstract, and still less as formulaic. Something of ourselves is inscribed in every note, every symbol we put down on paper: something of our sincerity, our intimate feelings, even of our faults, our cynicism and the lies we tell.”
Manfred (1945) is one of dozens of Montsalvatge ballet scores. This one lasts about an hour but what has been recorded here seems to be an epitome of the full score played as a single continuous entity. It is all very approachable. As befits its subject it is accessibly romantic in a late 19th century manner but with textures made airy and lucid. So much so that the strongest influence in this fluid and long-lined writing is the Tchaikovsky of Romeo and Juliet and the Liszt of Les Preludes. The kaleidoscopic nature of the work bring us elements that sound a little like Beethoven and then Delibes - even Offenbach at times. If you were being uncharitable you might call it something of a mish-mash with all these colliding elements, some of them bombastic. I confess that the Stravinskian rhythmic elements claimed by the liner-notes escape me completely.
Bric à brac is his last orchestral work and was written almost a decade before his death. The four short movements are atmospheric little vignettes - all securely tonal: a mistily impressionistic Evocador with some magical Tchaikovskian writing for strings; a querulous and questing Sesgado (tranquil) that gradually becomes sentimental in the manner of Bax’s later works; a moody Tenso with a more prominent role for percussion with some early Stravinskian urgency and a final Lúdico (playful) sounding like a Goossens miniature gawkily meeting de Falla.. This was premiered by Orquesta Sinfónica de Tenerife conducted by Víctor Pablo Pérez, on 30 September 1993.
The Simfonia da Rèquiem is in six movements with titles reflecting the inspiration from the Mass: I. Introitus 3:29; II. Kyrie 3:37; III. Dies irae 3:41; IV. Agnus Dei 3:28; V. Lux aeterna 3:30; VI. Libera me, Domine 2:55. Although Montsalvatge introduced a solo voice very briefly indeed in the finale the symphony bears a resemblance - in plan at least - to Howard Hanson’s Fourth Symphony. The first movement toys with the Dies Irae theme in gentle dissonance. A thoughtfully musing Kyrie is followed by an angst-ridden Dies irae. A drifting and kindly Agnus Dei is succeeded by a thrumming Lux Aeterna that shares atmosphere with the Dies Irae. It does soamid language that finds an intersection between Bax and Messiaen. There’s more crunching and grinding intimations of Messiaen in the final Libera Me.
Over the years the site has reviewed various Montsalvatge CDs. These reviews of full price discs are worth a look. The piano music is on Columna Musica. There’s also an outstanding and very accessible Chandos collection which includes the Negro Songs and the Simfonia de Rèquiem (review ~ review); not to forget a centenary disc also from Columna Musica.
This is not the first time that Naxos has turned to this composer. In the 1990s the Marco Polo label issued a CD (8.223753) of the Concierto Breve and the Simfonia da Requiem with some Rodrigo. Antoni Ros-Marba conducted the Madrid Symphony Orchestra. However that disc has now disappeared from circulation.
Montsalvage is an intriguing composer and on this evidence is a master of mood conjured concisely.