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Cançons i danses catalanes
Frederic MOMPOU (1893-1987)
Suite Compostelana (1962) [14:46]
Cançó i dansa No. 10 (1953) [3:08]
Cançó i dansa No. 13 (1972) [4:21]
Miquel LLOBET (1878-1938)
Cançons populars (1899–1926) [22:15]
Frederic MANÉN (1883-1971)
Fantasia-Sonata per a guitarra, Op. A-22 (1930) [15:13]
Franz Halász (guitar)
rec. Großer Saal, Hochschule für Musik und Theater München, Germany in December 2014 and March 2015
SACD/CD hybrid, reviewed in surround
BIS BIS-2092 SACD [60:52]

Having a sonic image of Franz Halász a metre or so in front of me playing this concert of Catalan songs and dances was really something special. It was even better with my eyes shut since the recording venue’s acoustic - as ‘Großer Saal’ implies – is spatially incompatible with my listening room. It may seem paradoxical, but I believe a solo guitar recording is the best use of surround sound. Surely, you say, just one or two channels would do the job. Considering, however, that we’re trying to create a spatially believable image of a sound source, the guitar is an ideal candidate, as it roughly occupies a single point - as also would, say, a violin. In stereo, it’s normal to place the image between the speakers, the only option being to move it sideways. Adding the front-rear dimension for surround sound, however, makes it possible to fully divorce the instrument’s image from any of the speakers reproducing it, and to envelop the listener in the recording acoustic. So there he was in my presence - the virtual guitarist.

All this would count for nought, of course, if the performance wasn’t up to scratch. No such problem here. This is a wonderfully programmed recital, beautifully played. It’s really not for casual listening or dipping into – it’s for setting aside an hour and immersing yourself. Franz Halász is a renowned performer, and this recording marks the twentieth anniversary of his first solo disc, also for BIS. As well as an international virtuoso, he holds academic posts such as professor of guitar at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Munich.

The opening Suite Compostelana by Frederic Mompou may surprise some, like me, who are accustomed to his piano music, with its mesmerising simplicity, even naivety, of melodic and harmonic structures. The Suite, composed for Andrés Segovia, is a mostly vigorous and colourful piece, rich in impressions of the north-western province of Galicia and its Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a popular destination for pilgrims since the Middle Ages. In six short movements, the Suite begins with a lively, running Preludio, contrasted immediately with a slow, hymn-like Coral, followed by the Cuna, a lullaby which imitates a rocking cradle. The Recitativo returns us to familiar Mompou territory, but unsettling in its dissonance, promptly relieved by the Cançón, with its minor key and halting rhythms. An animated Muñeira dance concludes the piece, its multiple elements including drone notes to imitate the gaita, a local type of bagpipe. This is 15 minutes of Mompou that anybody who cares for the composer, or the guitar repertoire, should be familiar with.

Miquel Llobet’s charming Cançons populars follows, a work compiled over the first quarter of last century as an arrangement of thirteen Catalan songs, popular in their time. As the liner notes rightly point out, these songs are not as familiar today, but I couldn’t help thinking “I’ve heard that tune before” several times during the piece. No matter, just listen to the Cançons populars once or twice, and you’ll have thirteen new melodic friends.

Mompou then returns with the tenth and thirteenth Cançó i dansa. These, by the way, together with the Suite Compostelana comprise, as far as I can tell, Mompou’s complete output for guitar. The Cançó i dansa No. 10 is a transcription from the piano score, and the Cançó i dansa No. 13 is an original composition for guitar. I listened to the piano version of No. 10 for comparison, and I’m drawn to say that the guitar transcription sounds so much more authentic and ‘complete’, given not only the origins of the music, but the colours and resources of the guitar seem so much better used. I find it curious, and a terrible pity, that on the strength of these compositions, especially the Suite Compostelana, Mompou didn’t write more for the guitar.

The final work by Frederic Manén reminds one of just how rich is the guitar repertoire with works of substantial power and beauty. A violin prodigy, Manén clearly also understood the guitar, and this work explores all its virtuosic possibilities, as well as providing wonderfully crafted and absorbing music. It’s in a symmetrical single movement form, beginning and ending reflectively with strummed chords suggesting open strings. The intervening space is filled with more complex and sometimes frenetic developments, tracing an emotionally satisfying arc. It’s a perfect ending to an inspired programme.

If it seems I’ve been ignoring the guitarist for several paragraphs, I mean that as the greatest compliment. From the very opening bars of the Suite Compostelana, I knew I was in the safest of hands. Not only technically immaculate, Franz Halász plays with the most refreshing purity and objectivity - music straight off the page without affectation. He is entirely at the service of the composers in this recital – the soul is in their music, and he their messenger.

You don’t, by the way, need surround sound to fully enjoy this disc. While writing this review I’ve been sampling tracks off the CD layer on my PC through a pair of $11 headphones. When the music, performance and recording click as they do here, just about anything will do.

Des Hutchinson

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)



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