Manuel BLANCAFORT (1897-1987)
Complete Songs - Volume 1
Anna Alas i Jove (mezzo-soprano)
Miquel Villalba (piano)
Full track list at close of review
rec. 2015, L'Auditorium Studio in Jafre de Ter, Girona, Spain
NAXOS 8.579012 [61:08]
Born in Spain in 1897, Catalan composer Manuel Blancafort received his basic education in music from his father. His unusual way into classical and contemporary scores was then by working for the piano-roll company founded by his father, self-taught rather in the way of the young Elgar, who had his father’s music shop as his library. Frederic Mompou became his guide and adviser, and it was in 1920s Paris that Blancafort had his first important performances and found a publisher. Over time family life (he had 11 children) required a steadier income stream, for his father’s factory succumbed to the rise of the gramophone, and the Spanish Civil War closed the border and restricted his international career. He worked for an insurance company, but still managed to produce a catalogue of orchestral, chamber and instrumental music, as well as many songs.
Drawing on his Catalan roots, Blancafort’s songs are evocative and easy to like at a first hearing. There is clarity of line and a directness of feeling that make them instantly attractive. One contemporary called him “the living synthesis of Catalan musical culture.” But anyone who enjoys the most accessible of French songs such as those of Reynaldo Hahn, will find Blancafort worth exploring. The other obvious reference points are the songs of the Catalans, such as Granados, Montsalvatge and Obradors, and perhaps (to be even-handed in the current Iberian political climate) I should add the songs of the great Andalusians Turina and Falla. Together these artists produced a very rich crop of art song in Spain, and on the evidence of this disc Blancafort at least belongs in their company.
There have been other discs that feature Blancafort’s songs, but here we are promised an intÚgrale and several of these works are receiving here their world premiere recording. The very first song is one such, the delightful ‘Passant sota les branques’ (Walking under the branches), for which the composer himself wrote the text.
Canšons de Nadal (Three Christmas Songs) are nicely contrasted. The first shows Blancafort’s rhythmic invention, and is a strophic song, but one in which two verses make one musical strophe. The lyrical central one is, at 5:07, the longest song on the disc and a most engaging meditation on ‘The Clouds at Christmas’, while the third is a surprisingly insouciant depiction of ‘The Three Kings’ alternating between the jolly and the pensive. These are not the only Christmas songs on the disc, for the ‘Rondalla del bou’ (Story of the Bull) tells of a bull’s quest to bring a gift to the Christ-child in the manger – and all to a habanera rhythm.
There is here and there some subtly illustrative piano writing, when for instance bells or dripping water are mentioned, and at times a brief poetic piano postlude. These songs respect the text, so that musical phrases often end or pause when lines of poetry do, and there is little melisma or other vocal display. The 22 songs are mostly short - 15 of the 22 are less than 3 minutes long. They are probably best enjoyed in separate groups rather than straight through, since the variety of mood and tone is not, at least on early acquaintance, very great. The Catalan mezzo-soprano, Anna AlÓs i JovÚ, sings superbly and has an appealing timbre. She sounds, of course, totally idiomatic, and not only because she is singing in the native tongue of the region. Her vocal manners are ideal, bringing just the right degree of identification with each item, but never burdening these fragile and sometimes elusive works with more significance than they can really bear. The pianist, Miquel Villalba, who has recorded five volumes of Blancafort’s piano music for Naxos, has obvious authority in the music and is a true musical partner. He is also the writer of the intriguing booklet note on the composer’s career. The recording gets the balance between voice and instrument just right, and has an intimate ambience just right for the intimate world of a vocal recital to be heard at home.
The booklet is very good on the composer’s background and the historical context of the songs, but has nothing about these particular songs themselves. Catalan texts are included but for English translations one needs to go to the Naxos website, where they are easily accessible (and occupy 11 pages of A4 when printed out). There is no indication of how many future volumes this series of “Complete Songs” will eventually occupy, but if this first sample is truly representative, it will be well worth following.
Passant sota les branques [2:41]
Tres Canšons de Nadal [8:13]
No. 1, Canšoneta humil de mitjanit [1:41]
No. 2, Els n˙vols de Nadal [5:06]
No. 3, Els reis [1:26]
Quatre Canšons [8:39]
No. 1, Muntanya avall [1:36]
No. 2, Capvespre [2:38]
No. 3, La mort de Bebros [2:52]
No. 4, AigŘes de la primavera [1:33]
Rondalla del bou [2:54]
La Ilum de Nadal [1:26]
Canco de l'amor primera [3:21]
Canšˇ, "Dessobre la terra dura" [4:22]
Cei˝o da mi˝a aldea [3:37]
Ja no seras mai mes record [3:11]
Canšˇ de l'˙nic camÝ, l'infinit [2:50]
Lirica catalana [15:33]
No. 1, Advent [2:38]
No. 2, Comiat [3:58]
No. 3, L'infinit [4:17]
No. 4, Les campanes de Palau [2:03]
No. 5, L'hora de l'alba [2:37]