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Federico MOMPOU (1893-1987)
Paisajes (Landscapes) [12:44]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Miroirs (Mirrors) [29:25]
Federico MOMPOU
Charmes (Spells) [10:54]
Maurice RAVEL
Sonatine [12:28]
Julien BROCAL (b.1987)
Nature Morte (Dead Nature) [4:50]
Julien Brocal (piano)
rec. 2017, Tippett Rise Art Center, USA
RUBICON RCD1008 [71:25]

Sometimes I despair of recording companies. Here we have an otherwise highly impressive recital disc let down badly by carelessness in the matter of presentation. For one thing, it’s very difficult to extract the disc itself without damaging the playing surface. Worse still, Ruibicon have failed to provide any translations of the Spanish and French titles of these lovely pieces. That’s very thoughtless towards collectors who may not be conversant with one or both of these languages. Yes, one can hunt them down easily enough on the internet, but why should it be necessary? At least, English translations of the notes about the music and performers are offered.

In all other respects this is an outstanding disc by this 31 year-old pianist, who already plays with such maturity and poise. And this is an imaginatively designed programme of work, demonstrating perfectly the relationship between the music of Mompou – whose harmony is rooted in more conventional practices – and Ravel. This is where that troublesome word ‘Impressionist’ becomes even more problematic; both Ravel’s Miroirs and Mompou’s Paisajes could be loosely described as impressionist. But then that level of definition would in truth encompass all composers of descriptive music, from Vivaldi onwards.

But there are much more important areas of contact and comparison between these two composers. They were born on either side of the France/Spain border; Ravel in Ciboure, Mompou in Barcelona; their work shows comparable sensitivity to the very precise quality of sound. Yes, Ravel was much more drawn to the exotic, and Mompou’s piano textures are more economical. Yet, as is demonstrated by the three movements of Paisajes, they have an intense sense of place and atmosphere. Brocal captures with great sensitivity the mood of ‘La fuente y la campana’, a hypnotic picture of mournful stillness. Perhaps a criticism of this group of three pieces could be that they are all rather sad and withdrawn; but they are each quite short, and they are conceived so perfectly for the piano that I find them irresistible, especially when played like this.

Then Ravel’s Miroirs; the melancholy found in Mompou remains in the first two of Ravel’s pieces, ‘Noctuelles’ and ‘Oiseaux tristes’, despite the fluttering of insubstantial mothy wings in the former and the shrill bird-cries in the latter. Then ‘Une barque sur l’océan’, surely one of the finest of 20th century piano works, as well as a glorious ‘sea picture’. Brocal’s playing here is breath-taking, in the way he lights up every detail without losing the poetry of the music.

I am more familiar with ‘Alborada del gracioso’ in its orchestral version and was inclined to prefer it to this original one for piano. Not any more; Brocal’s characterisation, especially of the very sinister middle section and manic final page, is mesmerising. And ‘La vallée des cloches’ is on the same imaginative level, inducing a Zen-like mood of contemplation.

Heady stuff; and then a big change to the six miniatures of Mompou’s Charmes. Each one of these embodies a specific piano texture, pointing the way, perhaps, towards Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. Each movement is a ‘spell’ for achieving one effect or another (for inspiring love, for cures etc.). It would be difficult to improve upon Stephen Hough’s superb 1997 recording of this music for Hyperion (which also includes Paisajes), but Brocal is undoubtedly in the same bracket of excellence, bringing out the concentration (in both senses) of these tiny yet substantial pieces.

The Ravel Sonatine completes the disc in a wholly satisfying way. It’s not known for sure which came first in Ravel’s work, the Sonatine or Miroirs. My money is on the first; but it doesn’t really matter, because they present perfectly the two sides of Ravel - the little three-movement Sonatine with its touches of neo-classicism, and the dream-like imaginative flights of Miroirs.

Brocal adds a Postlude in the form of a rather impressive piece of his own. Nature morte is perhaps a spiritual cognate of Debussy’s ‘Des pas sur la neige’ from Book 1 of the Préludes, with its slow tread and final descent to the depths.

Despite my rudeness about the packaging, this is a superbly produced disc, with a wholly successful recording of the piano sound (the instrument being the famous Istomin-Horowitz Steinway, kept at Tippett Rise Art Center in Montana where this recording was made). This is sure to be one of the outstanding piano CDs of 2018, one which would have a Recording of the Month, were it not for the poor presentation.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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