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Catalan Concertinos and Fantasias
Marc MIGÓ (b. 1993)
Fantasia popular (2016, rev. 2017) [11:57]
Piano Concertino (2016) [9:46]
Epitafi a Hans Rott for strings (2015) [16:13]
Joan MANÉN (1883-1971)
Violin Concertino, Op. A-49 (date unknown) [26:51]
Rapsňdia catalana, Op. A-50 (1954) [13:06]
Kalina Macuta (violin); Sergi Pacheco (piano); Daniel Blanch (piano); National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Volodymyr Sirenko
rec. October 2018 Concert Hall of Ukrainian Radio, Kyiv
First Recordings

Music and Linguistics have always been two of the main passions in my life, so when an opportunity arose to enrich my knowledge in both disciplines simultaneously, it was an easy decision to make.

Catalonia is an autonomous region of north-eastern Spain, with Barcelona its regional capital. Its main language is Catalan – a Romance language closely related to Castilian Spanish and Provençal, and is also spoken in Andorra, the Balearic Islands, and parts of southern France. This new release on the well-revered and forward-thinking Toccata label features the music of two Catalan composers, who incorporate music from their folk tradition, but seasoned with a nod in the direction of Vienna, a thousand miles or so to the north east.

With a current population of fewer than eight million, Catalonia hasn’t produced too many composers who have become household names. But it can certainly lay claim to Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados – as well as Fernando Sor, much loved by the guitar-playing fraternity.

Composer Marc Migó was born in Barcelona in 1993. It was with a sixteenth-birthday present from his grandfather – a Deutsche Grammophon CD collection – that Migó suddenly became fervently drawn to its contents, obliging him to seek guidance from pianist Liliana Sainz and composer Xavier Boliart, respectively. Three years later, he enrolled at ESMUC (Catalonia College of Music) in his home city. In 2017 a scholarship took him to New York to pursue his musical studies, taking his Masters at the Julliard School, where he was awarded the 2018 Orchestral Composition Prize. Migó is currently studying for his Doctorate under the mentorship of American contemporary-classical-music composer, John Corigliano.

Migó’s Fantasia popular opens the new CD, and confirms the composer’s stance on the beauty of melodic tradition, something which he says he’ll never give up on, or will ever go out of fashion. The work begins with an Overture with a decidedly Iberian flavour, though where the harmonic palette is suitably spiced up to add a specifically local flavour. This moves segue into Pastoral (El rossinyol) – ‘The Nightingale’ – one of three popular songs the composer combines in the work. It’s another segue to Processó (La dama d’Aragó) – ‘The Lady of Aragó’. Here things seem at last to be heading for a decisive ending with a final tutti, but Migó again decides this is not to be, as he slips seamlessly into Scherzo (En Pere Gallerí), based on a much-loved children’s song, which, in the hands of the composer, becomes pure burlesque, with definite touches of Poulenc and Jean Françaix at times. This, too, moves straight into the Coda, and builds into a majestic ending, even if a tad abrupt when it comes. Even if it hadn’t been the most riveting eleven minutes of my life, it has slightly whetted my appetite for what’s to come.

Violinist, pianist and composer, Joan Manén was also born in Barcelona, and, at the age of seven, was playing Chopin pianos concertos in public. In 1890 his father convinced Basque violin professor at Barcelona’s Conservatory of Music, Clemente Ibarguren, to give violin lessons to Joan, who rapidly attained astonishing technical mastery and, at the age of nine, made his début in Latin America. He was hailed as a virtuoso of the first rank and later undertook five world tours.

However, he was entirely self-taught as a composer, Manén having begun to write at thirteen, 13, and in 1900 he conducted a concert of his own works in Barcelona. His father, meanwhile realised that his son needed formal composition lessons, but although there was no shortage of offers, Manén’s father decided that his son should not receive any formal instruction at the conservatory, but learn from the vast amount of music he regularly read through.

Manén made numerous arrangements, both instrumental and vocal, of Spanish and Catalan folk melodies, and traditional dance styles (e.g. the Sardana) frequently appear in his works. His music is tonal in idiom and predominantly lyrical, and there are often thematic connections between movements. In 1930 he founded and presided over the Barcelona Philharmonic Society (Societat Filarmňnica de Barcelona), an influential body on the Barcelona musical scene that programmed several concerts. He died in 1971 and was buried in the Cementiri de Montjuďc in Barcelona.

While the exact date of Manén’s Concertino per a violí i Orquestra, Op. A-49 is unknown, it was first recorded by Polish violinist Henri Lewkowicz for Saarland Radio on 30 November, and 1 December, 1965. Fellow-barceloní, pianist Daniel Blanch, informs us that the Concertino belongs to Manén’s ‘Iberian’ style, but is more a melange of popular material, than literal quotations, while still heavily imbued with Mediterranean colours, rhythms, melodies and harmony. The Concertino makes use of the popular Catalan song, Els estudiants de Tolosa, (The Students of Toulouse’), and is cast in three movements, culminating in a finale of heightened virtuosity. In summing it up, Blanch mentions its ‘nostalgic, idyllic and very evocative nature’, while sensing that it was probably the great violinist’s swansong – his only violin concerto that he was never able to play in public.

Manén was always disdainful of the musical avant-garde. He was never interested in Schoenberg, nor Stravinsky, and, from the listener’s standpoint, his music features an appealing eclecticism that combines Straussian influences with the sophistication of Fauré, without compromising his Iberian roots. All in all then, a composer with one eye on the past, and the other on tradition, who seeks to merge different styles in a fairly modern approach. The opening movement isn’t a conventional Allegro as such, but something, rather, that builds organically through various tempi, until its Animato close – in fact its opening feels decidedly austere.

It leads straight to the musical heart of the work – an Andante espressivo slow movement, full of simple, heartfelt emotion, before a brief look back in the direction of the first movement takes us directly again to the finale – Allegro – a tempo – Cadenza – Allegro. Waltz-like in spirit, there are slightly darker overtones at times, with some quite burlesque effects, as well as some romantic and most expressive moments. There is an extended solo cadenza that lasts just over two minutes, which is more lyrical than overtly virtuosic for its own sake. The orchestra seamlessly re-enters, for the Allegro coda, formed from material from the start of the movement, and leads to an effective coda where the soloist gets more chance to shine, than earlier, although this is by no means envisaged as a big ‘display’ concerto. It is suggested that Migó’s title for the work as a whole seemed unusually modest, but for me, the diminutive form of a Concertino seems just about right.

This is followed by another work by Migó – his Concertino per a piano I Orquestra, written in 2016. There is, of course, no hard-and-fast rule as to how a work for piano and orchestra is expected to start. For example, the last two Beethoven Piano Concertos, No 4 in G and No 5 (‘Emperor’) could scarcely have more contrasting openings. Migó begins his Concertino in an ethereal, almost ghost-like fashion with the piano alone, where the repeated triplet-figure ostinato constantly reminded me of the same hushed start of Chopin’s Scherzo No 2 in B flat minor. The subsequent intrusion of the xylophone moves the music forward, as the Moderato opening, leads, via a number of various tempo changes, straight into the first part of the second movement, which the composer marks attacca – to be played without a gap. Given the evidence so far, it would seem that the fusing together of separate movements, or individual sections, is something of which these two Catalan composers are particularly fond.

The first section of the second movement is marked Perpetuum Mobile. Yes, it’s fast, furious, and relentless, but, to me, doesn’t really live up to the promise of some of the more illustrious examples of the genre, encountered over the years. Also – and I cite this as one reason why it can often be better to play a new CD first before closely scrutinising the booklet – while the transition from the first to the second movement is seamless enough, something just didn’t seem to ring true in the process. I was therefore pleased to read that the thematic material of the Perpetuum Mobile is actually based on a piece for solo piano that the composer had drafted before starting on the Concertino. Stylistically it is more eclectic than what has gone before. Migó talks about reminiscences of Broadway and Hollywood, composers like Ravel, Prokofiev, and Gershwin, and, towards the conclusion, the greater involvement of percussion, and prominence of the brass, in the ‘grand tradition’ of US symphonic bands.

Migó’s final contribution to the CD is responsible for the ‘Vienna’ connection, mentioned earlier in the review. Vienna-born composer and organist Hans Rott (1858-1884), like Mahler, with whom he briefly roomed while a student at the Conservatory, studied composition with Franz Krenn, who numbered among his pupils, Leoš Janáček and Alexander von Zemlinsky. Rott also studied the organ with Bruckner, and was much influenced by the works of Wagner. Sadly, however, Rott began to suffer from mental health problems, and spent some time in hospital, before he died from tuberculosis, aged just twenty-five.

Migó became fascinated with Rott’s life and music, and empathised with his personality issues, specifically his persecution mania, where Rott actually believed that Brahms was after him. In the resulting Epitafi a Hans Rott for strings, Migó incorporated several musical references to Rott, such as the horns’ theme heard in the Scherzo of Rott’s Symphony in E. Migó says that the work ‘is very romantic, as if it were from the late nineteenth century’. Personally I feel that the composer has a slightly skewed sense of chronology, and, given that the work is almost seventeen minutes long, a little judicious pruning, here and there, might have benefited the work’s initial impact, and subsequent ability to hold the listener’s attention.

It now just remains for Joan Manén to round things off with his Rapsňdia catalana, a mature piece based on three popular songs: Els dos camins (‘The Two Paths’), Els contrabandistes (‘The Smugglers’), and Quan el pare no té pa (‘When father has no bread’). The work is effectively for piano and orchestra, and there is an underlying programme which the composer clearly elucidates in the booklet, and which accounts for the six main sections, and their associated tempo changes, in what would otherwise appear on paper to be a single-movement work.

When I first listened to the work, I had to resist the urge to avail myself of an involuntary afternoon siesta, since, like Migó’s Concertino, it, too, seemed to outstay its welcome a little. In fact, had it not come to life with just about a minute to run, where there’s quite a virtuosic coda, I might otherwise have succumbed.

The CD is otherwise very well-presented, and the booklet, which is in English, Catalan, and Spanish, is most helpful and informative. The recording is first-class throughout, well-balanced and vivid, as befits the content. Volodymyr Sirenko gets the very best out of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine who play with real attention to detail, as well as an evident empathy for the far-warmer Mediterranean climes, fragrances, and sonorities. Each soloist – Kalina Macuta (violin), and pianists Sergi Pacheco (Piano Concertino), and Daniel Blanch (Rapsňdia catalana) – was on top form, and did their utmost to present the music in its very best light.

It’s certainly a CD that you will probably find yourself returning to, from time to time, since the contents don’t immediately seem to grab you as much as the vivid art-work on the front cover does. However, it should ultimately grow on you – particularly the works by Joan Manén – though I do think the jury’s still out as to whether these Barcelona-born composers will ever become better known than the city’s legendary Camp Nou football team. Somehow I rather doubt it.

Philip R Buttall

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