Xavier Montsalvatge: Madrigal sobre un tema popular / 5 Invocaciones al Crucificado / Folia daliniana
This disc won me over in its first twenty seconds (…)Joshua RosenblumOpera News
The Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge is no household name, but you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to his elegant, refined and piquant oeuvre than this vibrant collection by New York City’s Perspectives Ensemble.SmithThe New York Times
Spanish—and Catalan music in particular—was hugely enriched by the contribution made to its development in the latter part of the twentieth-century by Xavier Montsalvatge. Both as a composer and critic, his influence was widespread, and his music stylistically broad. Folia daliniana explores elements of fantasy and French-tinged refinement whilst one of his major song cycles, Cinco invocaciones al Crucificado, is a passionately intense meditation on Christ’s suffering. Whether rhapsodic or invoking rhythmic or popular dance forms, Montsalvatge’s music remains brilliant, clear and individualistic.
This disc won me over in its first twenty seconds—the skittering, playfully dissonant opening passage of Xavier Montsalvatge’s Folia Daliniana for four solo winds, strings, and percussion.
Technically the recording is spotless and Sato Moughalian’s informative liner notes, from which I have culled most of the background information in the review, are exemplary. Those whose only acquaintance with Montsalvatge’s music so far has been the Cinco canciones negras should grab the opportunity to expand their knowledge by acquiring the present disc.
The Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge is no household name, but you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to his elegant, refined and piquant oeuvre than this vibrant collection by New York City’s Perspectives Ensemble. A well-balanced selection of pieces composed from 1969 to 1995, the disc is further abetted by the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s ravishing voice and the violinist Tim Fain’s bravura solo work.
The Perspectives Ensemble under conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez brings us lovely performances that exemplify Montsalvatge in various stylistic guises, who like Stravinsky went through a number of transformations while still remaining recognizably himself.
Montsalvatge’s more-substantial works reach beyond ethnicity to communicate with cross-cultural genuineness that is highly effective – especially so in his major song cycles, such as Cinco invocaciones al Crucificado (1969), sung with intense feeling on Naxos’ new CD by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, and conducted with sure-handed skill by Angel Gil-Ordóñez, one of the foremost exponents of modern small-ensemble works, both choral and instrumental.
About this recording
—by Sato Moughalianz, Artistic Director of Perspectives Ensemble
Xavier Montsalvatge, the great Spanish Catalan composer and critic, was a dominant figure in the cultural life of his country in the second half of the twentieth century, writing three operas, works for orchestra, soloists, chamber music, ballets, film scores, choral music, and songs, a compositional legacy spanning seventy years. He was a member of the “lost generation,” a term that referred to the artists who matured under the deeply repressive regime of Franco. Born in Girona, Spain, in 1912, Montsalvatge trained as a violinist, but chose instead to devote himself to the twin paths of his career: composition and music criticism. His frequent writing assignments for Destino and La Vanguardia kept him current with musical trends in Europe, and acquainted him with leading artists of his day, including Alicia de Larrocha, Victoria de los Ángeles, Pablo Casals, Rosa Sabater, and Monserrat Caballé, who became champions of his compositions. His long-term associations with exceptional musicians were a tremendous inspiration and may have helped hone his skill in creating beautifully crafted pieces. Montsalvatge’s early evolution as a composer came during a period when Wagner’s influence prevailed in Spain, but the French, Ravel, Satie, and Poulenc among them, attracted him more. Although his music reflected the contemporary movements of his time, he nevertheless succeeded in synthesizing a language that was natural, clear, and identifiably his own.
Montsalvatge’s music encompassed a wide range of styles, reflecting some major artistic trends of twentieth-century music: serial or dodecaphonic writing (as in Cinco invocaciones al crucificado), neoclassicism (as in Concertino 1+13), the restrained transparency of the French style (echoes of Satie’s Gymnopédies in Folia daliniana), nationalism (Madrigal sobre un tema popular), polytonality, and also his well-known romance with the music and rhythms of the Antilles in the West Indies. This Caribbean-flavored musical language, which, as Montsalvatge said, “was itself originally Spanish, exported overseas and then reimported into our country”, flowed freely throughout his work, especially in two of his best-known compositions, the song cycle Cinco canciones negras, and the piano piece Tres divertimentos. It also peacefully co-exists with the passionate dissonances of Cinco invocaciones and rhapsodic musings of Serenata a Lydia. Montsalvatge embraced the sounds of popular culture, incorporating not only dance forms like the waltz, chotis, habanera, and sardana (a typical Catalan dance), folk and children’s songs into his work, but also the saeta (a type of religious improvisational singing, often practised during Holy Week), musical forms emblematic of the Spanish culture that produced them.
In 1995, the Orquestra de Cadaqués commissioned Montsalvatge to write Folia daliniana. The work, a sinfonietta for four solo wind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon), strings, and percussion, combines two iconic elements of Spanish culture: La Folía (also known as Folie d’Espagne), a dance variation form from the Iberian peninsula originating in the sixteenth century (and recently re-popularised by the brilliant Catalan viola da gamba player Jordí Savall), and the work of the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. The word folia itself can mean “madness” or “folly” and Montsalvatge playfully exploits this idea by employing the unusual colours of glass chimes, güiro, whip and flextone, and giving each of the wind players a chance to shine both in “madcap” flights of fantasy and French-tinged, elegantly restrained waltzes. Montsalvatge echoed the renaissance form of La Folía, which generally started and ended with a theme in a dance metre, usually in a minor key, with sets of brilliant variations in between. The piece demonstrates an ebullient sense of humour, and it serves as a musical tribute to the fantastic imagery we associate with Dalí.
Madrigal sobre un tema popular is based on El cant dels ocells (Song of the Birds), a traditional Catalan Christmas carol. Montsalvatge wrote it for the closing ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, featuring soprano Victoria de los Ángeles and cellist Lluís Claret. The renowned cellist Pablo Casals, having already achieved international fame, exiled himself from his native Catalonia after the 1939 victory of Franco, but he adopted El cant dels ocells as a symbol of love for his homeland and played it in all of his concerts thereafter. In 1971, at the age of 96, Casals performed it at the United Nations General Assembly, in a passionate plea for peace in Spain. It has become a national symbol of Catalonia, and is performed on solemn occasions throughout Spain. Montsalvatge adapted the carol’s original text, which describes a joyous pastoral scene at the birth of Christ, to emphasize instead the birds and their songs anticipating the coming of spring. The beautiful cello solo in his version honours Casals, who brought the melody to worldwide recognition.
Concertino 1+13, for solo violin and thirteen string players, was commissioned for the XIII International Music Festival of Barcelona in 1975. The three-movement structure alludes to the classical period concerto form but the musical language plants it firmly in the twentieth century. The first movement juxtaposes a gently rocking ostinato with a solo violin part filled with irony, the violin presenting a melody of jaunty rhythms but dark and biting harmonies. The “one” and the “thirteen” then conduct a type of dialogue through the movement. The second movement begins with pizzicato strings, setting the stage for a most unusual “aria” for the solo violin, filled with trilled passages, slides, leaping intervals, and harmonics, creating an intense kind of lyrical expression. The compact third movement reprises earlier thematic material, energetically wrapping up the whole work.
In 1970 the Festival Internacional de Música de Cadaqués commissioned Montsalvatge to write a composition for the brilliant French flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal. Cadaqués is a picturesque seaside town in the province of Girona, Catalonia, which was frequented by many Spanish artists including Dalí, Picasso, and Miró, and the great Catalan writer Eugeni d’Ors. Lídia Noguer i Sabà, daughter of one of the last brujas (witches) of Cadaqués, was a fishmonger and ran a boarding-house. She hosted Dalí as well as d’Ors, to whom she later wrote obsessively, believing herself to be secretly the model for the heroine of one of his signature works, La Ben Plantada. After her death, Dalí and d’Ors collaborated on a book, La verdadera historia de Lidia de Cadaqués (The True Story of Lidia de Cadaqués). Around the same time, at the beginning of the twentieth century, many inhabitants of Cadaqués and the Costa Brava traveled to Cuba, carrying back with them knowledge of the habanera. Montsalvatge collected these languorous and nostalgic songs from the local sailors and fishermen and published the Álbum de habaneras in 1948. Upon receiving this commission, he seized on the story of the mysterious and perhaps somewhat mad woman of Cadaqués whose life had intersected with some giants of twentieth-century art, and also paid homage to the region’s history by including a habanera at the heart of the work. A most unusual piece, Serenata a Lydia de Cadaqués, begins with a three-minute long cadenza for the solo flute, which starts out teasingly exploring a single note, continues with exuberant bursts of flute and piano writing, Caribbean flavours, and in a dreamlike manner ends where it began, on the same single sustained note.
Cinco invocaciones al Crucificado was commissioned in 1969 for the famous international festival Semana de Música Religiosa in Cuenca. Holy Week traditions have a long history of passionate observance in Spain. One can still witness public acts of mortification as the faithful try to draw closer to Christ’s suffering, in processions traditionally followed by a drum and wind instrument corps. The work depicts different views of the Passion, using the unusual forces of mezzo-soprano, three flutes, five percussionists, harp, piano, celeste, and double bass. We hear the crack of the penitent’s whip, as the singer intones the austere opening series of notes describing Christ’s suffering on the cross in the words of the sixth-century Latin poet and Catholic bishop, Venantius Fortunatus. Some lighter Caribbean-inflected rhythms briefly interrupt the aural image of the penitential procession, much as we might encounter in the chaos of a busy street in modern life. The second movement, set to the Italian text of the thirteenth-century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi, is a tenderly lilting siciliano. It conveys the laments of Mary, with the delicate colouring of piano, harp and flutes and beautiful consonant harmonies giving intimacy to her perspective. The third movement, La Vierge couronnée, with a text by the twentieth-century French poet Albert Flory, describes the twelve drops of blood drawn by the crown of thorns. This stark movement employs the pure sonorities of the three flutes and harp, which underscore the plaintive vocal writing. At one point the flutes crescendo in a flutter-tongue effect, perhaps evoking the thorns. The small forces used here form a strong contrast to the rest of the piece. Lamentación, the longest movement, is filled with imagery of Mary’s pain and her desire to join Jesus in his agony. Montsalvatge chose a text written in Castellano antiguo, or medieval Spanish, by the fifteenth-century Castilian poet and politician Iñigo de Mendoza. The processional nature of the music parallels the strophic form of the poem, suggesting the instrumental corps we might see marching. It also gives some occasional and much needed respite from the narrator’s pain, in episodes of gentle wind writing, before we are brought back to the relentless drums and ratchets of the march. The last movement takes the form of a prayer, with a text by the great thirteenth-century Catalan poet and philosopher Ramon Llull. Finally there is a ray of light and hope for the future. Montsalvatge brings together the full ensemble, choosing a text that in contrast to the others imagines Christ as a child, with the peace and hope implicit in that image. The vocal part soars joyously to the end of the piece, concluding this entire remarkable cycle on an ecstatic note.
Montsalvatge spent the greater part of his life in and around Barcelona, but collaborated closely with orchestras, conductors, festivals, and soloists throughout Spain and abroad. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Universitat Autònomo de Barcelona in 1985, and the highest forms of recognition from both the Spanish and Catalan governments, among them the Premio Reina Sofía, and the Creu de Sant Jordi. Spain’s active support of its cultural life through festivals and prizes encouraged the output of its composers, including Montsalvatge as well as the less well known Roberto Gerhard, Carlos Suriñach, Eduard Toldrà, and Frederic Mompou, composers whose work now deserves greater international recognition. Montsalvatge continued an active pace of composition until his death in 2002, receiving a steady stream of commissions and composing prolifically even during a long and difficult period of Spain’s history. Through much of his music we hear the imprint of Spain. Montsalvatge transfigured these reflections of Spanish and Catalan culture, in every case, into an eclectic and very personal musical language—the man and the place were inextricably bound together. We hope, with this recording, to bring some of these remarkably detailed and evocative pieces to a wider audience, and encourage greater exploration of his wonderful body of work.
Program / tracklist
- Folia daliniana (1995 – 14:07)
- Madrigal sobre un tema popular (El cant dels ocells, 1991 – 5:15)
- Concertino 1+13 (1975 – 12:15)
- I. Allegretto (5:00)
- II. Moderato (5:06)
- III. Moderato energico (2:05)
- Serenata a Lydia de Cadaqués (1970 – 9:33)
- Cinco invocaciones al Crucificado (1969 – 21:16)
- I. De passione Christi (4:44)
- II. Pianto della Madonna (4:20)
- III. La Vierge couronnée (2:59)
- IV. Lamentación (6:16)
- V. D’Oració de temps (2:53)
- Sasha Cooke, mezzo-aoprano
- Tim Fain, violin
- Perspectives Ensemble
- Sato Moughalian, artistic director, flute
- Wendy Sutter, cello
- Blair McMillen, piano
- James Austin Smith, oboe
- Todd Palmer, clarinet
- Monica Ellis, bassoon
- Angel Gil-Ordóñez, conductor
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