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Catalan Contentment – Jeremy Siepmann interviews pianist Jordi Masó

September 16, 2011

Jordi Masó

His discography and concert repertoire speak volumes for the prodigious catholicity of his taste and the sheer versatility of his pianism. While a professional to his impeccable fingertips, Jordi Masó is a living definition of the word amateur, in its purest and most literal sense: one who loves. His capacity for enthusiasm is both inspiring and contagious, yet he is soft-spoken and reflective in speech and manner. He does not overwhelm one, does not flex his charisma; he is modest without being self-effacing; articulate without being loquacious, quietly confident with no hint of arrogance. His love of music, so manifest in his playing, is expressed, in conversation, with an almost matter-of-fact reserve. Nor did it fire him with professional ambition for a good many years.

‘That’s right. Not really until I was around 19 years old, which is very late for a pianist. I’d started studying literature as well as music, and the two ran in tandem for a time, but the point came when I just couldn’t get enough time at the piano if I wanted to go on with literature, so I just had to choose. I’d been playing the piano since I was a child, so in a way it was an obvious decision. But for much of my childhood, piano playing was just something I enjoyed, it was nothing special. When I was 13, though, I began having lessons with my first really important teacher, Josep Maria Ruera. Without him I might never have become a pianist. He taught me everything about technique. Up until then, I was almost self-taught.’

And at what stage did he find himself beginning to specialise in Spanish music? ‘Actually, that too came quite late. It really dates from when I started recording. My repertoire up to that time was the standard Mozart and Beethoven, lots of Romantic music, some 20th century music, and so on. But when I wanted to record for an international label (I was now 23, 24 years old), I thought, well, what can I do? If I record Beethoven Sonatas no one will want to hear me, but if I record something from Spain, especially something not very well known, then I might have a chance of having the CD released. So I decided to record the piano music of Roberto Gerhard. And everything flowed from there. After that, people increasingly asked me to play works by Spanish composers—Mompou, Albeniz, Granados and so on—and that was it. But only a few years earlier, I had no such plans. When I was 20, my repertoire was dominated by Liszt. I was absolutely mad about Liszt. And lots of other Romantic music—just like normal pianists!’

‘Spanish music’, so-called, is a very broad church. Is it, I wondered, really any more useful than the term ‘German music’ or ‘Italian opera’? ‘Not a lot! If you hear what’s being done in Spain today, it has nothing to do with Falla or Granados, or Soler. Maybe it’s a convenient label, useful for selling a product, but I have to admit that the term really means nothing to me.’

Yet there must be something that the major Spanish piano composers have in common? What constitutes their binding ‘Spanishness’? What, if anything, makes them a ‘school’? ‘Well almost all of them were strongly attracted by the French; harmonically, among other ways. They had this real fascination for French music—but they were all very different composers. I find it difficult to think of them as a group, actually. And each was attracted, more or less (as you’d guess), to different aspects of French music, to different composers. Albeniz, for instance, is closest to Debussy; Granados is very much more a Romantic composer, with his roots further back, and more Germanic than French—Liszt and Schumann, for instance. Meanwhile, Turina studied at the Schola Cantorum, with its anti-operatic and antiquarian leanings, and his music is also different from all the rest. I suppose the most obvious thing they share is their reference to the Spanish folk tradition. But here too they varied a lot. With Granados, for instance, that was more the exception than the rule. Yes, Goyescas was inspired by the popular music of Madrid, but he also wrote a lot of music inspired more generally by the Romantic music of the 19th century which doesn’t sound Spanish at all. And then there’s Mompou…What do we do with him? He was born in Barcelona, but his background, his music, is much more French than Spanish or Catalan, and most of it has nothing whatever to do with popular music. The Songs and Dances, one of his suites, is the only exception, in his entire output.’

Even the use of folklore, however, is elusive. For most people outside Spain, Spanish folk music means one thing: flamenco. Few have any idea of the fantastic variety of Spanish folklore. Has a familiarity with his national heritage been a help to Masó, as an interpreter? ‘Well I have to confess I’m really not that familiar with Flamenco. But I’m sure that most of the pianists who play Chopin mazurkas are not familiar with Polish folk music, let alone mazurkas in their indigenous form. I think that great music can be played straight from the score. Yes, perhaps a familiarity with the heritage can be helpful, but I completely disagree with those who claim that Spanish music can only be played really well by Spanish pianists. I mean, think of Marc André Hamelin’s Iberia for instance. It’s just amazing. Or of Jorge Luis Prats, a Mexican pianist, whom I recently heard playing Goyescas brilliantly well.’

Asked to try and generalise about the specific characteristics that most draw him to ‘Spanish music’, Masó politely, and rightly, declines. ‘Again, I can only talk about this in terms of individual composers. Albeniz, for example, was just an incredible genius, and an amazing pianist, and Iberia is a truly great piece of music. And so beautiful! Frankly, I wouldn’t mind playing just these pieces for the rest of my life. But I feel very close to Albeniz in general. With Granados, I have to say, my feelings are quite different. I love his Romantic works—the Valses poéticos, for instance—but to tell you the truth, I’m not so sure about Goyescas, which many consider the equal of Iberia, with the result that I’ve never played it completely. Perhaps when I have, I’ll have a better basis for judgement, but for the moment, I remain unconvinced. Turina is a completely different matter—a bit uneven, undeniably, but when he’s in good form he’s an absolutely brilliant composer. He wrote very effortlessly for the piano—maybe too much so, actually, because he sometimes lapsed into routine when he started composing too much. Part of the problem is that he was under such continuous pressure from the publishers to turn out new works—some of which, nevertheless, were really beautiful.’

The more or less complete outsider, here, as Masó has already noted, is Mompou. Among other distinctions is the fact that alone among the great Spanish composers he was (or has been reputed as being) an undistinguished pianist—certainly no virtuoso. ‘Mompou was a good pianist for his music, which is actually much more demanding, technically, than you might think just from hearing it. For a start, playing slow music is almost always more difficult than playing fast music—because you have to be aware of each note, every detail, every tiny inflection. But he wrote some really difficult music. The famous Song and Dance No. 6, which was recorded by Rubinstein, is a good example. There are lots of double notes, thirds and so on, and the piece has to sound very fresh and rhythmically precise. That’s definitely a difficult piece, mechanically. Another is the Variations on a theme of Chopin, which I think is one of his best pieces. Some of those variations are really tricky. There’s a myth that Mompou is easy to play because there are so few notes. I think that’s quite wrong.’

Masó’s affinity with Mompou’s music is amply evident in his playing of it. What most engages him? ‘There’s a particular kind of magic that I think is unique to him. And it feels so good; it’s so pianistic, so comfortable to play—provided you have big hands. If you have small hands you could be in trouble. And I love his particular sound world, the way he discovers and exploits the very special sonority of the instrument. A lot of this has to do with the use of the pedals, which always has to be very precise. To play his music properly you need to have as long pedals as possible. I play some of the pieces from Charmes, one of his suites, almost with one pedal—one pedal for a whole piece. Not in every case, but certainly in some of them. Another of the things I admire about Mompou is that he only wrote the kind of music he felt he ought to be writing. I like that very much. And I like the man behind it. He was very humble, very honest, and very open-minded—a musician who accepted all kinds of music. Though there’s one quite famous story. He once dared to confess that he didn’t like the music of Beethoven, which of course caused an uproar. Mompou defused the situation by adding that he didn’t think the genius Beethoven would have minded whether Mr Mompou liked his music or not!’

And what about Turina, the other Spanish composer with whom Masó’s name is most widely linked? What are his most definitive characteristics? ‘In many ways I think his early works are among the most impressive. Take Opus 2, for instance—a three-movement suite called Seville. I think these are great pieces that should be played much more often than they are. Turina writes very effectively for the piano. The great, clashing chords at the beginning of Seville are a case in point. And the music lies so well under the fingers. Where he often falters, it seems to me, is in matters of structure. You know, he was so much influenced by the Schola Cantorum, and he always tried to connect the different movements with recurring themes, like César Franck with his cyclical structures. But somehow with him that often doesn’t work so well. The pianist is faced with an uphill job to make that clear. And it’s curious, you know: the other major Spanish piano composers have all written at least one great work, which defines them and by which they’re generally known: Iberia in the case of Albeniz; Goyescas in the case of Granados; and then there’s the Fantasia Bética of Manuel de Falla (and also, of course, the Nights in the Gardens of Spain); but with Turina, you don’t have one great, definitive work. There are the Danzas fantasticas, of course, which are probably his most famous work, but these are best known in their orchestral form.’

Speaking of which, I was just on the point of asking Masó whether or not he tends to think orchestrally at the piano? ‘Certainly when I play Danzas fantasticas, but of course there I already have Turina’s own orchestration in my head—and many of the audience will too, because this is really a very popular work in Spain. But in general, yes. It’s a very fruitful approach. You always get different colours when you start thinking orchestrally.’

There’s certainly no shortage of opportunities in the works on Masó’s latest Turina release. ‘The main work there is called Jardines d’Andalusia, and the four works there are related, as the title says, to Andalusia in the south of Spain. It’s a suite of four pieces, and it’s kind of an answer to Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. And as in the Falla, we have vivid evocations of the fountains and the distinctive sounds of flamenco. And another interesting piece is the Barrio de Santa Cruz, from Turina’s first period.’

Ever since he got serious about the piano in his teens, Masó has proved himself an avid learner, nowhere more so than in the recording studio, where it has not always been an entirely comfortable experience. ‘It can be disconcerting. One of the things you learn straightaway is that the sounds you produce are not always, in the very finest degree, necessarily what you thought they were. When you hear the playback, there’s almost always some little surprise, a continuing reminder that we musicians have always to be developing our ears. And the microphone can be very cruel in a way—partly, of course, because it’s very much closer to the piano than any listener would ever naturally be, which can be something of a problem. In a concert, particularly if you’re in a very large hall, you have to project the sound; when you’re playing to a microphone your perspectives have to change. You’re now playing for listeners in a very different environment. Another challenge, without the stimulus of an audience, is to preserve the maximum possible level of freshness and spontaneity.’

And how would he ideally like to shape his future? What are his greatest unfulfilled ambitions? ‘Do you know, I’m really not very ambitious. To tell you the truth, I’d be very happy just to continue going as I am now, with concerts and some CDs. There’s still a lot of Turina to be recorded: we’re looking to a total of 13 or 14 volumes, and we’re only up to No.8. I’m really very happy as things are, and if I can keep it like that, well that’s just great.’

And if he can keep it like that, he won’t be the only one who’s happy. Not by a long chalk.

Previous releases of Turina Piano Music by Jordi Masó:

Previous releases of Mompou Piano Music by Jordi Masó:

Jordi Masó Biography & Discography

Joaquín Turina Biography & Discography

Federico Mompou Biography & Discography


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