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(1883 - 1971)

Catalonian musician Joan Manén was described in The New York Times in 1920 as ‘an artist of fine attainments and individuality’ with ‘a tone of generous proportions and alluring quality’. Curiously, the article refers to his ‘occasional tendency to “slide” upon the fingerboard’, putting this down to an excess of sentiment in spite of the fact that such slides were, then, still a feature of many string players’ style.

Manén began piano with his father aged three and violin at five, making his violin début at seven by which time he was already giving piano recitals and conducting. Following studies with Ibarguren from thirteen he concentrated on the violin and began touring in Europe where, following his 1904 Berlin début, he became especially popular in Germany, being compared favourably with his compatriot Sarasate. He was resident in Germany until 1914.

Throughout his career, particularly in its later years, Manén was an active composer. His works include several operas (two early ones, Giovanni di Napoli and Acté, were staged in Barcelona in 1902–1903), Concierto Espagnol (dedicated to Fritz Kreisler), two symphonies, numerous transcriptions, especially of Paganini, and a completion of an early Beethoven violin concerto in C from sketches dated 1787. He also wrote an autobiography Mis Experiencias (My Experiences), and in 1958 a practical, if eccentric, book on violin playing. He was instrumental in founding the Sociedad Filarmónica de Barcelona in 1930 and paid for the establishment of a concert hall in that city.

Manén’s heavily cut 1915 recording of Wieniawski’s Légende (accompanied by a particularly miscellaneous menagerie of instruments!) reveals a cultivated musical intellect. His pure sound is sparing in vibrato. Although portamenti are in evidence they are used with careful regard to suitability and a rich, deep tone is present in spite of the limitations of acoustic recording. His performance of Sarasate’s Jota Aragonesa of the same year retains this intensity, with regular but relatively fast portamenti and notably fast G-string vibrati. By the time Manén recorded Beethoven’s Concerto in D in 1916 (the earliest recording of the work) his tone had changed a little, his vibrato becoming slower especially in high registers. The 1950 recording of his own Concerto da Camera (which, despite its title, does not really embody a neo-classical bearing) shows that he could still play to a high standard and his vibrato remains discreet. Taped at a live performance in New York, the recording quality does not do Manén justice. Even so it is curious how, especially in the first movement, his playing sounds oddly introspective. Coupled to the dramatic but rather academic style of writing it creates a rather distant effect, redeemed nonetheless by a dance-like second movement with evocations of Spanish folk melodies.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

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