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Neil Horner
MusicWeb International

"Another winner from the Naxos Spanish Classics which is threatening to rival that label's American and British series in terms of indispensability. This is the first in a projected sequence of piano music by the hitherto rarely encountered Catalan composer Manuel Blancafort and, like the best of the series so far, Rodrigo of course excepted, the music herein owes little to the traditional Spanish axis of Albeniz, Granados etc. French impressionism in general and Ravel, himself half-Basque, in particular are in the mix, as is Blancafort's friend and Catalan contemporary the great Federico Mompou. The music is quite individual though for the age at which the composer wrote it - the latest included here when he was just 23! Mompou is not a bad reference point though, although this is slightly less austere or introverted, a little warmer, more romantic but definitely not florid. It does often share with Mompou though, a clarity, simplicity and dignified air of controlled melancholy/nostalgia. I was also even reminded at times, perhaps for the strong use of song/folk-based motifs, of the piano works of Janacek, Tveitt and Moeran, none of whom one would really associate with Spain!

The seven Youthful Pieces form an effective introduction to the idiom described above and, from this opening section onwards, I don't recall a single track (and there are 37 of them!) which didn't interest me in one way or another. Many of them did a great deal more. The nine Mountain Songs, Blancafort's Songs Without Words, if you like, show the composer's affinities with nature. We hear of lullabies, snowfalls and sunsets but there is not a note too many, not a hint of bombast or tweeness. The juxtaposition of meditative and exuberant music, even in the same track is highly reminiscent of Mompou in his superb Cancons y Danzas set. The title Notes from Years Gone By should be self explanatory - according to pianist Miquel Villalba's highly informative notes some of these pieces "anticipate the Nocturns of 20 years later" in their youthful maturity. Admirers of Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin will love this suite, although some of the slower pieces suggest Debussy more - try La lluna brilla. The closing Tema popular, based on a traditional Catalan song, leads us fittingly into the latest and last suite on the CD, the 12 Cancons, many of which are, unsurprisingly, given the title, also of similar provenance. Like much of the music recorded here, themes tend to relate to solitude, nature and also childhood, so we hear "about" a hermitage, a shepherd boy and twilight. Nine of the thirteen tracks are unpublished - there are thirteen because two versions of one of the "songs" are included - but listening quality of these short but concentrated essays it is astonishing that they have remained that way for so long. Naxos and Miquel Villalba should be congratulated on producing an excellent recording of a great performance of some beautiful music that has gone unheard outside its native region for far too long. I'd go as far to say that this is an essential purchase for anyone interested in twentieth century piano music. A really wonderful disc, another top three of 2003 contender!"

Jed Distler

"Pianist Miquel Villalba's pearly, singing tone and sensitive musicianship are all you could wish for. Listen to how he caresses the lilting melodies throughout the 12 Cancons (based on traditional Catalan tunes), or how he gently underlines harmonic felicities with the subtlest change of color or accent. Tempos seem right on the money, neither too fast nor too slow. Villalba's informative and knowledgeable annotations attain similar perfection away from the piano. The engineering is acceptable but could have used a touch more ambient luster and bloom. In short, this is a perfect disc to accompany a rainy afternoon or a lazy weekend morning."

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