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Miguel Muelle
MusicWeb International, November 2008

I really like this CD. I confess that I did not know what to expect, as I am not familiar with the wider field of Catalan composers beyond Albéniz and Granados. Of the composers included in this recording, however, I only had a vague acquaintance with the names of Mompou and Montsalvatge. The CD was a wonderful surprise.

I’ll begin with the pianist, Jordi Masó. He sounds relaxed and plays with a light touch, but he also has the range of depth to express drama and emotion, without straining or reaching beyond the music. His pacing always seems appropriate to the music, never indulging in idiosyncrasies or extremes. A Catalan himself, he studied in Barcelona as well as in the Royal Academy of Music in London, earning the prestigious DipRAM. Masó arranged some pieces for piano, wrote the very informative liner notes, and it seems to me that he also made the selection of the music.

In his notes he writes that the first decades of the twentieth century was a particularly fertile and stimulating period for Catalan piano music, with enormous stylistic diversity, with links to the Romantic tradition of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, the use of nationalistic and folk themes, a growing admiration for Wagner, an affinity with the burgeoning and distinctive French music primarily of Debussy and Ravel, and I would add an opening up to the musical language of neo-classicism as well. At first I was listening for these influences, but soon I realized that I was in a sound world that eschewed preconceptions and insisted on being heard on its own merits.

That sound-world is immediately established by the dreamy and melodic initial piece, Mompou’s Cançó I Dansa No.13. Vaguely impressionistic, it presents what appears to be a nostalgic reminiscence, and then breaks into, as the name implies, a slightly ironic little dance. Along the same vein is Viñes’s En Verlaine Mineur. Harmonic, yet slightly dissonant, there’s a tenuously comfortable melody that seems to hesitate its way through the piece.

A complete change of pace, Ruera’s Tocs de Festa, Festival Fanfares, sounds like part neo-classical ballet and part march. Insistent rhythms are broken up by persistent forward motion in a very entertaining and rollicking piece.

No sooner have we gotten into the festive spirit than we languidly fall back into Xavier Montsalvatge’s Divertimento No.2. A dreamy warm afternoon Habanera dance piece which starts quite simply and melodic, becomes whimsically discordant, and then finds its way back to the simplicity of its beginning, but with a sadder tone. Beautiful. The next piece is a Mazurka of Granados. Sad and nostalgic in its minor key, at first it’s hard to identify its origins, but then it declares its Iberian blood in its flourishes, with a persistent closing phrase that seems to silence all further speculation, especially when in its last apparition it ends in a satisfying major chord.

From the tropical ease of the Habanera and the nostalgic repose of the Mazurka, we jump into a playful and humorous, almost cartoon-like, world with Joaquim Nin-Culmell’s 3 Tonadas. I kept imagining children’s animated cartoons, especially in the first “tonada”, more because of the attitude than the music itself. It is not surprising that Nin-Clmell studied with Alfred Cortot and Paul Dukas! The second tune starts off a lot like Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tears of a Clown”, which seems appropriate—or ironic, as this is a very funny little piece, especially the hilarious ending. Apparently he wrote 48 “tonadas”, and it would be interesting to hear them all, even if it may be too much of a good thing.

Again there is a change of mood when we hear Joan Massià’s El Gorg Negre, The Black Lake. Late Romantic and pictorial, this is a beautiful salon piece. We are again thrown into a whimsical world by the Polka De L’Equilibrista, the tightrope walker. The piece is unremarkable but certainly fun enough. Then comes Albéniz’s very Spanish barcarolle, Mallorca. In Masós hands this is an icon of elegance and restraint. And speaking of elegance, while still in the very Spanish music world created by Albéniz, Joaquim Malats’s Serenata Española is beautifully played and the rhythmic and melodic nuances seem to float off the keyboard. Malats was a popular virtuoso, and Albéniz actually wrote his popular suite Iberia specifically for him. One can sense the connection between these two artists, especially hearing these two pieces in sequence. Some listeners will be familiar with this serenade in its guitar version.

Ricard Lamote De Grignon’s El Convent dels Peixos, The Convent of the Fish, is a dreamy, somewhat Satie-like poem, a clear little gem. In the same vein is Ricardo Viñes’s Menuet Spectral, although it is not a miniature and has a more sophisticated form and development. Joan Massiá’s Scherzo is a true scherzo, changeable and humorous. Serra’s Cançó De Bressol, which means “Lullaby”, is sunny and reflective.

Morera’s Dansa No. 1 breaks the sleepy mood with an inventive and rhythmic composition, full of many rich and gorgeous sounds. Roberto Gerhart’s 2 Apunts, which can be translated as notes or sketches, are more firmly planted in a 20th century soundscape. They are ethereal and searching and as modern as they sound they are never dissonant. Then follows a world premiere recording of a barcarolle by Agustí Grau, Tamarit. It starts off simply but goes through many ebbs and flows, even quoting Mozarabic melodies in its central section, before gently coming ashore.

Xavier Gols’s Ametllers Florits, Al Lluny, Blossoming Almond Trees in the Distance, is another piece that seems to float, perhaps alluding to the optical illusion of distance, painting a decidedly impressionistic landscape.

The “Sardana” is a circle dance typical of Catalunya. The penultimate selection on this CD is a sardana composed by Joaquim Zamacóis. In his hands it becomes variations on a theme, going through many colors and lightings of the basic tune.

The CD began with Frederic Mompou, and it ends with his Preludi No.12. This is a good piece with which to leave the listener, as it characterizes much of what makes this a great CD. It combines melodic with impressionistic, earthy with ethereal, and has a dreamy quality shared by many other pieces, yet sounds unique and secure in its personal voice. Masó brings full circle what he started with Cançó I Dansa No.13, which leaves one sated and satisfied.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2007

During the early part of the 20th century the Catalonia region of Spain was a fertile breeding ground for composers writing for the piano, Albeniz, Granados, Gerhard and Mompou among the well-known, while Agusti Grau and Xavier Gols represent those whose existence is long forgotten. Working in conventional tonality and very much removed from the musical world surrounding them, they all had a debt to French music - particularly Ravel and Debussy - with more than a hint of Les Six in the humour of such works as Manuel Blancafort's Polka de l'quilibrista (Tightrope-walker's polka). Yet hovering in the background is the basic gentility of Chopin, each brief cameo shaped with affection, the melodic invention never overstaying its welcome. I particularly enjoyed Joan Massia's El gorg negre (The Black Pond), a score from 1924 that many of the great French impressionists would have been pleased to own, while his quirky Scherzo is a brilliant piece of keyboard writing. Strange to relate that Massia was, in fact, a solo violinist of some repute. We move nearer to a national mode with Joaquim Malats catchy tune that forms the Serenata espanola, the most forward looking score coming from Joaquim Zamacois in his 1939 Sardana, the composer little known even in Spain. Just for a fleeting moment he realised the possibilities atonality held out. I don't suppose we could have placed the music in more knowing and musical hands than those of Jordi Maso, each piece paced and played with such affection.

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