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Peter Quantrill
Gramophone, August 2017

The first recording of Granados’s late masterpiece, coupled with spiritual works by Catalan composers of the next generation including Manuel Blancafort, Pablo Casals, Enrique Morera and Manuel Oltra. © 2017 Gramophone

Mona Seghatoleslami
West Virginia Public Broadcasting, December 2009

The title piece on this CD sat around unperformed or recorded since its premiere for over 100 years— I’m glad someone finally got the music and the rights to record it.  It starts out as a solo piece, then about half way through, an organ shows up, and it ends with a beautiful dreamy chorus.

Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide, November 2009

Alas, Granados chose not to publish the Cant de les Estrelles and, owing to a Kafkaesque series of events recounted in the notes, it wasn’t performed again (after the premiere on 11 March 1911] until Maestro Keene and his Voices of Ascension got hold of it for a pair of New York concerts recorded by Naxos…This is Granados as most of us have never heard him…you should also enjoy Casals’s less familiar offerings, especially his ten brief and chaste evocations of the rosary composed for the choir of the Monastery of Montserrat. There’s also a striking ‘Ave Maria’ for women’s voices by Enric Morea (1865–1942) and a pair of songs by Manuel Oltra (b. 1922) that head straight for the soul of Spain, just like the poems of Frederico Garcia Lorca that inspired them.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, September 2009

Any music-lover finding him or herself in Barcelona will surely head—before too long—for the Palau de la Música, designed at the beginning of the last century by Lluís Domènech i Montaner. One of the great monuments of Catalan modernism, it is a dazzling assemblage of the decorative arts. The moving spirit behind the creation of the Palau—a building of remarkable beauty, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997—was the city’s choral society, the Orfeó Català. The Palau, which still hosts a very impressive series of high-quality concerts, is an effective symbol of the Catalan musical tradition in general, and of the importance of choral works within that tradition. It is a tradition which has perhaps not yet received its full due beyond the borders of Catalonia—so it is a delight to encounter this American-performed collection of music by some of the finest modern composers of Catalonia. They include Granados and Blancafort—a number of works by both had their premieres in Barcelona’s Palau—and also the great cellist Casals, whose bust graces the Palau. No less than seven of the works—Morera’s El Rossinyol and Ave Maria, Blancafort’s Cant d’Amor, Oltra’s Eco and Preludio and Granados’s Escena religiosa and Cant de les estrelles—are recorded here for the first time.

The most substantial work here is Granados’s Cant de les estrelles. It is a work that has had an odd history and for a piece of such quality it is remarkable that this should be its first recorded performance. It was premiered on 11 March 1911 in the Palau de la Música at a concert devoted entirely to the music of Granados, a concert at which Goyescas and Azulejos were also premiered. It must have been quite a night. Though Cant de les estrelles was much admired it received no further performances and in 1938 the manuscripts of the work were taken to America by the composer’s son Victor, where they were sold. Legal disputes followed—in part concerned with questions about Victor’s right to sell the manuscripts. After the War the manuscripts remained in the collection of Nathaniel Shilkret and were then believed lost in a fire in 1964. Eventually, primarily through the efforts of pianist Douglas Riva and Shilkret’s son Niel Shell, the score came to light again. It has therefore had to wait almost a century for its second performance and its first recording. Cant des estrelles might be described as a piano concerto in which an organ and three choirs replace the orchestra. The piano part—fittingly played by Douglas Riva—is far more Germanic than Spanish in nature, with a general indebtedness to Schumann and Chopin and some late-Romantic chordal writing. The text is a poetic response—by an unknown author, just possibly Granados himself—to Heine. The work carries the subtitle of “poem for piano, organ and voices inspired by a poem by Heine. It isn’t a setting of a poem by Heine, but explores themes of “infinite vastness” and of the imprisonment of love in a manner that echoes texts by Heine. The resulting work is grand, even grandiose, but full of interesting detail and possessed of some genuine power. All those involved in its performance acquit themselves admirably and the work makes a considerable impact. It surely won’t have to wait another century for its next performance.

Granados is elsewhere represented by a pleasant but conventional Salve Regina of 1896; by Escena religiosa, scored for piano, violin and organ which has an elegiac, even funereal quality, and in which a moving violin line played with unforced expressiveness by Erica Kiesewetter; by Romanza, for violin and piano, a piece of sophisticated salon music, in which Riva and Kiesewetter play with sensitivity and appropriate sentiment.

The music of Pau (Pablo) Casals has always taken second place to his playing. It is good, then, to hear some pieces from what is, I believe, a relatively small output as a composer. These three choral works—it is a pity that no dates are provided, it would have been interesting to know how they fitted, chronologically speaking, into his career—were written for the male choir of the Monastery at Montserrat, near Barcelona. The music is uncomplicated, but exudes an air of Catholic piety and is often movingly beautiful.

Born in Barcelona, Enric Morera was a very important figure in the musical revival of the Catalan modernist movement. The list of his works stretches to over 800, including operas, orchestral works, symphonies, choral works, settings of Catalan folk music and much else. Too much of his work remains unexplored—especially beyond Catalonia. Such exploration will surely only be encouraged by the hearing of his two pieces included here. His Ave Maria for soprano, women’s voices and organ is a marvellous gem, a setting of real beauty in which the writing for soprano is exquisite and gets a very fine performance from Melissa Kelley. El Rossinyol is a pleasant choral arrangement of a Catalan folk-song, a genre to which Morera made a major contribution.

Manuel Blancafort’s Cant d’amor has charm and a certain harmonic unexpectedness to recommend it in its setting of a traditional text. Though pleasant, it lacks the memorability of the two compositions by Manuel Oltra which constitute two of the highlights of this very interesting disc. Oltra was born in Valencia, but his family moved to Barcelona in the year of his birth. Oltra was later to study at the Barcelona Municipal Conservatory of Music, where he went on to teach harmony, counterpoint and musical form there, from 1959 until his retirement in 1987. Such pieces of his as I have heard suggest an absolute master of the craft with a distinctive and personal voice, albeit one which seems always to suggest the Catalonian tradition. The two pieces recorded here, Eco and Preludio, come from his Tres Canciones de Amor, settings of poems by Lorca. The music and the performances are alike quite splendid and my only complaint is that we don’t have the third song which completes the set, Madrigalillo. These are pieces of magical beauty, intelligently responsive to the Lorca texts—unfortunately not provided, for copyright reasons but readily accessible elsewhere—and with a glorious sense of musical proportion and grace.

Some, perhaps all, of these pieces were recorded live in concert. But there are no distracting off-stage noises and the sound quality is excellent.

David Vernier, July 2009

This program of works by five Catalan composers, recorded at a series of New York concerts in March 2007 and performed by the excellent Voices of Ascension, will be a very satisfying discovery for fans of choral music. Several of these pieces make their world-premiere recording debut here, and in any event, except for Casals’ justly revered Nigra sum, this music is rarely encountered in concert or on disc.

Some of it, namely Casals’ Rosarium Beatae Virginis Mariae (nine brief settings of liturgical texts, from the Pater noster to three different Ave Marias—with gorgeous soprano solos by Elena Williamson in two of the latter), was never intended for concert use but rather for services at the Catalan monastery of Montserrat. These pieces are beautiful little gems, well worth repeating, that exude an ardent reverence for the texts. Alternately, Granados’ Salve Regina is a fairly routine, functional piece of late-19th-century Catholic church music—it’s certainly pretty and effective in its evocation of the text, but not particularly remarkable or musically compelling.

On the other hand, you understandably may reach for the repeat button after hearing the stunning opening to Enric Morera’s Ave Maria, with its leaping choral chords over the organ’s imposing foundation, joined by a fine soprano soloist (Melissa Kelley). The same composer’s El Rossinyol (The Nightingale), for men’s choir, recalls rustic folksong settings by Brahms or Schumann, while Manuel Blancafort’s Cant d’amor charms with its delightful tune (reminiscent of another Catalan song, La dames de Mallorca) and some occasionally adventurous harmonic treatment. Even more interesting, and for me the disc’s highlights, are the two short a cappella selections by Manuel Oltra (b. 1922), which show some real harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness—and expert choral writing—in their realization of two poems by Federico Garcia Lorca.

Granados returns with two instrumental works. Romanza, for violin & piano, in the style of Romantic light yet sophisticated parlor music, is full of pleasing melody and rich harmonies. It’s certainly easy to listen to, especially in Erica Kiesewetter’s sensitive interpretations; but at nearly six minutes it’s a bit long for its material. Escena religiosa, which involves both organ and piano as partners to the violin, is highlighted by an emotionally-wrought melodic violin passage supported by hymn-like utterances from the other instruments. My complaint here is that the violin is recorded in an oddly close perspective that subdues its natural resonance.

The "big" work here is Granados’ Cant de les estrelles (Song of the stars), which has either been lost or in legal limbo for decades. It receives its recorded premiere here—and its first performance since its debut in Barcelona in 1911. Scored for the unusual combination of piano, organ, and three choruses (which ensures a future of rare performances!), the work opens with an extended piano solo that owes much to Granados’ early roots in Schumann and Chopin. It really gets interesting when the organ enters after six minutes or so; then at eight minutes, the ethereal-sounding voices float briefly over the piano, soon returning a cappella, alternating with the instruments.

Harmonically, the music varies from simple thirds in the chorus to a sort of Wagnerian-style chromaticism to the big-chord piano outbursts of any number of late-Romantic composers. The work concludes with an extended celebration of the Cant de les estrelles itself, richly, traditionally harmonized. This is an exceptional program, full of rewarding new encounters, very respectably recorded—and especially noteworthy for Manuel Oltra’s Eco and Preludio and Granados’ often strange and wonderful Cant de les estrelles. Highly recommended!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2009

Outside of Spain the wealth of choral music from some of the nation’s famous composers is almost unknown, the present disc featuring many world première recordings. Probably the most significant discovery comes with the first performance, since his death of Granados’, of Cant de les estrelles (Song of the Stars). The composer described it as a ‘Poem for piano, organ and voices’, and in effect it is a short one-movement piano concerto from the Rachmaninov mould, with voices added in the latter part of the score. An unusual idea, but not without its attractions, the solo part well played by Douglas Riva. We know precious little of his remaining choral pieces on Catalan texts, the Salve Regina a charming if uneventful setting. I don’t see how his Romanza and Escena religiosa for violin and piano found their way into this disc, attractive though they may be. But the real gems of the disc come from the famous cellist, Pablo Casals. Written in a style that was already of yesteryear when they were composed, they come from a person dedicated to his expression of the Christian faith. The nine sections of Rosarium Beatae Virginis Mariae open the disc in reverence, but my favourite track is the simple Nigra sum, with its floating treble line. More earthy compositions appear in two short pieces by Enric Morera; a simple setting of words in Manuel Blancafort’s Cant d’amor, and I was pleased to come into contact with two very short pieces from Manuel Oltra, born in 1922, and writing in modern tonality. Sopranos in the American group, Voices of Ascension, make passable boy sopranos when required, and the ensemble in general is pleasing and live up to their high reputation.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group