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ClassicsOnline Home » MONTSALVATGE, X.: Piano Music, Vol. 3 (Maso, Villalba) - Calidoscopio / 5 invocaciones al Crucificado
Xavier Montsalvatge was a major contributor to Catalonian culture in the 20th century. His works for two pianos collect most of his musical preoccupations into a single programme. The jazz-tinted Barcelona Blues reflects his “passion for the ballet”, and the Tres divertimentos his fascination with ‘Les Six’. Borrowing the sonorities of Bartók, Sum Vermis expresses the “tortured symbolism” of Jacint Verdaguer’s poetry. One of Montsalvatge’s own favourites, the rarely performed 5 Invocaciones al Crucificado evokes biblical dramatic intensity, and the self-paraphrasing Calidoscopio looks back over the composer’s own creative past. Jordi Masó’s complete recording of Montsalvatge’s solo piano music can be found on 8.570744 and 8.570756.
By James Harrington
American Record Guide
By Phillip Scott
Xavier Montsalvatge (1912–2002)
Music for Two Pianos
Xavier Montsalvatge was one of the most important composers to emerge from Catalonia in the course of the twentieth century. He studied at the Barcelona Conservatory with Francesc Costa (violin) and Lluís Millet, Enric Morera and Jaume Pahissa (composition). His 5 Canciones negras (5 Black songs) launched his international career, whose dazzling trajectory took in all genres of music, while his works were premiered by some of the greatest soloists of the age (Alicia de Larrocha, Henryk Szeryng, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Victoria de los Ángeles, Narciso Yepes and Nicanor Zabaleta, to name but a few).
In 1933, Montsalvatge saw Dyagilev’s Ballets Russes perform at the Liceu in Barcelona. Greatly impressed, he thereafter professed a lifelong “passion for the ballet”. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find twenty or so ballet scores within his catalogue (though some were left unfinished and others have been lost). Barcelona Blues (1956) was commissioned by the Juan Tena Ballet, the version for two pianos dating from 1961. In Montsalvatge’s music, especially his early works, there is a clear West Indian, or specifically Cuban, influence (as in the Cuarteto indiano or the famous 5 Canciones negras, for example). The influence of jazz is perhaps less obvious, although he was always “unconditionally enthusiastic” about such legendary artists as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
Montsalvatge wrote Calidoscopio (Kaleidoscope) in 1990 in response to a commission from the Fundación Albéniz. It represents a compendium of the various idioms he had employed throughout his long career. Given that he had once stated, with regard to his musical personality, that he possessed a “hunger for the new and a thirst for developing and learning from the past”, it seems logical enough that we find a fugato of Neo-classical bent (albeit tongue in cheek) in the central section of Calidoscopio’s opening movement, Aproximación a la fuga (Approach to the fugue). In fact, Montsalvatge is quoting himself here, since this theme also appears in a fugue in his orchestral Partita (1957) and in Selfparáfrasis, a short piece for clarinet and piano (1970). He loved outlandish titles: he once admitted that he often came up with the title first, and then the music…Calidoscopio’s second movement boasts the strange epigraph Capricho sobre la banalidad camuflada (Caprice on camouflaged banality) and is similar in tone to the naïve lyricism of Satie (beginning with an accompaniment “à la gymnopédie”). The work ends with the dazzling Collage para Albéniz: here too, Montsalvatge paraphrases his own music in the central section (a fragment from the much earlier Barcelona Blues), as well as creating a moment of quite magical beauty as he pays homage to Albéniz with a quotation from Cuba from the Suite española (it is no coincidence that Montsalvatge, who so admired Cuban music, should choose that particular piece).
In 1998, pianist Alicia de Larrocha asked Montsalvatge to write an encore for her to perform with Joaquín Achúcarro as part of a Victoria de los Ángeles tribute concert at Madrid’s Teatro de la Zarzuela. He composed the brief Homenatge (Homage), freely inspired by the Catalan folk song El cant dels ocells (Song of the birds), which De los Ángeles often sang in her recitals.
The Tres Divertimentos sobre temas de autores olvidados (Three Divertimentos on themes by forgotten composers, 1941) was one of the first works to make Montsalvatge’s name and reflects his fascination with the music of “Les Six”, in particular the polytonal experiments of Darius Milhaud. In its three pieces (a schottische, a habanera and a waltz-jota), he used melodies he had heard played by itinerant musicians (such well-known tunes that their original authors’ names have been forgotten, hence the unusual title). The second divertimento marks Montsalvatge’s first use of West Indian rhythms. In 1983, the composer himself created this version for two pianos (or piano four hands).
Sum Vermis (I am a worm) was commissioned in 1973 by Alicante’s Mediterranean Music Week. In his Papeles autobiográficos (Autobiographical Papers) Montsalvatge admits that Jacint Verdaguer’s poetry was “far removed from the literature that usually touches me, but its tortured symbolism made quite an impact on me”. The poem revels in man’s wretchedness, with just a glimmer of hope in its closing lines. “In Sum Vermis,” adds Montsalvatge, “the poet’s entire drama can be divined from a few images of pathetic masochism, of a kind of alienated elation comparable to that of the greatest mystics in Spanish literature.” In choosing his instrumentation, he took into consideration the austere setting for the première—the Castillo de Santa Bárbara in Alicante—and thus opted for a chamber ensemble whose most obvious counterpart is to be found in Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. The piece is cast in a single extended movement which Montsalvatge claimed to have composed while “bewitched by the power of Verdaguer’s words”.
The 5 invocaciones al Crucificado (Five Invocations to the Crucified Christ, 1969) grew out of a commission from the Cuenca Religious Music Week. It was one of the composer’s own favourite works—he always regretted that it was rarely performed in concert (this probably has something to do with its unusual instrumentation: voice, piano, celesta, harp, three flutes, double bass and five percussionists). Each of the invocations is in either Latin or one of the Romance languages and Montsalvatge’s musical idiom varies according to the spirit of each piece, highlighting the Catalan composer’s aesthetic eclecticism. In the programme notes for the première he wrote the following: “I felt that the music should echo the dramatic intensity of the chosen texts …and in each instance I made use of the resources and techniques that struck me as being most appropriate and most in tune with the meaning behind the poems.” The first invocation, De passione Christi (On the Passion of Christ), sets a Latin text by Venantius Fortunatus (fl. sixth century) and follows “a certain dodecaphonic rigour”, according to the composer. The second, Pianto della Madonna (The Madonna’s Lament), a lauda by the thirteenth-century Italian poet Jacopone da Todi, is a delightful sicilienne with clear tonal harmonies. La Vierge couronnée (The Virgin Crowned) is a French poem by Albert Flory (1890-1978) sung to the crystalline accompaniment of the three flutes and the harp, while Lamentatio (Lamentation) is based on a Spanish text by the fifteenth-century Franciscan poet Iñigo de Mendoza. The high point of the work as a whole, it combines the use of a twelve-tone series with the evocation of drums and the pifre—a flute-like wind instrument of fourteenth-century Germanic origin associated with the music heard during Holy Week in Girona, the composer’s native city. The final invocation is D’oració de temps (On Prayer about Time), setting a Catalan text by the thirteenth-century humanist Ramon Llull. Though the Invocaciones are not among the composer’s best-known works, they should undoubtedly be seen as among his most personal. Montsalvatge himself said that its five songs were a record of “memories of my childhood years, when the Holy Week processions through the narrow streets in my native Girona’s old town filled me with unspeakable fear; an impressive gypsy procession through the Sacromonte quarter of Granada; harrowing, heart-rending saetas heard in Murcia; and unforgettable images of Cuenca’s ancient streets and churches during Eastertide”.
English translation: Susannah Howe
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