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ClassicsOnline Home » MONTSALVATGE, X.: Sinfonía de Rèquiem / Manfred / Bric-à-brac (Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra, Pérez)
Xavier Montsalvatge’s music enriched Catalan culture throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and he remained one of Spain’s leading composers. This overview of his orchestral music begins with excerpts from his ballet Manfred, which reveal the important influence of Stravinsky. The ingenious Bric à brac is his last orchestral work, written when he was eighty-one and premièred by the forces who perform it on this recording. The mainly orchestral Simfonia de Rèquiem is one of Montsalvatge’s most important and well-known works.
Xavier Montsalvatge (1912–2002)
Manfred • Bric à brac • Simfonia de Rèquiem
Xavier Montsalvatge was one of the few Catalan composers of the early twentieth century to have developed a career in music without leaving Spain. As he himself said, “All the composers with whom I have some kind of shared experience are either older (Mompou, Toldrà, Lamote de Grignon) or younger (Mestres Quadreny, Guinjoan, Soler) than me. The rest of my generation (Nin-Culmell, Benejam, Suriñach) emigrated; very few of us stayed here: Homs, Serra and one or two others.” Of all the above-mentioned, it was Montsalvatge who achieved the most widespread international recognition as an orchestral composer, a rôle he combined with those of music critic and teacher at the Barcelona Conservatory.
Xavier Montsalvatge was born in Girona in 1912 and studied music in Barcelona, where he reacted against the Wagnerian inclinations of his teachers, leaning instead towards French music, and making several trips to Paris. His first taste of success came with the Cinco canciones negras (1946) and the Cuarteto indiano (1952), the key works of his “West Indian” style, an often ironic and perceptive synthesis of Cuban folk-music and a more contemporary aesthetic. Many of his works were given their première by artists of the highest calibre, such as pianist Alicia de Larrocha (Concierto breve, 1953) and guitarist Narciso Yepes (Metamorfosis de concierto, 1981). Montsalvatge composed three operas (El gato con botas, Una voce in off and Babel 46), twenty film soundtracks and dozens of ballet scores, choral works and chamber pieces. He was awarded many honours, notably the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, the Spanish National Music Prize, an honorary doctorate from Barcelona’s Universitat Autònoma, the city of Barcelona’s Artistic Merit Medal, the Spanish government’s Fine Arts Gold Medal of Merit, membership of the Real Academia de la Artes de San Fernando and the Tomás Luis de Victoria Ibero-American Music Prize (1999).
His music—always well received by audiences—is notable for its sincerity, for being communicative and accessible, and for combining a variety of different elements within a single score to create something new. Montsalvatge himself said, “I do not need serial techniques because I am against rigid orthodoxy, whether left- or right-wing. I admire Béla Bartók, Hindemith and, above all, Stravinsky, whom I see as the prototype composer of my time. In the contrast between consonance and dissonance, and between tonality and atonality, I look for an element that will light up my music. I believe that art should have ancestry, breeding, and be rooted in a clearly defined age. With this in mind, I try to follow my own path.” His focus on reaching out to audiences and establishing a genuine connection with them earned him considerable popularity, and his music, which takes in a wide range of genres, is still often programmed, as well as being much recorded. To quote Montsalvatge again: “I have never thought of music as being radically abstract, and still less as formulaic. Something of ourselves is inscribed in every note, every symbol we put down on paper: something of our sincerity, our intimate feelings, even of our faults, our cynicism and the lies we tell.”
The three works on this album provide a good overview of the composer’s orchestral music: Manfred (1945) is a ballet score, the Simfonía de Rèquiem (1985) is a spiritual piece, while Bric à brac (1993), his last orchestral work, features folk-inspired elements.
Even as a student, Montsalvatge was interested in dance. He went to the Liceu in Barcelona several times to see high-profile companies perform, and at the age of 22 composed his first ballet score. Years later he worked for husband-and-wife dance partners Yvonne Alexander and Paul Goubé, who introduced several new productions to the Teatro Coliseum in Barcelona, some with music by Montsalvatge. It was during one such collaboration that the composer met dancer Elena Pérez de Olaguer, whom he married in 1947. Manfred was inspired by Byron’s dramatic poem of the same name, freely adapted for the stage by Jacqueline Alexander (sister of Yvonne). The première was given on 18 April 1945, the ballet lasting around an hour. The excerpts included here reveal the rhythmic influence of Stravinsky and the orchestral textures with which Montsalvatge was working at that particular point in time.
Bric à brac
The composer’s last orchestral work (written when he was 81) was first performed by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Tenerife, conducted by Víctor Pablo Pérez, on 30 September 1993. The trinkets and trifles of the title are musically translated into four contrasting movements, each of which conjures a different atmosphere. Evocador features a free treatment of a folk-tune from the Canary Islands, “evoking” the work’s origins; Sesgado (tranquil) is suitably calm in nature; Tenso is full of rhythmic and harmonic tension; and, finally, Lúdico (playful), is a festive movement which acts as a divertimento and, with its frenetic pace, provides a real challenge for the performers.
Simfonia de Rèquiem
The Simfonia de Rèquiem is one of the central works of Montsalvatge’s catalogue. He decided to write an orchestral rather than choral piece based on the Requiem Mass. His interpretation has more to do with spirituality than religion, and reflects on the afterlife in a dreamlike, magical way, rather than with a sense of the tragic or transcendental. Death is present, of course, but is not one of the main themes, and does not in any way dictate a dark or mournful atmosphere. The work contrasts moments of grandeur with others of introspection and is notable for its expressiveness. Montsalvatge set himself the task of expressing his own innermost feelings, from the most moving to the most sublime, by orchestral means alone, emphasising his desire for hope and tranquillity. Towards the end of the score, a few (optional) words for solo soprano are included: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Amen”. Montsalvatge chose six parts of the Mass (Introitus, Kyrie, Dies irae, Agnus Dei, Lux aeterna and Libera me) and imprinted on each a feeling inspired by its original Latin text: serenity, supplication, respect, contemplation, radiance and hope. Once again, his idiom speaks directly and without artifice, and includes quotations from melodies deeply rooted in Western culture, such as that of the Dies irae chant. The Simfonia de Rèquiem was commissioned by Spain’s Culture Ministry to mark the European Year of Music (1985) and received its première on 19 September 1986 at the Alicante International Music Festival.
The members of the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya are ideal exponents of this composer, having already made several recordings of his music and performed virtually all his orchestral works (including twelve world premières) in over 300 concerts, some devoted exclusively to Montsalvatge.
David Puertas Esteve
English translation by Susannah Howe
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