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ClassicsOnline Home » BLANCAFORT, M.: Piano Music, Vol. 4 (Villalba) - American Souvenir / Sonatina antiga / Ermita i panorama / Romanca, intermedi i marxa
The Catalan composer Manuel Blancafort believed strongly in the importance of nationalism in music and was keen to follow in the footsteps of Albéniz, Granados and Falla, but always with a Catalan bias. Most of the works on this recording belong to a prolific period of creative activity towards the end of the 1920s. Depicting a transatlantic journey to the USA, with impressions of both the ocean and life on board ship, the American Souvenir suite also includes a vivid yet tender homage to Charlie Chaplin. Inspired by the classicism of Bach and Scarlatti, the Sonatina antiga surprises with its bold harmonic writing. The impressionistic Ermita i panorama conjures up, through the development of a folk tune, the silence of twilight within the Catalan hermitage of Puiggraciós and the view of the landscape from the summit of the hill.
By Robert R. Reilly
As I listened to Manuel Blancafort's delightful Piano Music without reading the notes from the CD jacket liner, I thought: What a very pleasant example it is of French impressionism. Oops—I read the notes to discover that Blancafort (1897-1987) was an avid Catalan, whose music supposedly evokes various sites in Spain. My confused musical geography is no reason not to enjoy these refined reflections, as finely performed by Miquel Villalba on Naxos (8.557335).
By David Denton
Born in 1897 to a Spanish musical family, Manuel Blancafort found national recognition with a series of keyboard works composed in the 1920's
Born in 1897 to a Spanish musical family, Manuel Blancafort found national recognition with a series of keyboard works composed in the 1920’s. It was a pastime, his early life spent selling for the Victoria Piano-Roll Company founded by his father. That brought him into contact with music throughout Western Europe, and in particular with the young generation of composers working in Paris in the early part of the century. They were to be the influence in his early output which embraced orchestral, chamber and instrumental music. This is the fourth disc of his complete music for the keyboard, the general drift of his scores reflecting the influences of both Ravel and Debussy, the one exception being the Sonatina antiga, the work that brought international apperception when chosen for the 14th Festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music in 1936. Here he briefly falls under the spell of the Second Viennese School, the three movements coming someway towards atonality. After a brief and tuneful Pastorel·la we move to the musical pictures created by his 1923 crossing to the United States in American Souvenir. The two surviving movements depict the boat journey and his love of Charles Chaplin’s movies. Just to show that the Sonatina antiga had been a brief mental aberration, he soon after added two colourful travelogue scenes of Spanish life in Ermita i panorama. Caught up in the Spanish Civil War, the family had to leave their beloved Catalan home and move to Barcelona and start life again. The last work on the disc, Romanca, intermedi i marxa (Romance, Interlude and March), comes from that difficult periodand was completed in 1942. He turns the clock back to his Paris days, and we find Debussy and Chopin mixing with some of Rachmaninov’s long sweeping melodies. Tuneful, engaging and very commercial. None of the works set high technical hurdles, Miquel Villalba proving a persuasive advocate. One of Spain’s leading pianists, particularly attracted to music from the 20th century, he enjoys a busy concert career on both sides of the Atlantic. His sound engineer has created a most realistic quality with particular beauty in quiet passages.
Manuel Blancafort (1897-1987)
Pastorel•la • Sonatina antiga • American Souvenir • Ermita i panorama
Cavatina i diàleg • Romança, intermedi i marxa
Dedicated to J.V. Auñón, in memoriam
After a period spent travelling widely on business in both Europe and North America, Manuel Blancafort returned to his native town of La Garriga, in Catalonia, eager to devote himself anew to composition. Thus began one of the most prolific phases of his life. Between 1927 and 1931, he fulfilled his long-held ambition to write full-scale symphonic works, with Matí de festa a Puiggraciós (Festive Morning in Puiggraciós) and the ballet El rapte de les sabines (The Rape of the Sabine Women). He also orchestrated some numbers from his piano work El parc d’atraccions (The Funfair), and ventured into the realm of stage music with a zarzuela, La falç al puny (With sickle in hand). A number of Blancafort’s songs and most of the piano works on this recording date from this period as well, although the composer remained very much involved with the family pianola roll business, which at the time was experiencing an unprecedented boom.
This burst of creative activity was reflected in his personal life: during the same period his wife Helena gave birth to four more children, bringing the size of their family to eight. Then in 1929 he gave a controversial interview to the newspaper La noche, in which he declared, “The first duty of modern Catalan music is to distance itself from Wagner”. In the prevailing climate of fervent Wagnerianism, this scandalous statement cast him as an enfant terrible of the music scene, but also won him a number of supporters, some of whom would go on to form a group known as the CIC (Independent Composers of Catalonia). The CIC underwent a lengthy gestation period, beginning in late 1927 and culminating in June 1931 in what would be the only joint concert its members ever gave. They were the key Catalan composers of the day: Joan Gibert-Camins, Ricard Lamote de Grignon, Baltasar Samper, Eduard Toldrà, Frederic Mompou, Manuel Blancafort, Agustí Grau and Robert Gerhard. Despite their aesthetic differences, they were united by the idea of creating music whose roots were firmly planted in Catalan tradition, and by the desire to make an international name for their generation. Although the CIC was not destined to last long, breaking up soon after that one and only concert, its composers played a crucial part in developing Catalan music, a process which was soon to be boosted further with the establishment of Spain’s Second Republic (1931-36). This brief period of cultural and political progress saw the resurgence of claims for greater autonomy from the various historically selfgoverning regions of Spain (echoing nationalist movements elsewhere in Europe), and Catalonia was granted its Statute of Autonomy in 1932.
The city of Barcelona was at this time gaining an international profile, playing host to the 1929 World Fair, which went ahead despite the Wall Street Crash and all that followed. In April 1936, the 14th Festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) and the 3rd International Musicology Congress were held there. The Festival (which featured the world premiere of Berg’s Violin Concerto, dedicated “to the memory of an angel”), would prove to be one of the most important events in Manuel Blancafort’s musical career, for its international jury, whose members included Ernest Ansermet and Anton Webern, selected his Sonatina antiga for the official programme, alongside works by Walter Piston, Egon Wellesz, Benjamin Britten and Béla Bartók.
Pastorel·la (Pastorale) was written in response to various requests to compose something for the violin. An original version for piano solo, unpublished, developed into a violin and piano version premiered by Francesc Costa, to whom it was also dedicated. Blancafort’s later reworking of the piece for string orchestra became a worldwide success. It opens with a broad introduction, restless and even sorrowful in nature. This leads into the pastoral melody that gives the piece its title – this theme is repeated and the work ends with echoes of the introduction and a simple coda.
While on board ship for North America in 1923, Blancafort kept a travel journal. His writings reveal a previously unknown talent for lyrical and at times sardonic observation. He also made various musical notes which would later form the basis of his American Souvenir suite. Of its three numbers, two survive in their original piano version, while the ragtime Discontinuous Melody only exists now in an orchestral version. Transatlàntic en ruta (Liner at sea) is a depiction of his crossing to the USA on the British super-liner RMS Mauretania, and conjures up the contrasting impressions of the calm and solitude of the ocean with its beautiful sunsets, and the hubbub of life on board ship, “where all is hustle and bustle, laughter and raised voices, to a constant accompaniment of American dance rhythms”. The majestic chords of the first theme evoke the slow progress of the ship across the ocean, while jazz and cabaret tunes can be heard drifting up to the deck through a door left ajar. A second, more sinuous theme, featuring triplets and syncopation, portrays the immensity of the open sea before leading into episodes in which carefree melodies alternate with more nostalgic music. This dialogue between the on-board tumult and the natural sounds of the ocean ends with a solemn coda of shimmering iridescence. Similarly descriptive is the Homenatge a Chaplin (Homage to Chaplin): Blancafort was a great fan of the film star and here embodies in music his multifaceted talents, alternating between delusions of grandeur and the inevitable disappointments, between rib-tickling humour and sentimental tenderness. This truly vivid musical portrait even ends with a final characteristic twirl!
Composed in 1929, the Sonatina antiga took as its model similar “backward-looking” works by composers such as Ravel and Stravinsky, the idea being to become reacquainted with older forms of music and then reinvent them: “I wanted to use an ancient mould to create something new,” said Blancafort. Inspired by the Classicism of Bach and Scarlatti, and far removed from the composer’s usual style, the sonatina takes us by surprise with its bold harmonic writing and its formal breadth and rigour. Exercici (Exercise) recalls the technical practice of scales, arpeggios and contrapuntal studies, and is characterised by an abundant use of polytonality and by unexpected modulations. The spirit of Bach hangs over Recreació (Recreation), but paying tribute to such an illustrious predecessor does not prevent Blancafort from introducing some unexpected harmonic asperities. These two outer movements, remarkable exercises in pure, cerebral music, frame the jewel-like Tendresa (Tenderness). Its wonderfully lyrical melody gently unfolds, affettuoso, with no hint of turmoil or desperation. Blancafort’s own affection for this theme led him to rework it later into Cavatina i diàleg (Cavatina and Dialogue), in which he presents it in its simplest form and develops it in more dialectic fashion.
The composer never repeated this foray into Neoclassicism, and the pianistic diptych that appeared soon afterwards would seem to suggest it had never happened. Ermita i panorama (Hermitage and Panorama) is played through without a break; its opening melody, borrowed from an earlier work (see Cançó en l’ermita, vol.1, Naxos 8.557332), conjures up the silence of twilight and the semidarkness within the hermitage of Puiggraciós, which stands on a hill close to La Garriga. In the central section, the colours of the place and its surrounds are introduced by means of a folk tune, simply presented and then developed to make full use of the pianistic resources. In contrast to the intimate, dense nature of Ermita, Panorama depicts the exultant vitality inspired by the view from the summit of the landscape bathed in light. An opening dance-like theme alternates with a second, more agitated in character, and this in turn contrasts with a third very brief and “molto tranquillo” theme which allows us to catch our breath before the abandonment and virtuosity of the finale.
At the end of the Civil War, the Blancafort family had to move to Barcelona to face up to the new realities of life as best they could. Although there were now even more calls on his time, the composer managed to set aside some precious moments for creative activity in the sanctuary he had created in his new home, and there he wrote Romança, intermedi i marxa (Romance, Interlude and March). Romança is based on two themes full of sentiment, one calm, the other more energetic, both written in the style of an Italian serenata and suitable, as Blancafort noted, for singing “beneath a Venetian window”. Intermedi, meanwhile, juggles two elements: an innocent children’s song and a short four-part chorale. Having been introduced pianissimo, both themes are developed and gather speed until they reach a dazzling climax. The original simplicity then returns before the work ends with a majestic coda. Marxa recreates a scene witnessed by Blancafort himself, which he described thus: “A common tramp arrived in a village. Battered and dirty, he took a shiny silver flute from his bundle. As soon as he started to play, the villagers gathered round him but his absurd performance provoked only shouts and laughter. Suddenly, he lifted his hand and with an imperious gesture demanded silence. Gazing into the distance, he played the sweetest of melodies in 3/4 time, and his spellbound audience filled his cap to bursting-point with coins.”
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