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ClassicsOnline Home » CASABLANCAS, B.: Piano Music (Maso)
By James Manheim
The Naxos label's Spanish Classics series has unearthed a good deal of highy listenable contemporary music, and with this disc of the Spanish-Catalan composer Benet Casablancas' piano music it even has commisioned a new work, the "Three Divertimenti for piano duet" with which the program opens. Casablancas' career goes back to the mid-'70s when the influence of the Second Viennese School reigned supreme. The abruptness, general avoidance of tonal centers, dense textures, and overall expressionist atmosphere of his piano music all point to the influence of the early music of Schoenberg and his compatriots, but Casablancas mixes various Iberian influences, although not specifically nationalist ones, into a distinctive synthesis. Primary among these is the proto-minimalist language of Casablancas' Catalonian contemporary Mompou; many of the sections of these works are very short, several of them under a minute in length. There are also attractive traces of Spanish Impressionism, and, increasingly often in the composer's later career, a virtuoso, often lyrical pianism. The "Triptic Infantil" (Childhood Triptych) of 2003 is more about children than for them, but this or many other pieces on the album would furnish ideal material for student recitals; the sharp contrasts between impressionistic reflection and rigorous, muscular fast sections appeal to audiences despite the general density of the material. Sample some of the shorter works such as the "Three Aphorisms" of 2003; the longer works like perversely named the "Three Bagatelles" are tougher going. That work's name has a mysterious dot in the middle of its Catalan title, unexplained by the otherwise helpful booklet notes. A pair of pianists is featured, and that works nicely; each tends to highlight different aspects of Casablancas' music. Worth the time and money, especially for pianists and their friends.
American Record Guide
Benet Casablancas is a prolific and well-respected Spanish composer born in 1956. His piano pieces are angular and fully chromatic. Allegros are capricious and brittle, often splashing notes up and down the keyboard with exuberant bravado and wit; andantes are pensive, sometimes nostalgic or misty or fanciful. The music displays integrity and careful craftsmanship, as well as the strong influence of Schoenberg and some of his Iberian followers, Roberto Gerhard in particular. As in Gerhard the emotional climate is more often extroverted and antic-sunlit rather than gloomy-avoiding the surreal, angry, or morose neuroticism of Schoenberg's more expressionist music.
The piano pieces on this very-well-played-and-recorded program date from 1976 to 2006. The earliest is Prelude and Fugue in C, included mostly to show the composer's point of departure. The Prelude is a blurry, scriabnesque wash of harmonies, the Fugue a diligent but plodding imitation of Hindemithian counterpoint. There are ten later compositions, several of them multi-movement cycles. These mature woks are much more confident in both construction and stylistic consistency. At their glittering and virtuosic best—especially the 18-minute set of Three Bagatelles from 2003 and the ten-minute 2006 Three Divertimentos (for piano four-hands)—these are impressive non-tonal compositions that exploit ringing harmonic resonances and a wide variety of figuration, dynamics, and attack with notable vivacity. I admired and enjoyed their vitality, fluency, and zestful exploitation of the piano’s rich palette of colors. Even so they sound rather old-fashioned for music written in the last two decades of the 20th Century and the beginning years of the 21st. Not much here shows familiarity with or interest in, for instance, Boulez, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Lutoslawski, Donatoni, Berio, Rzewski, and other such post-World-War II figures. Of course whether that's a defect or a virtue will depend on you. It didn't bother this listener in the slightest.
Benet Casablancas (b. 1956)
The piano has always been (and to a large extent still is), the favourite instrument of composers. The relationship that composers have with the keys of the piano (usually on a daily basis), is more intimate than the creator of music has with any other instrument. The pianist-composer nevertheless seems to be a thing of the past for it is rare these days to find composers committed exclusively by choice to solo piano music in the same way as Chopin, Schumann, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, or (in terms more relevant to the music here), Granados, Albéniz or Mompou. Yet the piano retains its attraction for many composers both as a fascinating musical entity and as an instrument representing a rich tradition and repertoire and, moreover, a treasure trove of still untapped potential.
Over recent years, Benet Casablancas, born in Sabadell, near Barcelona, has established a position as one of the most prolific and interesting composers of the present time. His secure musical and humanist education has enabled him to develop a very individual style which, though firmly based on a knowledge and love of the great classical tradition (with the Second Viennese School being one of his fundamental reference points), is open to extremely diverse influences which he is able to honour without resorting to eclectic compromises.
In the first phase of the composer’s career, his music for solo piano is represented by a relatively limited number of significant pieces. In contrast, one of the more obvious characteristics of recent works of Casablancas is the impressive quantity of piano compositions offered, as shown by the dates when pieces in the present catalogue were written. The maturity which characterizes his musical language has enabled him to achieve results influenced by the instrument’s great literature but with an increasing virtuosity in the writing and extraordinary richness of textural detail in both harmonic and polyphonic elements, subject always to the piano’s sonorities and natural dynamics as the final criteria of musical structure.
The selection offered here brings together almost all the piano works of Benet Casablancas, its earliest contribution being Preludi i fuga en do (Prelude and Fugue in C). This provides an interesting introduction to his work by presenting a very early piece which, despite the fact that it is enormously different from the composer’s mature style, demonstrates in its firm contrapuntal writing, his search for structural integrity and a concern for craftsmanship. How the musical personality of Casablancas would develop is perhaps revealed more clearly in the mild disquiet of the quasi-expressionistic Prelude rather than in the Fugue’s neoclassicism (written somewhat in the style of Hindemith). But this study in polyphony already gives us insight into a young composer setting himself unusually high standards in the service of his profession.
One of the composer’s most decisive early incursions into pianistic territory was Dues peces per a piano (Two Pieces for Piano) of 1978. Despite its brevity and the fact that theoretically it represents Casablancas’s formative period, this diptych surprises by its expressive ambition. The relationship between slow and rapid set up between the two pieces (with precedents in tradition), is complemented by the extreme contrast between the reflective lyricism of the first piece and the agitation of the second (a contrast inverted when respective central sections are compared). The cantabile intensity of the first piece gives way to a virtuosic range of complex activity in the second (and here it is possible to discern a definite affinity with the third movement of Schoenberg’s Op. 11).
After a period of time away from composing for the piano, Tres peces per a piano (Three Pieces for piano), written 1986 as a commission for the pianist Albert Nieto, represents for Casablancas one of the most significant moments in his relationship with pianistic genres. The experience he had acquired in various orchestral and chamber compositions and the increasing richness of his allusive style give way here to a magnificent triptych, with expressive content and a structural complexity which surely establish this work among the most important piano pieces that the composer has produced. The richness of the instrumental writing is generated by polyphony which is no less intricate and by a thematic treatment in which the influence of the School of Vienna is discernible. The eloquent expressiveness is entirely compatible with contrapuntal strength and with textures emerging from elaborate motivic groupings. The meditative character of the first and last pieces set in greater relief the extreme contrasts of the central movement. These contrasts (ranging from extreme agitation to an ornamental tinkling), are entirely different from the stark austerity with which the cycle ends.
In 1997 Casablancas contributed to the homage to Schubert, the bi-centenary of whose birth was celebrated in the Schubert Festival at Vilabertran that year, with Full d’àlbum (Album Leaf), subtitled Variation on a theme of F. Schubert. The theme chosen is the first subject of Impromptu in A flat major, D. 935. In the richly elaborate discourse of the piece, in itself a foretaste of the more recent pianistic style of Casablancas, the presence of the Impromptu’s melody is not merely a quotation but rather an integral motif pervading the composition’s entire harmonic and polyphonic structure.
The advent of the new century brought with it a distinct acceleration in Casablancas’s creativity for the piano. The first piece completed during this important phase was Scherzo (2000). Written in homage to the Catalan composer Josep Maria Ruera, whose Tocs de Festa is quoted briefly towards the end, this movement is the most extended of the piano works of Casablancas. His style had evolved considerably since the previous composition. The concern for stringency in the writing and a desire for formal coherence are no less evident, but the assimilated influences, integrated with enviable facility, are greatly expanded. In chordal construction, frequently formed from clusters of polytonal roots, and in the increasing preponderance of purely sonorous elements within the development, adding an intensity comparable to thematic and polyphonic aspects, can be seen a felicitous combination of central European allusions with a more southern impressionism. There are, of course, other musical influences that the composer in his own individual manner wishes to incorporate within the overall poetic design. As the title suggests, the music delights in very diverse effects, frequently of a playful kind, though guided by a fascination for pure pianistic sound. Despite the hyperactive sense of animation which dominates throughout, there are also moments of lyrical thoughtfulness.
The use of ‘Epigram’ as a title for a piece has a distinct tradition, but few composers have used this appellation quite as much as Casablancas who has applied the name to a number of his most important compositions. Set epigrames (Seven Epigrams) (2000-03) is a collection of movements highly contrasted in tempo and character and therefore, being more concise, are closer to the concept of ‘epigrammatic’ than the orchestral and chamber works of Casablancas in the same category.
Tres Bagatel•les (Three Bagatelles) (2001-03) are much more ambitious than their title might suggest, as is apparent from the fact that they are, with the exception of Scherzo, the longest three pieces for solo piano written by Casablancas. The dynamic by which they achieve effects of tension resolved by moments of quiet is demonstrated by the balance between brilliant virtuosity, especially significant in this work, and the sonorous delicacy of impressionistic inspiration.
If even in the time of Schumann it was still possible that a great composer could write ‘children’s music’, in terms of poetic expression as well as in the technical level of the pianistic writing, the subsequent evolution of musical styles has made music for children the territory of didactic specialists with very few of the most eminent creative musicians among them. Bartók’s Mikrokosmos (for pedagogy) and Mompou’s Scènes d’enfants (in expressive elements) represent two important exceptions. Tríptic infantil (A Childhood Triptych) (2001-03) is a direct and eloquent statement of the world of children as represented in the music of Casablancas. Yet his personality is perfectly recognisable in this brief triptych, the pieces suggesting the lost world of children’s melodies. The titles of the three parts of the work and many of their characteristics reveal an affinity with Scènes d’enfants and other pieces by Mompou, for his awareness of the world of childhood and popular song are an unavoidable influence on Catalan composers of subsequent generations.
The first of Tres aforismes (Three Aphorisms) was composed in 1996 but the entire work was completed only in 2003. This first piece is written for the left hand only, and presents a brief and introspective recitativo forming a central episode framed between two quiet sections. The second Aphorism, within the concept of conciseness which the title suggests, also develops a ternary structure with a restrained, almost satirical passage of imitative counterpoint as the middle movement, contrasting with the more irregular textures of the beginning and conclusion. The brevity of the third piece makes it even more appropriate for the title of ‘Aphorism’ than the others.
In 2005, the pianist Jordi Masó requested several Spanish musicians to write a small piece as an original homage to the composer Joaquim Homs (1905-2003). Casablancas’s contribution was Tombeau, based on one of the chords of Impromptu No. 6 by Homs. Repeated chords, in the manner of the monotonous rhythm of a funeral procession, establish the elegiac character of the music with varied episodes, which exploit the soft timbres of the upper register of the keyboard, as well as intensifying the overall mood of sad expressiveness in more agitated passages.
The musical genre of piano for four hands is associated with domestic music during past epochs and so one finds few examples of important works of this kind in recent times. For that reason Tre Divertimenti for piano for four hands (2006), written especially for this recording, represent an evocative and novel contribution. Even if piano for four hands has not traditionally been a vehicle for displaying virtuosity, here, in the first and last of the three pieces, brilliant passages predominate, with the kind of writing immediately characteristic of previous compositions of Casablancas, though assisted here by the resources a second pianist can offer in both manual interplay and the density of sonorous accompaniments. The provision of a larger canvas facilitates the creation of entirely distinctive harmonic aspects, a fundamental preoccupation in the composer’s recent music. In the central section, Notturno, moments of ecstatic contemplation create rich but very delicate textures. Tre Divertimenti, up till now the most recent composition among the piano pieces, demonstrate that the composer’s creativity in this field has by no means run its course. This recording, testimony to a mature and accomplished creativity, inspires us to look forward to his future compositions with keen anticipation.
English translation by Graham Wade
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CASABLANCAS, B.: Piano Music (Maso)