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Frederic Mompou – Cançó No. VI (from Cançons i Danses – Chansons et Danses) played by Michelangeli

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Frederic Mompou – Cançó No. VI (from Cançons i Danses – Chansons et Danses) played by Michelangeli

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The Music of Mompou

THE MUSIC OF FREDERIC MOMPOU i DENCAUSSE (or also know as Federico Mompou) is the music of evaporation. The printed page seems to have faded, as if the bar lines, time signatures, key signatures, and even the notes themselves have disappeared over a timeless number of years. There is no development of material, little counterpoint, no drama nor climaxes to speak of; and this simplicity of expression – elusive, evasive and shy – is strangely disarming. There is nowhere for the sophisticate to hide with Mompou. We are in a glasshouse, and the resulting transparency is unnerving, for it creates a reflection in which our face and soul can be seen.

When asked once how to play his music the composer replied, ‘It’s all so free’. Indeed it is, but not just free from rhythmic constraints and structural rules; it is free from affectation, posing, fashions and fads, and has the ecstatic liberty of childhood. ‘Unless you become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:3); and without a spirit of childhood in the listener Mompou’s ‘kingdom’ is closed and some of his music can seem almost infantile.

Such is the innocence of Mompou’s world that Wilfrid Mellers (in his book on the composer, Le Jardin Retrouve, Fairfax Press, York) has compared it to a return to Paradise before the Fall. The composer himself called his style ‘primitivista’, referring to its lack of bar lines and key signatures, yet it entirely lacks the pulsating passion which we tend to associate with the label ‘primitive’ – the leering masks, the gyrating dances, and indeed the mesmeric music of primeval cultures.

Where these have tended to see life beginning after some initiation ceremony – a coming of age – in Mompou we see rather a wisdom in childhood itself which should be cherished and protected. The composer’s muse begins and ends with innocence as a search for air beyond the smoke of experience.

There are numerous influences discernible in Mompou’s music – Chopin, Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin, plainsong, folk music and jazz (its harmonies rather than its rhythms) – and he was accepted by his contemporaries in Paris, Les Six, as a sort of honorary member (making an unofficial ‘baker’s half-dozen’). But his principal and fundamental stylistic ancestor, along with a whole generation of French composers, was the eccentric iconoclast Erik Satie.

In spite of Mompou’s enormous debt to Satie in so many formal and musical ways, however, the two composers ar poles apart in their personalities and spiritual vision. Where Satie used naivety or childishness to mock the pretensions and pomposity of adulthood, Mompou rather took the insights of maturity to rediscover the magic of childhood. Satie’s smile has a knowing look, his eyes narrowing into cynicism; Mompou’s eyes are wide open, sparkling like a child’s, and his smile has all the surprise and enthralment of Creation itself.

This sense of wonder is crucial to an understanding of Mompou’s style. (The philosopher Gabriel Marcel haswritten of ‘wonder as the beginning of all philosophy’.) It is as if he manages to capture the very perfume of a chord, for he is there early in the morning when the first bud opens. His reverence for harmony comes from the humble realization that its beauty exists outside of his decision to include it. Where Satie’s world tends towards a whimsical and sad isolation, Mompou is content to be alone precisely because of his absence of self-regard – his humility, paradoxically, enables him to write with a supreme confidence and assurance.

Whilst it would be impossible to claim that Mompou was one of the ‘great’ composers, it is equally impossible to classify him as second-rate – his voice is too distinct, his output too fastidious, his artistic intentions too perfectly achieved. Second rank is for those who aim for certain heights and fail to achieve them.

In the light of Artur Schnabel’s quaint yet charming generalization, ‘Mozart is a garden; Schubert is a forest – in sunlight and shadow; Beethoven is a mountain range’, perhaps Mompou is a window box. He is inside the room looking out, with the glass partly clear and partly stained. Indeed there is always an element of distance in Mompou between subject and object – the children’s games, the singing and dancing are seen and heard from the next street; and his music thrives indoors in the city, not in the sultry southern sun of Moorish Spain.

Frederic Mompou was born in Barcelona on 16 April 1893. His mother was French and his father Catalan, and he began musical studies as a child at the Liceo Conservatory in his native city. In 1911 he travelled to Paris to study piano with Isidore Philipp and Ferdinand Motte-Lacroix, and composition with Marcel Samuel-Rousseau. At the outbreak of the First World War he returned to Barcelona for a period of seven years and began composing in earnest – several pieces on this disc date from these years. In 1921 he moved back to Paris, living there until his return to Barcelona in 1941, where he remained until his death in June 1987.

In interviews published in Roger Prevel’s book, La Musique et Federico Mompou (Editions Ariana, Geneva, 1976), the composer revealed some fascinating aspects of his character which give us a glimpse into his personality more than any commentary could:

What are Your preferred places or cities?

The solitude of all large towns. Barcelona and Paris where my dearest memories are preserved.

What are your favourite pastimes?

Contemplation. Meditation. The cinema.

What is your main defect?

Probably the one I’m unaware of [ … ] I would say that I have too little sensitivity for the physical sufferings of others [ … ] On the other hand I share to excess in the spiritual sufferings of others.

Which qualities do you prefer in a person?

Naturalness, sincerity, authenticity.

Which are your favourite composers?

Almost all, with the exception of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Which discs would you take to a desert island?

Works of Chopin, of Scriabin. Some songs of Schubert, Schumann, Faure and Poulenc.

Which paintings?

El Greco, Vermeer.

Mompou also talks of a growing appreciation for certain composers he did not like at first: later Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok Berg and Webern (although he made the point that he considered the dogmas of the twelve-note system as such to be a useless hindrance to creative freedom). He did however have an interest in electronic music, which is perhaps surprising in the composer who, earlier in this interview, had declared, ‘… Without my piano, I can do nothing. I absolutely need contact with its ivory keys’.

This bond with the piano is significant, for Mompou was a great pianist (he was a virtuoso of tonal colour and rubato) and when we play his piano music we have to have this same affection for the instrument, grasping the chords, firmly or caressingly, as if we are taking the hands of a dear friend in a warm embrace.

It is difficult, and doubly redundant, to discuss the individual pieces of Mompou in great detail the notes are too simple and the soul too complex for conventional analysis. The musical notes are few because the chaff has blown away; and it is as futile to try to see shadows by shining a light on them as it is perverse to try to turn, a fine wine back into grape juice. It is precisely in the mist beyond the boundary of perception that we begin to see the invisible, to hear the inaudible. With the gentle guidance of the composer we can touch this enchanted world, but we cannot grasp it.

This recital focuses on the four sets of pieces written between 1917 and 1923 and explores the obscure and mystical world which is at the centre of Mompou’s output and language. The ‘sandwich’ sequence is not so much designed to present a varied selection of the composer’s music as to give these mysterious works space to breathe, to ‘exist’. The six Cançons i Danses and six Preludes are pieces of a more obvious expressiveness and melodic design and act like frames around the other works, highlighting their bizarre character, and allowing the aural palate to stay clean and receptive. I have included the later cycle Paissages (composed between 1942 and 1960) as it inhabits the same world and is a bridge between the early sets and the Música Callada cycle (‘Music of Silence’), his major piano work in four books written between 1959 and 1967.

Mompou wrote thirteen Cançons i Danses (or Canciones y Danzas) for piano between 1921 and 1979 (plus one for guitar in 1972) and they are a richly varied collection. He described the idea behind this form as ‘a contrast between lyricism and rhythm, to avoid a collection of songs and another of dances, and also due to a natural logical coincidence with a form adopted by many composers’.

He goes on to cite Liszt and Bartok in their Rhapsodies, although Mompou’s ‘gypsies’ have considerably less of a swagger; these songs come from a more refined voice, and the dance steps are graceful and poised. In fact Wilfrid Mellers insightfully points out a certain affinity to Chopin’s Mazurkas, not least in the wistful nostalgia for home which both composers felt living as exiles in Paris.

The eleven Preludes were written between 1927 and 1960 and typically show the sweeter side of Mompou’s harmonic language. Notable amongst them are No 1, originally entitled by the composer ‘A window with light’ and marked in the score ‘Dans le style romance’, and No 6, for the left hand alone and one of the composer’s most unique and profound pieces – tender and private, passionate yet chaste.

Cants Magics (1917) was Mompou’s first published work and is dedicated ‘A mon cher maitre F. Motte-Lacroix’. These are ‘songs’ in the loosest, or perhaps ‘most primitive’, sense of the word (‘incantations’, Mellers calls them, describing the vocal lines as ‘pre-melodic’), and the marking ‘Obscur’ at the top of No 2 has surely never seemed more apt. These spells frighten us not through their malevolence, but because we are transported to an unknown, prehistoric world. Here is Mompou’s most deliberate rejection of the cerebral complexity in much artistic thought of the period.

Charmes (1920/1) continues in the musical dialect of Cants Magics but now strange signposts head each piece to illuminate our path of perception – although these mottos are more like the light of flickering candles in their obscurity. They are literally ‘spells’ which are conjured up for specific purposes: ‘to alleviate suffering’ … ‘to penetrate the soul’ … ‘to inspire love’ … ‘to effect a cure’ … ‘to evoke an image of the past’ … ‘to call up joy’. According to Antonio Inglesias, the composer had not yet met the poet Paul Valery and did not know his poems of the same name, although these latter were published around the same time.

Trois Variations (1921), in spite of the abstract- sounding title, belongs to the same family as the other cycles. After a ‘one-finger’ theme there follow three contrasting variations – ‘The Soldiers’, ‘Courtesy’ and ‘Nocturne’ – which are like a miniature anthology of the three musical styles of Mompou: the first is in his typical naive, primitive style, with its echoes of Satie – these are children dressed as soldiers, not fighting men; the second is a suavely seductive waltz which folds the theme in a succulently rich harmonic sauce – a reminder, perhaps, that Poulenc was a neighbour in Paris; and the third variation (originally called ‘The Toad’ and later ‘The Frog’ for some unknown reason) is akin to the mystical pieces, with its gentle, undulating accompaniment weaving a magic carpet of sound beneath the trance-transformed theme.

In the two Dialogues (1923) the keyboard textures are more complex and decorative, and the mood is a little less solitary and interior – there is an attempt at conversation, if only with oneself. The score is filled with Satiesque asides – ‘expliquez’ … ‘questionnez’ … repondez ‘plus suppliant’ … hesitez’ and even, in the second piece, ‘donnez des excuses’. The Dialogues are rather atypical of Mompou’s style in their keyboard writing and in the slightly self-conscious wit of the score’s extra-musical indications. But they come at a point of transition for the composer, the end of an eremitic path which, some twenty years later, he would return to with the composition of Paisajes, written for the pianist Carmen Bravo whom he had recently met and who was to become his wife.

The first two pieces of Paisajes (‘Landscapes’) were composed in 1942 and 1947 respectively and they are among the most visionary and distilled of Mompou’s entire output; the third piece was a later addition in 1960. ‘The Fountain and the Bell’ was written when Mompou had just returned to Barcelona after a twenty-year exile and it was inspired by a courtyard in the Gothic Quarter of the city near the cathedral.

However, this piece is not concerned with prosaic description as such – there are no water effects and only a solitary, muffled bell. Rather his interest is with the essence of fountains and bells: in philosophical terms, the substance not the accidents. Similarly in ‘The Lake’ (inspired by Barcelona’s Montjuic Park) he is removed from the ‘blueness’, ‘wetness’, ‘stillness’ or ‘storminess’ of the object; rather it is its ‘waterness’ which interests him. A bell is not so much one metal dome, ringing with vibration, but rather every bell ever rung – wedding, funeral, sanctuary, or cow – with all their smiles and tears.

Furthermore it is that sense of distance again, of memory; we look past the lake, and it is the breath of the wind which has carried the bell to our ears. Bells are one of the principal ‘presences’ in Mompou’s music (his grandfather had a bell foundry which the composer must have frequented as a young boy); yet they are not so much a call to prayer, as a prayer itself – an abstract orison celebrating a sacredness in the very quiver of the metal.

The third piece in the set, ‘Carts of Galicia’, is contemporary with the first book of Musica Callada and is almost atonal in its syncopated chord-clusters accompanying a twisted melody played ‘tres lointain’. It is an experimental piece, a prototype for Mompou’s late style, and although his journey in search of a purer language may seem rather strained here (we are far from the unaffected lyricism of the Cancions y Danzas), there remains an integrity and a powerful sense of striving, of refining, which calls to mind a poem of St John of the Cross, whose writings were the inspiration for the Musica Callada cycle:

Stanzas concerning an ecstasy experienced in high contemplation

(Collected Works of St John of the Cross: ICS, Washington D.C. 1979)

Biography of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995)

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (5 January 1920 – 12 June 1995) was a virtuoso Italian classical pianist. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, as well as one of the most important Italian pianists along with Ferruccio Busoni and Maurizio Pollini.

Born in Brescia, Italy, he began music lessons at the age of three, initially with the violin, but quickly switched to the piano. At ten he entered the Milan Conservatory. In 1938, at age eighteen, he began his international career by entering the Ysaÿe International Festival in Brussels, Belgium, where he was placed seventh (a brief account of this competition, at which Emil Gilels took first prize, is given by Arthur Rubinstein, who was one of the judges.

According to Rubinstein, Michelangeli gave “an unsatisfactory performance, but already showed his impeccable technique”). A year later he earned first prize in the Geneva International Competition where he was acclaimed as “a new Liszt” by pianist Alfred Cortot, a member of the judging panel, which was presided over by Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

The music critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote of Michelangeli:

His fingers can no more hit a wrong note or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired…The puzzling part about Michelangeli is that in many pieces of the romantic repertoire he seems unsure of himself emotionally, and his otherwise direct playing is then laden with expressive devices that disturb the musical flow.

On the other hand, the Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache always saw in Michelangeli a colleague, and not merely another competent pianist: “Michelangeli makes colors; he is a conductor.” The teacher and commentator David Dubal argued that he was best in the earlier works of Beethoven and seemed insecure in Chopin, but that he was “demonic” in such works as the BachBusoni Chaconne and the Brahms Paganini Variations.

His repertoire was strikingly small for a concert pianist of such stature. Owing to his obsessive perfectionism relatively few recordings were officially released during Michelangeli’s lifetime, but these are augmented by numerous bootleg recordings of live performances. Discographical highlights include the (authorized) live performances in London of Ravel‘s Gaspard de la nuit, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, Schumann‘s Carnaval, Op. 9 and Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26 as well as various recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Totentanz, and the piano concertos of Robert Schumann and Edvard Grieg.

In addition, his playing of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and Gaspard de la nuit set standards for those works. His reading of Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 4 is comparable to that of Rachmaninoff himself. His Debussy series for DG is something of a benchmark, even if it is sometimes accused of being a little unatmospheric (“swimming in cool water,” in Dubal’s words). He is also credited with the rediscovery of some works of Catalan composer Federico Mompou.

As a composer, Michelangeli wrote 19 Folksongs a cappella for the SAT men’s chorus from Trent (Italy). As a teacher, his pupils included such world-class artists as Martha Argerich, Ivan Moravec, and Maurizio Pollini.

On September 20, 1943 Michelangeli married Giuliana Guidetti, whom he had met in Brescia, and who had later been a pupil of his. She was a valued counselor and secretary to her husband. She lived quietly, sharing time together at their villa in Bornato, near Brescia, or in Bolzano or Arezzo, and almost never appeared in public together with her husband, so that nearly nobody knew that Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was married.

From 1970 on, his secretary Marie-José Gros-Dubois, twenty years younger than he, was faithfully near his side.

Michelangeli reputedly did not enjoy giving concerts. His wife, Giuliana, was his agent. She organized concerts and dates for him, and also presided over his financial affairs. In a recent interview, she remembered that her husband could not believe that his concerts were worth so much money. After a concert, she reported that he gloomily said: “You see, so much applause, so much public. Then, in half an hour, you feel alone more than before.”

Michelangeli was a great connoisseur of the mechanics of the piano, and he insisted that his concert instruments be in perfect condition. His last concert took place on 7 May 1993 in Hamburg, Germany. After an extended illness he died in Lugano, Switzerland.

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