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Hyperion Records

CDA66963 - Mompou: Piano Music
Coxcombs by Ben Moore
Reproduced by permission of the artist / Private Collection
Recording details: July 1996
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: August 1997
Total duration: 75 minutes 49 seconds


'In the hands of an imaginative pianist like Stephen Hough this other-worldly, almost eremitic [music] becomes revelatory. He catches Mompou's wistful moods to perfection' (Gramophone)

'It's a rare thing for an artist's programme notes to vie in quality with his playing. There is simply no better description of this music, nor any more persuasive, imaginative and spiritually attuned performer of it. Fascinating, hypnotic, mystical. Commended' (BBC Music Magazine)

'In his skilfully planned and superlatively played programme Stephen Hough achieves a vivid sense of contrast, of temporal and spiritual reflection. His rare empathy for such music is reflected in Hyperion's cloudless recording' (BBC Record Review)

'Pianism of a very high order indeed, backed up by a recording of beautiful limpidity. Spellbinding music, immaculately performed' (Classic CD)

'Ce CD est une parfaite introduction à une oeuvre aussi passionante que difficile à cerner. La prise de son d'une qualité exceptionelle de rondeur et de naturel' (Répertoire, France)

'A real treat … utterly compelling playing with a recording to match' (Gramophone)

'Altogether outstanding in every way' (Gramophone)

'Perhaps the most significant piano release of the year' (The Independent)

Piano Music
Energic  [1'29]
Obscur  [1'52]
Profond: Lent  [2'01]
Misteriós  [1'42]
Calma  [2'29]
Plaintif  [2'26]
Modéré  [2'34]
El Lago  [5'29]

Without a spirit of childhood in the listener, the music of the Catalan Federico Mompou can seem almost infantile. The style the composer himself calls 'primitivista' involves no bar lines, key signatures or other such paraphernalia of 'organized' composition, and at first sight owes much to Satie. However the latter's cynicism here finds expression in genuine innocence and wonder.

The titles of the four complete sets recorded here give some impression of what is to be expected: Cants Mágics, Charmes … but these titles can also be unhelpful, implying order when none is meant; the Cancións y Danzas are not part of a set as such, and the six examples here span some three decades.

All of these miniatures (the longest is under six minutes) capture a world that is at once very real (Mompou describes his 'favourite place' as being the 'solitude of all large towns') and yet somehow set at a distance from the mundane through piano writing of plain and unpretentious vision.

The music of 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 Retrouvé, 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 are poles apart in their personalities and spiritual vision. Where Satie used naivety or childishness to mock the pretentions 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 has written 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 toward 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 objects—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.

Events are the froth of things,
but my real interest is the sea. (Paul Valéry)
Federico 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 (Éditions 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 contrary 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, Fauré 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, Bartók, 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.

Tu m’appelles la Rose
dit la Rose
mais si tu savais
mon vrai nom
je m’effeuillerais
You call me the Rose
says the Rose
but if you knew
my real name
I would wither
at once
Cent phrases pour éventails (Paul Claudel; Éditions Gallimard, 1942)

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 Cancións y Danzas and six Préludes 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 Paisajes (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 Cancións 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 Bartók 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 Préludes 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 Mágics (1917) was Mompou’s first published work and is dedicated ‘A mon cher maître 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 Mágics 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 Valéry, 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’ … ‘répondez’ … ‘plus suppliant’ … ‘hésitez’ 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 Música Callada and is almost atonal in its syncopated chord-clusters accompanying a twisted melody played ‘très 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 Cancións 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 Música Callada cycle:

Cuanto más alto se sube,
Tanto menos se entendía,
Que es la tenebrosa nube
Que a la noche esclarecía;
Por eso quien la sabía
Queda siempre no sabiendo
Toda ciencia trascendiendo.
The higher he ascends
The less he understands
Because the cloud is dark
Which lit up the night;
Whoever knows this
Remains always in unknowing
Transcending all knowledge.
Stanzas concerning an ecstasy experienced in high contemplation (Collected Works of St John of the Cross: ICS, Washington D.C. 1979)

Stephen Hough ę 1997

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