Born in Girona, Spain, Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) became a major figure in the musical world of Barcelona, where he lived for most of his life. He is one of the most representative figures of what is called the "lost generation" in Spain who came of age during the Franco regime. Nonetheless, his musical output gained substantial international renown – due in large part to performances by his friends Victoria de los Angeles, Alicia de Larrocha, Montserrat Caballé and Pablo Casals – and has become an important point of reference within the contemporary music scene in Spain.
Some of Montsalvatge's most significant works were written after his discovery of the art of the Antilles. He was fascinated by West Indian music, which, as he wrote, "was itself originally Spanish, exported overseas and then re-imported into our country, and which finds a place at the periphery of our traditions as a new, vague and evocative manifestation of musical lyricism".
To commemorate the composer's centennial in 2012, an orchestral CD and a biography have appeared. On Jan. 31, 2012 Hanssler Classic released the CD "Canciones and Conciertos," containing three of Montsalvatge's finest works for soloist and orchestra: Cinco
Canciones Negras, Concerto Breve for piano and orchestra, and Poema Concertante for violin and orchestra. And Pendragon Press has published "Xavier Montsalvatge: A Musical Life in Eventful Times" by Roger Evans in its Lives in Music series.
Soloists on the CD include pianist Jenny Lin in Concerto Breve, a work championed by Alicia de Larrocha, violinist Rachel Barton Pine in the hidden gem Poema Concertante, a brief work that is both introspective and richly romantic, and mezzo Lucia Duchonova in the composer's masterpiece Cinco Canciones Negras. Celso Antunes leads the NDR Radio Philharmonie.
Cinco Canciones Negras (Five Black Songs) for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (arranged by the composer from the orignal version for mezzo and piano), sets poems from the Caribbean, including Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, and Spain; the songs are an example of the "evocative lyricism" of the West Indies. Cinco Canciones Negras has been performed and recorded over the years by artists such as Victoria de los Angeles, Teresa Berganza, and Montserrat Caballé.
Order CD from ArkivMusic.
On March 14, Pendragon Press released "Xavier Montsalvatge: A Musical Life in Eventful Times" by Roger Evans. About the biography:
"Montsalvatge's career is a rich one that is largely unknown outside the Iberian peninsula, as a lingering result of a fratricidal civil war and four decades of an isolating political regime. Its importance in enlarging the musical history of Europe is substantial, but it is at least equally important as offering a gateway to a rich historical and cultural milieu: that of Barcelona, which is increasingly taking its place as a center of the fine arts, design, and modern architecture, while the rich musical life -- distinct from but related to the better-known strands of France and Spain -- still requires introduction to much of the world; Montsalvatge's life holds interest as a story representing one man's ways of negotiating the perils and opportunities that confronted him in a period whose secrets are still being revealed. An exploration of the variety and excellence of Montsalvatge's musical output justifies this first introduction in English to the body of work of an artist and writer whose assumption of his place among the acknowledged international greats is overdue".
Order book from Pendragon Press.
Beyond the music of the Antilles, an important influence on Montsalvatge's style is neoclassicism, which first attracted him in his student days. The New York Times wrote: "Xavier Montsalvatge has pursued music more as an intimate pleasure than a public statement…the four piano pieces retreat from the grand Romantic statements of an earlier generation. [They] have an adamant modesty and share the evasive quiet and childlike simplicities of another colleague, the late Federic Mompou…There are abrupt shifts to minor chords when major ones are expected, surges of whole-tone writing, keys placed one atop the other in the French manner of the 1920's."
At the request Henryk Szeryng in 1953, Montsalvatge wrote Poema Concertante for violin and orchestra, which premiered in Barcelona. That same year the pianist Alicia de Larrocha and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Barcelona premiered Concerto Breve.
Montsalvatge has also written distinguished music about and for children, including settings of Federico García Lorca's children's poems and a "magic opera" based on the Puss-in-Boots fairy tale, El Gato con Botas. This delightful work reflects Montsalvatge's experience with ballet in its careful attention to rhythmic nuance. The first recording ot the opera, by Orquestra Simfònica Del Gran Teatre Del Liceu conducted by Antoni Ros Marbà, was nominated for a 2004 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. It was recorded on Barcelona's Columna Música label, which has undertaken an ambitious recording project of Montsalvatge's music, already having released the complete vocal works and two operas.
Montsalvatge always remained true to his early taste, writing utterly unpretentious music characterized by lyrical beauty and classical clarity. Spanish composer Francesc Taverna summed up the lyrical purity of Montsalvatge's music with this statement in 1993: "In some way, the spirit and luminosity of Mediterranean Art crystalizes, in the case of Montsalvatge, in the brightness and conciseness of his sonorous speech."
Visit the Montsalvatge Association website.