MOMPOU: Música callada – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion

by | Feb 21, 2023 | CD+DVD | 0 comments

MOMPOU: Música callada – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion CDA68362 (2/3/23) (68:40) [Distr. by PIAS]****: 

British-Australian pianist Stephen Hough (b. 1961) consistently seeks out repertory that challenges his musicianship and our cultural understanding. In this recording (22-24 October 2020), Hough explores the relatively elusive style of Spaniard Federico Mompou (1893-1987), and the cycle of 28 pieces entitled Música callada (literally “silent music”), published in four books between 1959 and 1967. The paradoxical title takes its cue from the Spanish mystic and Carmelite friar St John of the Cross (1542-1591) and his Spiritual Canticle.  The search for that ineffable moment of “silent music” and “sounding solitude’s” convergence, the union of the individual, child-like soul with God, remains the motive impelling these musical, meditative miniatures, akin in spirit to Messiaen’s “regards” of transcendent events. In these books of devotion, we hear allusions from the French composers Debussy, Satie, and Fauré, though the harmonic idiom invokes the modal audacities in Janacek.  

In his 2019 essay collection Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More, Sir Stephen wrote of Mompou:

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.

The ”Angelico” that opens Book I (1959), the longest of the four Cuadernos, proceeds in white notes, parlando style, as in a simple folk lament sets the tone. “Lent” has a darker tone, having abandoned the bell sonority for a jagged, invasive sensibility. “Placide” has a staggered, searching atmosphere, somewhere between Grieg and Debussy. “Affilito e penoso” sounds like Satie, music structured by cluster duration instead of harmonic syntax. Mompou dispenses with bar lines often, including his dispensing with the double bar to conclude, leaving a final cadence’s hovering in space, the victim of a musical mutiny. Book I proffers three “Lento” pieces, perhaps the equivalent of Bartok’s “Mesto” designation. The longest of these sets a series of bass tones against a pseudo-chorale melody, but the scalar figures that follow do not lead anywhere but implode or dissolve into middle register fragments or ruminations. “Semplice” ends almost as soon as it begins: the antiphonal bell tones over a static pedal might be leftovers from Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral. The last Lento feels minimalist in its musical means, a kind of cautious stuttering of expression.

Segundo Cuaderno (1962), a set of seven pieces, opens “Lento: Cantabile” in figures that could be attributed to minimal Stravinsky or Berg, if “singing” means something utterly private. The “Allegretto” takes a more aggressive stance, moving in repeated staccato at first and last. A dissonant Lento follows, close in spirit to Satie’s Gnossiennes. Some may find more of Ligeti in its cold, haunted atmosphere. The next piece, “Tranquillo: Très calme,” proves misleading, since it explodes with some dissonant force in the middle section. Its soft, three-beat motif returns at the end, but we have seen its dark side. “Severo: Serieux” projects a hard patina in C Minor figures that reverberate with energies post-Bartok and perhaps looking ahead to Morton Feldman. “Lento: Plaintif” projects a world of detachment, the kind of piece we find in late Liszt and late Brahms, the echoes more vibrant than the original sound. This piece plays much longer than its 2:34 indication signifies. The last of the set, the ternary “Calme,” vibrates Debussy-style, with glistening ostinatos and scalar runs, the goldfish perhaps squirming on the floor, exposed to the air as an elegy sounds their farewell.

Tercer Cuardeno (1962) is a set of five pieces, opening “Lento” once more. The movement seems martial, a reduction of the ‘Allegretto” in the Beethoven 7th Symphony. The emotional distillation evaporates any sense of epic grandeur. “Luminoso” bears a four-note “fate” motif, but its immediately loses momentum. It settles into a moody mediation in blues chords ending with a brief run and the motto rhythm. “Tranquillo” has little to add to the Satie influence we have already felt. “Calme” is the longest of the set to perform: it has a post-Brahmsian feel, a remnant from Op. 117 or its fellow intermezzi from that late period, c. 1892. The pungent, upper register dissonances soften quickly into something like that B-flat in Ravel’s Le Gibet. The brief kernels of melody return, a bit more confident here, in the last third of the piece, until the whole melts away. “Lento” provides another study in contrasting sonorities, experimenting with different touches and dynamic stresses. Angularity and bitonality, however deceptive in their simple appearance, leave us curiously disconcerted. 

Cuarto Cuardeno (1967) consists of seven pieces, beginning “Molto lento e tranquillo,” gently enough, though its descending bass line has a degree of menace. But it trails off, half a crystalline thought prematurely aborted. The next piece, marked “Calm and Clear,” sounds in dissonant, soft bells, modal and understated. The sonority resembles Ravel’s valley of bells, at least momentarily, but the mood remains grim, desolate. A happier tone in “Moderato,” which almost resembles Ravel’s famous Pavane, but the stubborn refusal to develop keeps the emotional range limited, yet oddly lyrical. The No. 25, like the preceding No. 5, has only a metric indication, but the composer calls for a “metallic” quality in the sound, here more like slow, steely, dissonant raindrops. A “Lento” follows, more modal in the manner of moody prelude by Scriabin or Rachmaninoff in an urgent, repetitive mode, like “Tears’ from his Op. 5 Suite for 2 Pianos. The penultimate “Lento molto” opens with a blurred chord of abandonment, staggered in tis procession, almost a Wagnerian allusion from Tristan but more rarified. When Hough’s piano intones lonely, individual notes or chords, the effect resembles the score for Eyes Wide Shut. This slow piece strives hard for melodic liberation, but the intrusive dissonances frustrate the journey. Last, a final “Lento” almost a Bach chorale in spirit, maybe informed by harmony from Franck as well as Scriabin. Bell tones in Debussy harmony pass by, a cautious parlando that shifts in register and dynamics. A jazz influence insinuates itself, as it had in No. 16, an improvisation on the song of the 1930s, “Sweet and Lovely.” 

The sound of Hough’s instrument, a Yamaha CFX, has been most articulate, courtesy of Recording Engineer David Hinitt and Recording Producer Rachel Smith. This is music for a specialized taste, but John Cage reminds us that persistence in listening may prove a virtue.

—Gary Lemco

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