ANNIVERSARIES Composer Frederic Mompou Died 25 Years Ago

Born in Barcelona on April 16, 1893 to a Catalan lawyer and his French wife, Frederic (a.k.a. Federico) Mompou was educated in Paris. Shyness kept him from a career as a pianist, though while at the Paris Conservatory, he studied piano with Isidor Philipp, among whose teachers were Saint-Saëns and Chopin's best student, George Mathias. Though he was initially influenced by Fauré's music, by the time Mompou arrived in Paris, the Impressionists reigned supreme, and that style profoundly shaped his own compositional evolution. (For that matter, Philipp was a friend of Debussy's and often played his piano music.) After a long dry spell as a composer, and the Nazi invasion in 1941, Mompou returned to his native Catalonia (the northeastern-most region of Spain), where he lived for the rest of his long life. 

He continued to concentrate on solo piano miniatures, though he also published six song cycles, a couple of choral works, a few small guitar pieces, and a ballet in collaboration with Xavier Montsalvatge. The master miniaturist's work draws us into a distinctively intimate world, often hushed, but also featuring the gentle pealing of bells (his mother's family's business was a bell foundry). Fellow Spanish artists championed his music, especially pianist Alicia De Larrocha and singer Victoria de los Angeles; a few internationally famous non-Spanish artists also performed his music, notably Arthur Rubinstein and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. But it was left to Mompou himself to give us the first systematic recording project of his piano music, for the Spanish label Ensayo in 1974, when he was already in his early eighties. (The artwork repeated on the covers of one edition is by Frederic's older brother, painter Josep Mompou.) His performances are marked by no deficiencies in technique, fortunately, and are in their way definitive; therefore, it is those recordings I focus on here. (They could also be found in a box set on the budget label Brilliant Classics.)

Though he was not a prolific composer, by the time of his death at age 94 on June 30, 1987, Mompou had left a significant musical legacy, one that has seen a heartening revival in recent decades.

Mompou Plays Mompou (Ensayo)

This disc concentrates on Mompou's early works (1911-21), when he was influenced by Satie and wrote in pianistic epigrams (of the 34 tracks on this CD, only three exceed three minutes in length). Impressions íntimes (Intimate Impressions), Mompou's first work, starts with four laments, then paints miniature portraits of a bird, a boat, a lullaby, a secret, and a gypsy. Scènes d'enfants is a relatively lively and bright set of five pieces depicting children at play; these vivid pieces did much to bring Mompou to the attention of international performers. Pessebres (Nativity Scenes) doesn't seem specifically Christmasy but does exude wintery charm. Charmes relates to karma and magic spells. Though composed in 1920, several of its six pieces already suggest his mature style's taciturn simplicity and glowing tones. Suburbis (Suburbs) is a 1916-17 collection of five musical snapshots of scenes outside Barcelona: a guitarist playing as an old horse passes; two portraits of gypsies; a blind girl begging on the street (Prokofiev admired its harmonies); a hurdy-gurdy man. Fêtes lointaines (Distant Festivals) is a 1920 cycle of six pieces recalling long-ago celebrations. It's easy to play the notes of Mompou's music, but hard to give it the hushed specificity of mood that the composer does in these 1974 recordings.

Mompou Plays Mompou (Ensayo)

Many of the Preludes conjure a world of twilight in which Matins is being rung off in the distance, though there are some daytime scenes evoked as well, such as the cries of street vendors in II. Mompou worked on the Variations on a Theme of Chopin off and on across a span of twenty years (1938-57); it mostly develops motivic cells drawn from Chopin's Prelude No. 7, but some of the 12 variations also utilize waltz and mazurka rhythms and occasionally quote from other Chopin works, most clearly the Moderato cantabile of the Fantasie-Impromptu. Its scale, while modest by the standards of, say, Rachmaninoff, is the most epic in Mompou's piano music. The somewhat Satie-esque Three Variations (1921), by contrast, are highly concentrated and concise spin-offs from a most epigrammatic theme. Dialogues (1923) offers a pair of conversations with oneself. Souvenirs de l'exposition offers sometimes-ironical impressions of the 1937 Universal Exhibition in Paris: tables of industrial production statistics, the planetarium, and a fashion promenade.

Mompou Plays Mompou (Ensayo)

Not all of Mompou's Cançons i danses (Songs and Dances) are here: one was written for guitar, another post-dates these recordings. The first one was begun in 1918, the last one finished in 1979. Often using snippets of Catalonian folk themes and rhythms, this open-ended cycle includes some of his most-played pieces. His performance, past his 80th birthday, has occasional finger slips but surpasses most of the pianistic competition through beautiful tone (like quiet bells chiming in the distance), subtle pedaling, potent atmosphere, and gentle rhythmic verve. Mompou's considerable rubato and old-fashioned way of letting the left hand often lead the way amplify the sense that this is the most personal rendition available. The stand-alone “Cancion de cuna” is a sweeter and simpler dance, as befits a lullaby. The five pieces in Cants Magics (Magical Songs) were Mompou's first published music, written in 1917-19. Compared to his later work, it's “busier” at times, but still less dense then than most music; his debt to Satie is quite clear here. The three tone poems in Paisajes (Landscapes), from 1942, '47, and '62, display all the Impressionist mystery of his mature style.

Mompou Plays Mompou (Ensayo)

Composed in four books published in 1959, '62, '63, and '67, Musica Callada was Mompou's last major work. Its 28 pieces were inspired by a poem by Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross on music as the expression of silence. The indication "Lento" is used for 12 of them, along with "calm," "placid," "tranquil," "angelic," "simple," and similar mood-setters; the pieces are all short, a page or two. Mompou’s limpid, shimmering harmonies -- sometimes shading into near-atonality -- and great rhythmic freedom are redolent of twilight mystery, creating a unique sound-world. The sounds shimmer and float, but there are also many moments when harmonies or melodies stretch further than expected, with piquant dissonances and stark jolts. More and more, this cycle seems like the apex of Mompou's art, and in the past couple of decades at least eight pianists have recorded it. This is music in which touch is more important than playing lots of notes fast, and Mompou's touch on the piano is very special, commanding a subtly differentiated series of timbres, especially a soft bell-like tone; equally, his rhythmic sense adds a lot of details not found in the sheet music, making this recording an invaluable document.

I am certainly fond of performances by others, notably De Larrocha and, most recently, Jenny Lin's remarkable performance of Musica CalladaMy review of the latter contains not only a more in-depth look at that piece, and a survey of various recordings of it, but also further reflections on Mompou's pianism. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. Early this month he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, which can be heard here.