Nov 15th 2019

Mompou’s quiet compositions find  their place in today’s repertoire

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

Adolf Pla is a leading Catalan pianist and an authority on the composer Frederico Mompou. His recent four-CD album comprises the complete Mompou piano works and his book El eterno recomenzar (The Eternal Restart) is in its second edition. In an extended  interview he notes a resurgence of interest in this unusual composer, “a man of few notes”, as Mompou called himself. Excerpts from the interview, conducted by Michael Johnson, follow:

 

Are we witnessing a revival of Mompou’s music 30 years after his death? Who is playing it ?

Certainly in the past couple of decades, interest in Frederico Mompou's music has intensified. But of course some of the great performers who have long included him in their recitals -- Arthur Rubinstein, Arturo Benedetti Michalengeli, Aldo Ciccolini. Catalan pianists Rosa Sabater and Alícia de Larrocha, the singers Victoria de los Ángeles and Montserrat Caballé, the guitarists Andrés Segovia and Narciso Yepes have also performed his music.  Now pianists from later generations -- Stephen Hough, Daniil Trifonov Guillaume Coppola, and especially Arcadi Volodos -- have incorporated him into their repertoire.

 

Isn’t Mompou’s own recording of his complete piano works still available?

Yes, Mompou himself recorded his complete piano works. With the help of his wife Carmen Bravo, who also was interpreter of his music, he found a wider attention. Several complete recordings of his piano music appeared, mostly in Catalonia: Miquel Farré / Antoni Besses, Josep Colom Jordi Masó. My album, Frederic Mompou: Complete Works for Piano (LMG2118) accompanied the publication of my book  El eterno recomenear, (Mompou, the eternal restart)

 

Most of the recent recordings include Mompou’s final composition, Música Callada. Is that significant? 

I think so, much because in this music Mompou reaches an absolute synthesis of his esthetics, and it was quite unknown to the public until the end of the 20th century. Now it has become the music that attracts the most interest among modern audiences. 

 

How important is Mompou in your personal repertoire? You seem to emphasize his music, with your recording of his complete piano works and your book on his life and work. 

Very important. I also have the opportunity to present concerts of works by Mompou in a visual project entitled The Sound of Light, in which I created a dialogue with the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, the great Catalan architect. This artistic work on music and architecture has helped me understand Mompou beyond the musical sphere. I wanted to know his thoughts, to read everything he wrote, to understand his attitude to life in all its contradictions. Mompou was a poet who wrote reflections such as “the wind could stroke a cheek and at the same time bury a tree”. His music expresses a kind of balance of contradiction, opposition and integration.

 

You were friendly with Mompou’s widow. What understanding and insights did you discover through that friendship?

I had the opportunity to enjoy conversations with the widow of Mompou, Mme. Carmen Bravo. She was a good pianist and especially attentive to performers of her husband's music. For me it was a privilege to know her because she shared anecdotes and details that we cannot read in any book. 

 

For example?

On a certain occasion she explained to me that after having a relationship for fifteen years, one day Carmen proposed marriage The next day they married in a ceremony absolutely improvised, without anybody, only the priest. On another occasion, both went to the burial of a young person. Carmen did not know what to say to relatives for the great misfortune. Mompou suggested “sometimes the best word is the word not said”. 

 

What do you mean by Mompou’s music being a “state of consciousness” rather than a story or discourse, as you have written?

On one occasion, in Paris, musicologist José Bruyr called at Mompou's door and asked if it was the apartment of the composer Frederico Mompou. The answer was that there was no such composer, only a musician, who was himself. Mompou was not a composer in the sense of constructing a discursive narrative. 

 

Mompou was a man of great spirituality, it seems?

Indeed. He always explained that his music was the “least composed of the world”. During his youth he became interested in philosophy and wrote his ideas about eternity, identity, unity... and a lot of metaphysical concepts. Later on, he was a reader of Spanish mystic literature of the VXI century, especially poetry of San Juan de la Cruz. This poet used the expression “Música callada” (silent music) and "soledad sonora" (sound of loneliness) in the sense of experiencing the moment of an eternal present The sonority of Mompou allows us to understand that what has meaning in his music is composed of a minimum of sounds for maximum effect. 

 

What was behind his thinking? Why this unusual attitude? 

He wanted his music to express the unity of sound and silence. As Volodos says, Mompou gives us “a bit of eternity”. In the same way that in the literary field his music resembles poetry. It is not about explaining a story. 

 

Some pianists hesitate to offer Mompou in recitals, concerned that the quietude will disappoint those who want virtuoso displays on the keyboard. Maybe this is changing?

When we play this music on stage you feel it would be easier to share it in the privacy of a small room, with a reduced audience. I think it's a kind of music that can never be to the liking of the promoters of concerts if the goal is to do business, because it has no external meaning, but internal. It is like an experience of meditation with sounds.

 

Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. 

The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself. 

--------------------------

 

A related article appeared on Facts and Arts:

New Coppola CD and interview: Celebrating miniatures

by Michael Johnson

Apr 16th 2019

 

This excerpt of the interview will appear in full in the forthcoming book “What Musicians Really Think”, due in 2020 – 30 conversations with critic Michael Johnson.

 

END

 


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