Estados Unidos

An Overdue Welcoming from Obscurity

Margaret M. Barela (1946-2009)

viernes, 22 de junio de 2007
Nueva York, jueves, 22 de marzo de 2007. Church of the Ascension. Douglas Riva, piano. Mark Kruczek, organ. Erica Kiesewetter, violin. Voices of Ascension. Dennis Keene, conductor. Enrique Granados: Cant de les Estrelles, Poem for Piano, Organ and Voices (three choruses). "Maja and the Nightingale" from Goyescas. "Allegro de Concierto". "Romanza" for Violin and Piano. "Escena Religiosa" for Piano and Organ.
The extraordinary story leading to the first modern performance of Enrique Granados's Cant de les Estrelles (Song of the Stars), Poem for Piano, Organ and Voices (three choruses), unfolds like a thriller. Anticipation could not have been higher at New York's Church of the Ascension, when pianist Douglas Riva joined conductor Dennis Keene, his Voices of Ascension, and organist Mark Kruczek for a special occasion March 22.  Before anyone ever stepped onto the  stage, this concert already had historic significance. Ninety-six years and a few days after its 1911 premiere in Barcelona by its composer, Enrique Granados, Cant de les estrelles (Song of the Stars) for piano solo, organ and three choirs finally enjoyed its second performance ever.
 
The event held special meaning for Riva, given his role in bringing Cant de les Estrelles to light. He enjoys an international reputation as one of today's most important exponents of Granados's music. As well as having been a Granados scholar for 30 years, he prepared and documented the first critical edition of Granados's complete piano works published by Editorial Boileau in 2001. He is nearly finished recording ten CDs of all Granados's piano works for Naxos Records. Yes, Riva was highly invested.
 
Keene, regarded by knowledgeable critics as Robert Shaw's successor in the choral world, noted that interest was high well before the concert. In a November 2006 interview, he reported,  "The concert is selling really well, yet no one knows the program. There is one work that we've done before. All the rest is new. I was amazed at how beautiful Cant de les Estrelles is. It's the bona fide masterpiece of a fine composer, and such an opportunity doesn't happen often."
 
The exhilarating concert marked a felicitous beginning for the city's two-month celebration of Catalan culture sponsored by the illustrious Institut Ramon Llull (IRL). A spectacular exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art served to anchor a cornucopia of performances, symposia and literary events.
 
In the concert, Cant de les Estrelles was preceded  by elegant samples of choral and unusual instrumental works by Granados and other Catalan composers from the early twentieth century: Pau (Pablo) Casals, Enric Morera, Manuel Blancafort and Manel Oltra. Each seemed more lovely than the last, exhibiting a sweet consonance reminiscent of sacred music from the renaissance with its strictly  treated dissonances and its often chordal textures. Tiny dissonances, too modern to be found in renaissance music, hinted at their true time of composition. The choir's straight tone, without vibrato, only enhanced this stylistic throwback. My favorites were Oltra's "Eco" and "Preludio"with their gorgeous harmonies and shifting textures. Simply delicious.



Under Keene's  marvelous guidance, the Voices of Ascension had a sweet clarity and cohesion that sounded effortless. Such a pleasure to hear.

Riva performed two solo works by Granados.  The nostalgic "Maja and the Nightingale" from Goyescas was full of poetry and assurance. Riva's nerves were somewhat more apparent in the ever-challenging and  virtuosic Allegro de Concierto, as it was not as bold nor as clean as heard in one of his recordings that I've reviewed elsewhere.

Riva was joined by violinist Erica Kiesewetter for Granados's pastoral Romanza. Kiesewetter played this lovely Schumannesque miniature in high positions on the lower strings to achieve a viola-like timbre. Riva and Kiesewetter were joined by organist Kruczek in Granados's ethereal Escena Religiosa, written in memory of the wife of one of the composer's  patrons.    
 
As in the 1911 concert, Cant de les Estrelles was the crown jewel ending a program of works for chorus and for small instrumental combinations. The  expressive impact of this major work was so breathtaking, no other work could follow it.

Although influenced by a poem by Heinrich Heine, the rapturous text, according to  experts' recent best guesses, was written in Catalan by Granados himself. In it, the distant, fixed  stars sing of the infinite vastness and stillness of space, their longing for the freedom to fly, and their compassion for  man weakened by love.

An improvisatory piano solo unfolds lush harmonies to open the first third of the  fifteen-minute work. The organ, in a subsidiary role, enters, weaving around the  dark  piano part, creating a complex texture. The first choral sounds floating from the rear loft represent the stars, and come from a small three-part women's chorus -- called "white voices" in Spanish.  Two four-part choirs entering later, sing antiphonally, back and forth.

Granados plays with spatial effects, lifting the listener in a swirl of otherworldly, celestial  sound. He achieves a wistfulness by hovering over unstable, highly chromatic harmonies, only lightly passing through the  main keys to keep reorienting the listener.
The choirs and performers seemed as enchanted with the work's splendor as the audience – so loving was their delivery. It was only fitting that Riva  was the pianist  for the first modern performance, given his 30-year dedication to Granados and his music. Mining the work for its many treasures,  Riva drew attention to melodic lines, balancing harmonies beautifully for their shifting color values. His clean, sensitive playing was full of grace, subtlety, and  nuance.  

It was an extraordinary occasion marked by fine performances, and everyone there was aware of its significance.
 
The First Performance
 
As stated before, the premiere took place 96 years ago on 11 March 1911 at Barcelona's dazzling Palau de la Música Catalana, built just three years before, in 1908. As the new home for the Orfeó Català, one of Spain's leading choruses, it served as a high profile concert hall for the city's most prominent recitals and orchestral concerts

In a concert with ninety minutes worth of his own music, Granados performed two other important premieres: the four pieces in Book I of Goyescas, and Isaac Albeniz's Azulejos, completed with astonishing seamlessness at the request of Albeniz's widow. Other solo piano works on the program were Valses poéticos, Granados's transcription of a Scarlatti sonata in B-flat, and the extended showpiece Allegro concierto. Cant de les Estrelles was the only ensemble piece on the program. Impossible to be followed by another work for expressive reasons, Cant de les Estrelles concluded the concert with the composer as soloist performing with the Orfeó Català.

Granados conceived of the piece for that venue and that ensemble. For the spatial effect of antiphonal singing, the chorus was divided into three groups: two choirs of four-part mixed voices at the stage's rear opposite each other, and above near the cupola, a two-part women's choir, described in Spanish as "white voices".

The Catalan text was inspired by a poem of Heinrich Heine. Which poem remains a mystery. It was Granados's practice in his other works to acknowledge authors or librettists. With no attribution here, the best speculation of several of today's experts is that Granados wrote the text. From a unique perspective, the "white voices" speak as the stars. They are the stars: fixed, serenely eternal, yet viewing the woes of mankind from the heavens, and longing to soothe from afar.

The audience's rapturous response prompted an encore, his Danza española No. 7.
At the time, no one realized the concert's historic significance: an entire evening of Catalan (or to the world, Spanish) music with more important premieres than usual.  But the almost 44-year old Granados was aware of its importance for his career. He was presenting himself as a mature composer and artist at the peak of his development. He considered the fifteen-minute Cant de les Estrelles a major work. Certainly, Goyescas became his signature piece. Along with Albeniz's Iberia, Goyescas expresses the essence of Spanish nationalism in music.

Glorious reviews called Cant de les Estrelles "completely spiritual", of "noble inspiration", and a "triumph" of Catalan art. Granados was lauded as a musician "for all time". Despite the concert's critical success, opportunities for repeat performances of Cant de les Estrelles never arose and it was never published.  How could such an important composition fall into oblivion?

Notes on the score in Granados's hand indicate his intention to send it to G. Schirmer for publication. That never happened.

After his death in 1916, copyist scores of the choral and organ parts remained in the archives of Orfeó Català – not enough for a repeat performance. The piano score and sketches remained in the family archive until 1938.

The Spanish Civil War brought financial difficulties on the Granados family. To remedy the situation, Granados's son Víctor, self-described as mentally unstable, brought scores of four unpublished works to New York in the hopes of selling them: the piano part of Cant de les Estrelles; the orchestral score of the opera María del Carmen; incidental  music for a play, Torrijos; and Romeo y Julieta for orchestra. Conductor and publisher Nathaniel Shilkret recognized their commercial potential and paid just $300 for all four.
 
Víctor never distributed the proceeds to other members of the Granados family, though. So they repeatedly refused permission to publish or perform the works. What, then, had Shilkret actually bought -- besides headaches? One particular occasion in the 1950s brought the situation to a head. Andre Kostelanetz was to conduct a radio broadcast of at least one work, with sponsorship by Scott Toilet Tissue. The family did not want Granados's name associated with what was  an unmentionable subject in Spain's proper society. Permission denied. Shilkret offered to return the scores in exchange for a refund of the money he had paid, but the Granados family, for whatever reason, couldn't come to that agreement.
 
It was a stalemate. Shilkret was understandably frustrated with his fruitless investment.
The scores stayed in his possession, and rumors were that they were lost in a fire in one of his warehouses in 1964. The Granados family continued approaching the Shilkrets over the years, even after Shilkret's death—through pianists José Iturbi,  Alicia de Larrocha, and ultimately Riva. To no avail.

The turning point came in late 2003 after extensive exchanges of information between Granados biographer Walter Clark and Riva. When Clark approached Shilkret's daughter-in-law Barbara, he told her that as things stood, Shilkret's name would forever have to be linked with these works just before their disappearance. This struck a nerve.

To preserve Shilkret's good name, she directed Clark to call her son, Niel Shell. Within a day, Clark saw the water- and fire-damaged scores for Cant de les Estrelles and María del Carmen. Shortly thereafter, Shell discovered the orchestral score for Torrijos, but Romeo y Julieta has never been found.  Riva skillfully negotiated with the Shilkrets to return the retrieved scores to Spain.
It was fitting that Niel Shell, Shilkret's grandson, was in the audience to see his grandfather's dream come to fruition in that second performance.
 
The Cultural Context
 
The port city of Barcelona is located in Catalonia, the northeasternmost region of Spain. Catalans have a fierce sense of their own identity. They value their centuries-old cultural history, not the least of which is a written and spoken language quite distinct from other regions in Spain.

Unlike the rest of Spain, Catalonia's proximity to France and the rest of Europe made it easier to cultivate and enjoy a relatively free exchange of goods and influences with neighboring countries in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. Industry was stronger there than elsewhere in Spain, making Catalonia a wealthy region. So it was possible in Barcelona for artists to make a living solely on their creative work. That was impossible elsewhere in the country. Catalan artists, in general, seemed to look further forward and backward in time, and even to each other, for their inspiration. The atmosphere allowed for it. The results could be startlingly original, startlingly singular.

Over centuries, that openness gave Barcelona a cosmopolitan flavor.
Still, it can be a surprise to discover how many world-class Spanish artists from various disciplines were and are Catalan. The list is impressive: visual artists, Dalí, Miró, Gaudí, Picasso (Malaga-born, but early training in Barcelona); composers Albeniz, Granados, Mompou; and performers Pau Casals, Alicia de Larrocha, Victoria de Los Angeles, to name just a few.
 
The Mother Lode: A Celebration of Catalan Culture

Between 7 March and 20 May, visitors to New York are able to view a spectacular exhibit of 300  Catalan art works  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA), thanks to the collaboration of the MMA, Barcelona's  illustrious Institut Ramon Llull (IRL) and the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalonia. The exhibit is entitled Barcelona and Modernity: Gaudí to Dalí.  

As a complement to the exhibit, the March 22nd concert served as the capstone of a week's celebration of Catalan arts and culture in New York. The IRL, sponsoring the entire series of events, played a key role. According to Mary Ann Newman, the IRL's Institutional Coordinator, the Institut's mission is to promote an increased knowledge and awareness of Catalan culture. Various venues have cooperated to present Catalan theater, dance, literature, and music.
 
The Music, The Text
 
Not all Granados's music is nationalist (folk-tune based). Nor was he at the vanguard of musical developments. (Modernism was fermenting in the arts in Vienna and Paris during the century's first fifteen years. Witness some of the most forward-looking music around that time: Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in 1912, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in 1913). Granados's contemporaries in Barcelona thought of him as conservative, showing stylistic influences of earlier romantics, especially Schumann (poetic miniatures), Chopin (florid piano writing) and Wagner (ambiguous harmonies leading in unexpected directions).  He preferred their melodic and harmonic language. While Germanic composers developed their material, improvisation was more natural to Granados. So his pieces were, on average, never longer than five to seven minutes.
 
Cant de les Estrelles is nearly three times longer than his average, demonstrating the musical language described above.  It was atypical of Granados to skip acknowledging a text's author in his scores, but he did so here.  Riva and other experts suspect two particular poems by Heine were Granados's inspirational source, suggesting, perhaps, that Granados was "translating" from a German sensibility to the Catalan sensibility. Why?  Because it was the most intimate, most natural and most un-self-conscious way for Granados to express the essence of the idea he drew from Heine's poem. Otherwise why wouldn't he have set Heine's poem in the original German?    

Riva claims the piano part is not an accompaniment. Demanding virtuosity, it opens the first third of the work alone, as an improvisatory fantasy with lush harmonies. The organ has a more subsidiary role, while the three choruses are dramatic carriers of the text.
 
Keene stated that he couldn't offer the "outrageously spectacular, visually astonishing" hall that the Palau was for the premiere. But in the Church of the Ascension, he could offer acoustics so "fabulous", they are sought by other major groups for recording purposes.

Whereas the "white voices" sang from the cupola of the Palau, this time, the "seraphic, angelic" choir were in the choir loft in the rear.

It was most certainly a night to remember.

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