Federico Mompou: Música Callada (ECM New Series 1523)

Federico Mompou
Música Callada

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded August 1993, Festburgkirche Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The calm night
Announcing the advent of the dawn,
The silent music,
The sounding solitude,
The dinner that delights and enamors.
–Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695)

Federico Mompou (1893-1987) lived a long life filled with a quiet love for music. Although much has been said of his three decades spent in Paris, during which time he crossed paths with the likes of Debussy and Satie, it was in solitude that his crowning relic would be fashioned, already in a state of alluring dilapidation, and ultimately far from any of the geographic reference points that dotted his travels. Música Callada came into existence between 1959 and 1967, and represents one of the Catalan composer’s last major works. The untranslatability of its title (most renderings will have it as “Silent Music,” though certain nuances escape) is a key to its enigmatic construction, culled as it is from “Song between the Soul and the Beloved” of sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite St. John of the Cross (1542-1591). This mystic poem was written as an imagined conversation between the Soul (Bride of Christ) and the Beloved (Christ the Spouse), describing in metaphor the human relationship with the transcendental word and its tangible effects. In the estimation of Nicky Losseff, “‘silent music’ can only be a conceptual audition, perceived not through the fleshy senses but directly through the soul’s inner ear, and as a concept it serves to demonstrate in a way that cannot be grasped at all—and yet cannot be grasped in any other way.” Yet we would be mistaken in thinking of this as a paradox, Losseff goes on to say, for what we hear in Mompou is anything but contradictory. Silent music exists all around us. Not only does it reside in images, dreams, and in our heads, but quite simply in the musical score itself, where notes await the touch of a bow, a fingertip, a human breath to animate them.

Of his Música Callada, Mompou wrote, “This music is silent because it is heard in one’s inner self. Restraint and discretion. The emotion remains hidden, and the sounds only take shape when they find echoes in the bareness of our solitude.” Over time, it has gelled into a slumbering touchstone of the pianistic landscape. The music bypasses all other organs and floods straight into the heart, its songs wavering like the surface of a large body of water describing its own unknowable depths. And while the effect is undeniably gorgeous, it is just as often ponderous, if not mournful. “Lento” is the operative time signature here, and threads the entire work with a tear-stained presence. That being said, no one mood dominates, for each is its own picture in a boundless physiological scrapbook. The crosshatched dissonances of No. 3 tickle the mind’s eye with a slow-motion frolic. The indeterminacy of everyday action animates No. 5, giving way to rustlings in moonlight. Such is the sadness also in No. 6, which drips like rain from the eaves of a house covered in hermetic vines. No. 9 is one of many inward glances, stunning in its honest impressionism. No. 13 haunts with its nervous expulsions of energy, while the final of the work’s four books closes its eyes in darkness.

Mompou’s atmospheres are honed to fine edges, made all the more so for their brevity and sense of direction. Brittle as they are, they manage to slice away our expectations layer by layer, until they rest on a bed of subcutaneous vulnerability. This is delicate music, to be sure, but it also thrives on sacrifice. Speaking practically, fans of his aforementioned French contemporaries will find much to love. Speaking spiritually, anyone might find something here to hold on to, tender and trembling in its infancy, but ever potent in melody and in stillness.

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