Where have these beautiful Catalan songs been hiding? And why are so few people singing them? These questions galvanized tenor Isaí Jess Muñoz when he first began to discover—and uncover—the contemporary art songs of Catalonia. To introduce this music to audiences, and explore it themselves, Muñoz and pianist Oksana Glouchko began concertizing with this relatively unknown vocal literature in 2010, and audience enthusiasm, as well as their own deepening love of this work, has led them to make a strikingly beautiful recording, Visca L’Amor.
A thrilling introduction
Recorded by Andreas Meyer at the University of Delaware’s Gore Recital Hall and released January 15 by Bridge Records, here are striking song cycles by six Catalan composers: Frederic Mompou, Eduard Toldrá, Joan Comelias, Ricard La Motte de Grignon I Ribas, Narcís Bonet, and Elisenda Fábregas. If you’re unfamiliar with these musicians, you’re not alone: only Mompou has something of an international following.
Sung passionately by Muñoz and luminously played by Glouchko, there are 22 melody-filled works from the 20th and 21st centuries. They include a Muñoz/Glouchko commission, Fábregas’s Imitació del foc (Imitation of Fire), that premieres here. These are contemporary works (two of the composers are living), but the little Catalonian repertoire in the recorded canon consists mostly of songs by Victoria de los Angeles and Montserrat Caballé. Visca L’Amor is the first collection dedicated to this oeuvre, and it’s a thrilling introduction to a little-known musical world.
Joy, sadness, love, and drama
In a recording replete with exceptionally fine, appropriately emotional singing and beautiful pianism, the songs themselves are a continually expanding treasure trove, one after another filled with musical riches. The album opens with a song cycle by Eduard Toldrá (1895-1962): La rosa als llavis (The Rose on the Lips), six settings of the love poetry of Catalan writer Joan Salvat-Papasseit that includes the title selection, “Visca L’Amor (Long live love)”. Some short, some longer, the songs vacillate between joy and sadness, with sparkling writing for piano, especially notable in the oh-so-brief “Mocado d’olor (Perfumed handkerchief)”.
Bonet’s miniature song cycle Haidé (dedicated to his wife) is a heartfelt setting of a love poem by Joan Maragall that musically swings from major to minor, as both voice and piano searchingly traverse the scale to portray love’s sweetness and the sadness of loss. Another highlight is Mompou’s Combat del Somni, whose three movements are filled with exquisite keyboard writing and gorgeously singable lines, especially in the opening “Damunt de tu només les flors (Lying upon you, were flowers only)”.
The commissioned work by Juilliard-trained Fábregas draws directly on the melodic vocal traditions of previous Catalan composers—and their expressive keyboard writing—but as expected, moves clearly into the 21st century. “Pluja brodada (“Rain embroidered”) is especially colorful, and the cycle concludes with a dramatic “Ardent Himne (Ardent Hymn)”. And the final song cycle on the recording is Joan Comellas’s exuberant suite of sacred music—three Alleluias, an Ave Maria and a Benedictus—called Les Paraules Sagrades (The Sacred Words).
Absent no more
These works shimmer with the grace of the Catalan language and its music. Catalonia is an autonomous community in Spain whose culture has (until recently) been brutally repressed. Muñoz has written detailed and very interesting liner notes about both the songs and the political climate that denigrated them. Francisco Franco’s dictatorial ban on the Catalan language, spoken by more than 10 million people, devastated the publishing and recording industries there. Many musical works went out of print or were never published, or were lost altogether.
As well, there has been little phonetic guidance for singing in Catalan (a language more akin to French than to Spanish), something Muñoz and Glouchko hope this recording will help to remediate. Accompanying the Catalan-language song texts are fine English and Spanish translations (some by Muñoz), and the program notes and biographies are written in both English and Spanish.
The communication between singer and pianist in this recording is transcendent, with equal artistry on both parts, and the beauty of the songs themselves makes it all the more jarring that this vocal canon has been so shockingly absent from the world stage. Hopefully, the release of Visca L’Amor will ameliorate that striking neglect.
Image description: The album cover of Visca L’Amor: Catalan Art Songs of the XX and XXI Centuries. The title text is in white and blue, with the names of the artists, Isaí Jess Muñoz and Oksana Glouchko, in yellow. The text appears on a photo of Muñoz standing on a sandy path between large trees.
What, When, Where
Visca L’Amor: Catalan Art Songs of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Song cycles by Frederic Mompou, Eduard Toldrá, Joan Comelias, Ricard La Motte de Grignon I Ribas, Narcís Bonet, and Elisenda Fábregas. Isaí Jess Muñoz (tenor) and Oksana Glouchko (piano). Recording released January 15, 2021, on Bridge Records. Stream via Apple Music and Spotify; purchase on iTunes; CD available through Amazon or Bridge Records.