All of our lives, the great cellist had been “Pablo Casals.” Then one day, as I recall, he was billed as “Pau Casals.” Catalan identity was asserting itself. Victoria de los Angeles, all over the world, was “Victoria de los Angeles.” Back home, however, she was “Victòria dels Àngels.”
She was Barcelona-born. So was Alicia de Larrocha, the pianist. The soprano and the pianist had a famous, and brilliant, collaboration together. They were born the same year: 1923. They championed Spanish composers, including Catalan ones. Mompou and Montsalvatge were two of the most prominent.
Montserrat Caballé, another soprano, was born in Barcelona ten years after de los Angeles and de Larrocha: 1933. She, too, championed Spanish composers, including Catalan ones.
The most famous Catalan songs? Almost certainly Cinco canciones negras, by Montsalvatge (Xavier Montsalvatge, who lived from 1912 to 2002). The lullaby from that set is beloved the world over.
But now comes a whole album of Catalan songs, from Bridge Records: Visca l’Amor: Catalan Art Songs of the 20th and 21st Centuries. The singer is a tenor, Isaí Jess Muñoz, accompanied by a pianist, Oksana Glouchko.
In the January issue of The New Criterion, I have a survey of recent recordings, one of which introduces an Egyptian soprano, Fatima Said. She sings, among others, Arab songs. I write,
A soprano from an earlier generation, Victoria de los Angeles, introduced many of us to Spanish songs—not just art songs but folk songs, too. Leontyne Price used to call herself an “American troubadour.” Wherever she was in the world, she put spirituals at the end of her recital program. As she explained it, her attitude was, “I have sung your songs. Now you will listen to mine.” From Fatma Said, I have learned some songs I never knew. This sharing of songs is one of the nicest parts of the whole enterprise.
So, the tenor Isaí Jess Muñoz must be Catalan, right, sharing his songs? No, he is an American of Mexican and Puerto Rican origins, according to his bio. And the pianist, Oksana Glouchko, is an Israeli–American, I gather, born in Russia. Moreover, the tenor and the pianist are married, with three children. A beautiful collaboration.
Sometimes, appreciation is what it takes, to champion music.
I have always thought the Spanish language one of the most beautiful languages, sung. (Spoken, too, but we are talking about singing at the moment.) The Catalan tongue is very close. No doubt, proud Catalonians would say, “No, Catalan and Spanish are as different as Chinese and Swahili!” At this, the rest of us can just smile.
Visca l’Amor brings us six composers, most of them little-known, the exception being Frederic Mompou (1893–1987). Muñoz and Glouchko perform three songs from Mompou’s Combat del somni (“Struggle in the Dream”). The first of the songs is famous, sung heartbreakingly, for example, by de los Angeles: “Damunt de tu només les flors.”
There is a new work on this album, by a composer with a beautiful name: Elisenda Fábregas. She is an American born in Barcelona in 1955. She came to the United States for graduate school. She has two doctorates, one from the Columbia University Teachers College, the other from the Peabody Institute. Her new composition is a song-cycle, Imitació del foc, or “Imitation of Fire.” The texts are by Bartomeu Rosselló-Pòrcel, a Spanish Balearic poet.
“Balearic”? This refers to the Balearic Islands, which include Mallorca, where Chopin and George Sand hung out.
Rosselló-Pòrcel lived from 1913 to 1938, dying at just twenty-four. I figured he had been killed in the Spanish Civil War. But it was TB.
The new songs, I will not critique, except to say that they are pleasing and colorful. Instead, I want to marvel—at the endurance of the art song. The writing of these songs goes on and on, as composers want to match notes with words. I hope, and trust, that this will go on forever.
Isaí Jess Muñoz is a sweet-voiced tenor, astute. Oksana Glouchko is a skillful pianist, also astute. Their new album is both a service and a pleasure.