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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Song of the Stars - Orfeo Catala

Orfeo Catala and Josep Vila i Casanas at Cadogan Hall
Orfeo Catala & Josep Vila i Casanas at Cadogan Hall
Enrique Granados, Casals, Josep Reig, Eduard Toldra, Enric Morera, Xavier Montsalvatge, Josep Vila i Casanes, Bernat Vivancos; Orfeo Catala, Josep Vila i Casanas; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 27 2015
Star rating: 4.0

An exploration of Catalan music from his old-established Catalan choir

The Catalan choir Orfeo Catala, with its conductor Josep Vila i Casanas, made its Cadogan Hall debut at a lunchtime concert on Sunday 26 April 2015 as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. The choir brought a programme of music by Catalan composers, all but one of whom had links to the choir. The music included the recently rediscovered El cant de les estrelles (Song of the Stars) by Enrique Granados (with Albert Guinovart, piano, and David Malet, organ), plus music by Casals, Josep Reig, Eduard Toldra, Enric Morera, Xavier Montsalvatge, Josep Vila i Casanas and Bernat Vivancos.

Founded in 1891, Orfeo Catala is one of their country's top amateur choirs, performing major works from the Western classical canon alongside music by Catalan composers. The choir is based at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, the Art Nouveau music hall in Barcelona which was built between 1905 and 1908.

The choir opened with a work which it premiered in 1911, El cant de les estrelles by Enrique Granados (1867-1916). The manuscript for the work was thought lost and only recently surfaced, enabling them to give a second premiered in 2007. At the first performance in 1911, Granados himself played the piano part and work is more like a concerto with the piano accompanied by the choir, which is supported by the organ. The text (O, infinite vastness and stillness of space...) is based on Heine, but is not attributed and commentators have wondered whether it might be by Granados himself.

The work uses two choirs, with a further group of women placed in the balcony above the choir. It opened with a long and complex piano introduction from Albert Guinovart. Throughout the work the piano tended to comment on and interrupt the singing, with each verse being followed by a long piano peroration. The choral contribution was quietly lyrical, though the focus was very much on the complex and busy piano part; this is definitely a bravura solo piano piece. Throughout there was little hint of Spanish nationalism or anything Catalan, this was contemporary with a richly chromatic post-Wagnerian harmony. Granados never published the work and it makes you wonder what he planned to do with it, and how it might have suggested future developments in his music had he not died in 1916.

The choir followed this with a group of choral works by Pable Casals (1876-1973). First his motet O vos omnes, written when he was in exile during the Spanish Civil War. Sung by the men of the choir, it was an elegiac piece in which the choir made a lovely dark melancholy sound. It was the women's turn, accompanied by organ, in Nigra sum which was dedicated to the Black Madonna of Monserrat. This was pleasantly lyrical, but to say that this and the next piece Gloria a Deu were conservative is an understatement and both seemed rather forgettable. Gloria a Deu for choir and organ comes from the end of Casals' oratorio El Pessebre premiered in 1960. A big rousing work, the choir sang with gusto and took it seriously, making a strong rich sound. I did wonder whether having an orchestra, or lighter accompaniment might have made the movement less ponderous.

After the interval we jumped  back 400 years for Josep Reig (c1584-1674) who was organist at the church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona. His motet Sancta Maria was for double choir in the Venetian style. For such a big group (around 80 singers) the choir made a surprisingly delicate sound (though not always ideally mobile in the faster second section) and the work was more supplicatory than lively, with a repeated interjection of succure miseris.

Eduard Toldra (1895-1962) was a great composer of songs in Catalan, and some of his songs have been recently arranged for choir and piano by Jordi Domenech. Canco di comiat and Festeig were both beautifully shapely part-songs with piano, and the choir seem to relax more into this later repertoire, conveying a real sense of enjoyment. The sardana is a traditional Catalan dance, and the song b Enric Morere (1865-1942) La sardana de les monges is a delightful piece about nuns being tempted to dance the sardana, and it incorporated that traditional sardana rhythm along with a charming narrative.  This was sung unaccompanied and sung with the members of the choir mixed up and not standing in voice groups, all making a fine vigorous sound.

With Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) we reach a composer better known in the UK, and his Pianto della Madona from 1969 showed real imagination and flair, with some lovely distinctive harmonies in a chromatic melancholy vein. The conductor of the choir Josep Vila i Casanas (born 1966) continues the tradition of composer conductors and the group sang two of his works, Laudate Dominum and In paradisum. The first was vigorous and bright, tonal but interesting, whilst the second was quietly homophonic with hints of Messiaen and Lauridsen in the rich harmonies. Both works used soloists drawn from the ranks of the choir. The last work in the programme was also a recent one, Le cri des bergers (The cry of the shepherds) by Bernat Vivancos (born 1973). A wordless piece it combined a traditional sounding shepherds cry from soloist Daniel Morales (placed high above the choir) with a quieter response from the choir which developed into something rather powerful. Bernat Vivancos' chromatic harmonies used lots of sustained notes creating a rich chordal texture. At times the piece seemed to push the singers to their limits, but overall they captured the mood of the work well.

Throughout the concert the groups of pieces were introduced by members of the choir, giving a little background to both works and composers. The audience, which had quite a few Catalans in its number, was perhaps not as large as it could have been but then Sunday lunchtime is a strange time for a concert. The audience response was enthusiastic and we were treated to a single encore, the Catalan anthem which generated a remarkable response from the Catalans in the audience.

The choir was over here for a number of musical events, and the previous night had been singing in Janacek's Glagolitic Mass at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

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