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Jonathan Woolf
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Federico MOMPOU (1893-1987)
Música Callada; Volumes 1-4 (1959, 1962, 1965, 1967) [66:23]
Jean-François Heisser (piano)
rec. May 2013, Théâtre auditorium, Poitiers

French pianist Jean-François Heisser had the good fortune to hear Federico Mompou in 1974 at the Santiago de Compostela summer academy when the composer, then 81, performed many of his own works. In the same year Mompou recorded a slew of them - four CD’s worth. They are now available on a Brilliant Classics box 6515, one I invariably cite whenever I review Mompou, which is increasingly often, I’m glad to say.
Do you concentrate on a particular slice of Mompou’s writing, or do you try to construct an attractive, contrasting single disc? Of late, pianists have gone for the latter option, at least as far as my own direct reviewing experience goes - the last was the exquisite recording by Volodos - but Heisser has other ideas and concentrates on the four books of the Música Callada, composed between 1959 and 1967. This provides a good concentrated focus and it also allows one to gauge how well the pianist has immersed himself in Mompou’s very particular lexicon.
Heisser has a good rounded tone and his chording is balanced, warm but not over-pedalled. Like most exponents of this repertoire he remains a more even-tempered interpreter than the composer, in respect of chording, that is. Mompou is invariably the more angular in terms of phrasing but this remains a constant of almost all pianists who espouse his music. What is somewhat different here is Heisser’s approach to tempo, which does to an extent set him apart from his contemporaries. He is often a touch faster than Mompou - rather unusual - and this urgency is a valid approach. For example in the Placide of the first book he takes a more direct approach than even the composer and the result is that Mompou sounds the more reflective, even nostalgic. In the Afflito e penoso it’s Mompou who sounds the more eventful, Heisser the smoother and more conventional. Mompou is always less interested in evenness of tone and balanced chords; he is forever promoting leading voices that upset conventional notions, whereas modern players tend to smooth over these irregularities.
Heisser takes well-judged tempi and his instincts are acute, and perceptive. He doesn’t follow Mompou down the path of his monastically unbeautified lines, but he is more joyous than the composer in the Allegretto of the second book, a rare example of élan in Mompou’s four sets. Maximal contrasts in the Tranquillo are provided by the composer - simple in the outer sections, vehement in the central panel - where his left hand accenting brings indelible life, dispute a technique that is sometimes pushed to its limits. Serious differences in interpretative matters are rare between composer and Heisser. I’d cite the Calme, the fifth of the third book, in which the French pianist is much brisker, and lacks the plangency that I suspect Mompou wanted pianists to find in it. The only other movement in which I felt a disconnect between aesthetics was in the Moderato of the last book, where Heisser’s much faster tempo has the effect of making the composer sound unusually ponderous.
A word about presentation: the disc is housed in a book which contains photographs by Chema Madoz. They are quite sculptural and interested in forms and shapes. Patterns are augmented by such as a stark photograph of a key. They are all in black and white. The most striking is a faceless woman standing behind a table. In front of her a glass of red wine, somewhat chalice-shaped, forms a pubic triangle against her white under-dress.
At which point, back to the music. Heisser’s approach strikes a most revealing and interesting note in contemporary performances of Mompou. He doesn’t cultivate a flattering beauty of tone for its own sake; he plays warmly and well but often briskly. Those used to more horizontal performances - Volodos is a prime example - may find him a touch curt. Mompou is curter still, in that sense, though inimitable in his own music. There’s much to enjoy in Heisser’s well-recorded survey of the music.
Jonathan Woolf