The Sounds of Silence


Silent Music: Jenny Lin Plays Mompou (Steinway & Sons)

This is Mompou’s complete Música Callada plus the very compatible bonus track of “Secreto” from Impresiones intimas. Federico Mompou (1893-1987) was a Spanish composer (half French, half Catalan) who spent many years living in Paris and was part of the same scene as Poulenc, Milhaud, and others between the World Wars. He was basically a miniaturist Impressionist whose main concern was with piano sonority, with influences of Chopin, Satie, Scriabin, and some contemporaries filtered through Mompou’s highly distinctive personal style, the fully mature epitome of which is Música Callada.

Composed in four books published in 1959, '62, '63, and '67, Música Callada was Mompou's last major work and his greatest. Its 28 pieces were inspired by a poem by Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) on music as the expression of silence. The indication "Lento" is used for 12 of them, along with "calm," "placid," "tranquil," "angelic," "simple," and similar mood-setters; the pieces are all short, a page or two. Mompou’s limpid, shimmering harmonies -- sometimes shading into near-atonality -- and great rhythmic freedom are redolent of twilight mystery, creating a unique sound-world. The sounds shimmer and float, but there are also many moments when harmonies or melodies stretch further than expected, with piquant dissonances and stark jolts.

Before I get to Lin’s recording, a quick look at some previous renditions. Mompou recorded his own set for the Spanish label Ensayo. It is a very special recording that, on its own terms, is unsurpassable. Shyness kept Mompou from a career as a pianist, but he had the training for it, and the subtleties of his Impressionist technique continually illuminate his works like no other performer. This is music in which touch is more important than playing lots of notes fast, and Mompou's touch on the piano is very special, commanding a subtly differentiated series of timbres, especially a soft bell-like tone; equally, his rhythmic sense adds a lot of details not found in the sheet music, making this recording an invaluable document. He plays with restraint and dignity (and takes his time: 69:50 overall), but a plethora of small expressive touches; his rubato is well worth studying. He also, however, has the very old-fashioned tendency to play the left hand slightly ahead of the right at moments of emphasis, which can drive some people crazy, and while there’s not really much of an issue with the recorded sound – we’re talking 1974, not 1934 – it is very close and a tad flatter than some people like. The sound has never bothered me in the slightest; its sec clarity makes it easier to appreciate his subtle pedaling.

She didn’t record the whole cycle, but Alicia de Larrocha, who premiered Book IV (which was dedicated to her) of Música Callada in 1972, made a 1983 Decca LP devoted to Mompou that contains all of Book IV (along with Impresiones intimas, Prelude No. 7, and Cançons i danses Nos. 1-6 and 14). On CD it used to be the second disc of a two-fer entitled Música Española: Piano Music IV (the Mompou by itself is still in print in Japan). This long-time advocate of the composer puts a bit more Spanish lilt into her interpretation; any Mompou fan should track down one version or another of her album.

Thanks to the label’s broad distribution and cachet, Herbert Henck’s rendition (ECM, 1993) heightened awareness of Música Callada. Moving through the set at a more spritely pace than the competition (62:35), Henck plays it as chilly modernist music, the chill accented by the “wet” sound (there’s enough reverb to suggest a piano in a tiled bathroom). The sound is not to all tastes; to me it seems dangerously close to a parody of stereotypical Impressionism. This parodic aspect is undercut, though, by the playing, which is the most Satie-esque reading I’ve heard; the cheeky, occasionally mordant wit with which it imbues many pieces is a valid alternative interpretation that’s worth hearing. When I’m in the mood for its attitude and its more clangorous sound, I quite enjoy it (though a drier sonic ambience would fit the interpretation better). I wonder what Mompou would have thought of it.

Maybe I should have gotten Martin Jones’s four-CD set of Mompou’s complete piano music on BIS, but that label favors an even more reverberant recording ambience, so I never got around to it. And having been lukewarm about the volume I acquired in Jordi Masó’s complete survey (Naxos, 2000), I never bothered to get his Música Calladadisc, though it is the least expensive set ($6.99 at

I did, however, pick up Josep Colom’s CD (Mandala, 1991-92), and a good thing too: Barcelona-born and making his debut in Paris, Colom’s steeped in the same influences and cultures as Mompou, and though he too moves with relative alacrity (63:15), he offers the most Impressionist reading of Música Callada that I’ve heard; one can often imagine, in a way, that one is hearing an unfamiliar Debussy Prelude. It’s not a sloppily pedal-blurred or misty, vague Impressionism, but rather one of rounded, pellucid tones – no parody or stereotyping here, and well worth owning.

In the past decade, interest in Música Callada has surged, but until acquiring Lin’s, I hadn’t gotten any of the newer ones, though the versions by Javier Perianes (Harmonia Mundi), Remei Cortes Ayats (Pavane), and Haskell Small (MSR Classics) have all been critically praised, especially Perianes’s.

So how does Lin’s Música Callada stack up against the competition? She’s tied with the composer’s, and a clear alternative to him and the versions I’ve heard because, in an entirely appropriate way, she plays it with a Romantic, Chopinesque level of expressiveness (Mompou adored Chopin, so that makes sense). There’s a level of intensity here, of great investment in achieving the full emotional impact of each individual piece, that’s downright startling. This makes for a longer running time of 71:03, but there is enough variety among the pieces that this approach doesn’t make the entire cycle overwhelming, and nothing ever seems overly elongated; when she dwells on a piece, interpretive rewards are reaped. Mompou’s expressive markings are followed pretty closely, though not inhibitively so.

The Romanticism of Lin’s playing doesn’t include the composer’s left-hand-first tic, by the way. It does include a songful projection of melodies, wide dynamic range, deep characterization of each piece, and a wonderful sense of flow with plenty of tastefully applied rubato and agogics, yet no violations of structure, no distensions. Nor does this approach diminish the vividly modernist aspects of this unusual music; in fact, it heightens it, with its outbursts set off powerfully and its brooding passion granted Expressionistic starkness. Sonically, this is superb, as one would hope for from the house label of the most famous piano company. All in all, when I want to hear Música Callada, this will be the one I’ll put on most often.

Lin will be playing a release party for this album at Le Poisson Rouge on Tuesday, April 26 at 7:30. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose New Year’s resolution for 2011 is to record his Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus and Japanese female poets song cycles.