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JULY 2018 | In Conversation with Paula Ríos

JULY 2018 | In Conversation with Paula Ríos

By RAY PICOT

The Spanish pianist Paula Ríos has brought to London, over the last year, two exciting concerts full of technical fireworks, with flavours of Andalusia and the European avant-garde. Specialised in Spanish and Romantic repertoire, Paula Ríos has been described by the press as a refined, bold and inventive performer. She has developed a strong solo career having studied at the CSM in Vigo and at the Musik-Akademie der Stadt Basel. We reviewed her last CD Viento de Plata in March 2018 and her latest recording Cantar con los dedos (released by Calanda Music) is dedicated to the young Frédéric Chopin and other virtuoso pianists in his circle, which is very worthwhile investigating. The music included in her latest concert, entitled Fiestas y Juegos took us into era of the Generation of ’27 and beyond, which is where we started the interview.

RP: Whilst one tries to ignore labelling music and composers, it is sometimes easier to look at an era in retrospect with some point of reference, and the various groups that sprung up in the 1920’s and 1930’s did seem to follow some common artistic credos. In your recent recital you seem to be exploring an aspect of this.

PR: The Spanish artists from the beginning of the 20th century were fascinated by the innocence of childhood, and above all they pursued simplicity in art and in life. The freedom and anarchy of children’s games, also present at the circus, the fun fair or the carnival, were the inspiration behind this sensational music, full of humour and wit. These composers were influenced by Falla and the Spanish harpsichordists, but also their contemporaries, such as Stravinsky and Schönberg. Their music is essentially Spanish but shows a cosmopolitan attitude, looking directly towards Europe and its avant-garde.

RP: Do you think that the break with Romanticism as practised by previous generations was deliberate, as was the apparent intent to avoid a more overt influence on their style of folk music?

PR: I think they certainly wanted to be 20th-century musicians and this required a break from the past. In the Madrid group’s manifesto, Gustavo Pittaluga claimed, “I do not know what to do, but I do know many things not to be done: no Romanticism, no chromatism, no rambling...” Manuel de Falla, whom they considered their mentor, believed the composer should disappear from the work once it is finished, since it acquires a life of its own. In fact, according to Rodolfo Halffter, Falla even thought for a while of not signing his compositions. This generation wanted to create new languages and rules, but not before learning deeply from their past in order to be relevant. Falla described his time as the “conquest of new possibilities or mere reconquest of old, eternal values, abandoned by previous generations.” On the other hand, Spanish folk traditions were being studied by scholars. Folk song collections were published as a result of field work in rural Spain (Bartók and Kódaly were doing the same in the East). Popular music and dance were introduced in schools as a central part of the new pedagogy during the Republic. In 1922 Falla, Lorca and other prominent artists organised a groundbreaking flamenco singing competition in Granada, in order to endorse this art and protect its authenticity. In this atmosphere, along with the need to develop a modern Spanish style, young composers did study folk music from all over Spain and use its essential elements (harmonies, rhythms, metres), no longer for picturesque effects but from a certain respectful distance. I believe it must have been tricky to find the right balance: they had the ambition to become international, but they also wanted to embrace their identity and show it to Europe.

RP: In the selection of music you played, both Mompou and Blancafort seem to follow quite different compositional paths to those traditionally thought to be part of the Generation of ’27. Was this in part due to a more subtle absorption of French styles?

PR: Their friendship is a very interesting one. Manuel Blancafort’s family owned the Victoria Piano Rolls Company. He had to make holes looking at scores. This way he got to know a great deal of Catalan folk music but also new compositions by Debussy, Stravinsky, etc. They also owned a spa which welcomed clients such as Siegfried Wagner, the poet Rubén Darío, Enrique Granados and painter Santiago Rusiñol. Thus could Manuel keep up very well with the art world. His good friend Frederic Mompou lived in Paris and informed him in his letters of the French scene. Mompou had a very unique style. Like the French he had exquisite good taste and his writing is very essentialist - it carefully builds special sonorities and avoids superficiality. At the spa they had a room where they could work. Mompou helped Blancafort publish his music in France and enjoy international success with the superb El parc d’atraccions, which I play in my new project and is full of suspended harmonies and impressionist colours. Blancafort used his trips as a businessman to get scores and listen to the latest compositions. In his work we can hear also jazz and other American genres, irony, parody, entertainment, music-hall...

RP: A lot of the piano music exhibits a lightness of touch which should be distinguished from superficiality, and this seems quite deliberate, perhaps also influenced by what was going on across the border in France?

PR: Falla wrote in 1916 that he considered France to be 'the greatest musical power in Europe today.' 'In France’s garden of sound, all plants, all flowers grow.' The Impressionist style gives room for the Andalusian elements in Falla’s works and so he opens a door to young composers with this terrific blend. Albéniz, Granados, Turina, the dancer Antonia Mercé and many others had already lived and met with success in Paris. Spain received in return visits of the Ballets Russes, Stravinsky, Ravel, Honegger and Poulenc. Both countries were close, so the Impressionists, Satie and Les Six were a major influence for all Spanish composers at the time.
Like the French, they used harmony and little climaxes instead of building a full discourse, old modes - a very demure freedom. They also shared a love for Baroque and ancient music of their homeland as a source for presenting a national style. The Neoclassicism in the 20’s and 30’s longs for pure ideas, objectivity, irony and combines old features with jazz, music-hall and circus. For instance, Mantecón’s Circo sounds very close to Satie. This kind of sensibility rejected pompous sentimentality and found a home in Spain at the time. Performers need to find a very tasteful expressivity, letting the music be clear and breathe, but from an elegant distance.

RP: It is interesting that of all the composers from Generation of ’27 and the Grupo de los Ocho (Madrid), that only Rodolfo Halffter and Gerhard embraced Schönberg’s compositional ideas, whereas most of the others maintained broadly tonal, and perhaps neo-classical styles. Could this been in part due to the fact that these two composers went into a self-imposed exile abroad?

PR: Gerhard studied with Schönberg in Vienna and Berlin, and introduced the twelve-tone technique in Spain. Thanks to him, Schönberg visited Barcelona several times and presented his music. Let us not forget the première of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto took place in Barcelona as well; Anton Webern helped at the rehearsals. Nevertheless, the influence of Impressionism and Neoclassicism in Spain was enormous at the time, and Gerhard went into exile at the end of the Civil War in 1939, so my guess is there was simply no time for Dodecaphonism to be really understood and accepted by audiences and young composers. Obviously after the war, Spain became isolated from Europe and it was increasingly difficult for the artists who stayed to keep up with Serialism. Some exiled composers had to make ends meet by writing Nationalistic music for cinema and other media (what was expected from them) but somehow managed to evolve and continue their artistic career. Rodolfo Halffter, almost self-taught, read Schönberg’s Harmonielehre in his youth but he wrote his first dodecaphonic work in 1953; it was also the first ever composed in Mexico. He created a personal serial technique in which there was room for Spanish features.

RP: The fascination of childhood seems to resonate through 20th-century Spanish and Latin American composers, but does not always mean music for small hands to play. Why do you think this was? Do you have any favourites?

PR: In the 1920’s it was clear children needed their own music, literature, plays, etc. A new pedagogy, more creative and sensitive, was born during the Republic. I find it admirable that such important artists became so involved in education, designing the new system for the country, managing schools and even travelling to the smallest villages in order to show children and adults pieces of art for the first time: films, Beethoven symphonies, Spanish baroque theatre... There was a genuine effort to help children (boys and girls) have more opportunities; of course it would make an impact on the arts. Artists of the Generation of ’27 considered childhood as a happy time that must be protected; the child does not yet know the pains of love pains or adult cruelty. Artists themselves should stay innocent and free as long as possible, and evok their past for inspiration through personal memories, colours or songs. They borrowed elements of children’s art also to renew their language: puppets (Lorca, Falla), drawings and simple vocabulary (Alberti), short musical forms and folk genres, characters such as giants, witches, fairies, etc. This means there is a great deal of music intended for adults that deals with the universe of the children as a very complex metaphor. It is a joy for me to enter this world with this project. This exceptional music has always more and more layers of interpretation. The simpler a score seems, the more depth it hides. It needs the pianist to connect in a very direct way to the audience, I think. I have no favourites because at the moment I am astonished with the quality of this repertoire!

RP: The one form that does not seem to have taken root in the Spanish piano repertoire is the Classical sonata, though when the term 'sonata' is used it tends to be quite different in structure, i.e. Palau, Lopez-Chavarri, Esplá and José. Why do you think this was?

PR: There are wonderful sonatas from this time, such as the Sonata for clarinet and piano by Jesús Bal y Gay, the piano sonatas of Ernesto Halftter and others. But it is true the form is not always classical. In this period they favoured short forms in order to achieve 'pure music', with 'no metaphysics' (Pittaluga), no developments, no cyclic forms, etc. Long forms, such as the sonata form, were avoided and when they used the term 'sonata', they often meant that in binary form - the Baroque model - or they chose the reduced version: sonatinas or sinfoniettas. In addition to that, some composers admired the ability of Debussy to create ex novo a new form for each piece, and they followed this path.

RP: The composer Matilde Salvador observed that all Spanish composers suffered at some point in their composing career from 'Scarlatina' in terms of the influence  of Scarlatti's sonatas, with a tendency towards staccato figurations and Scarlatti-type sonata forms. Is this a view that you share, and to what extent, if any, did Scarlatti influence the composers you have selected?

PR: Scarlatti lived many years in Spain, first in Seville for 5 years, listening to castanets, guitars and popular and Arabic melodies. He brought all these elements to his 550 sonatas and made a huge impact on Iberian harpsichordists. We have fantastic sonatas by Antonio Soler, José de Nebra and Carlos Seixas. Their output is a fine example of excellent art music with Spanish essence and progressive spirit. It brings diverse influences together and sounds fresh, natural, simple – exactly what the Generation of ’27 were looking for. In Europe every country was building a strong musical identity far from the German canon (Bartók, Szymanowski, Enescu), and part of the task consisted in finding their own references. If the French were looking at Couperin and Rameau, Spanish composers did the same learning from their 18th-century masters. But it would be impossible to talk about this without understanding the importance of the Bolero dance school (and pre-flamenco), formed by art and folk elements and developed in the times of Scarlatti and Boccherini. Spanish avant-garde dance and music celebrated not only flamenco and folklore but also the boleros, jotas, seguidillas and fandangos included in stage works. All the arts blossomed intertwined in the 1920s-30s and it is exciting to see so many interdisciplinary projects developed then by artists of the greatest calibre. Going back to the harpsichordists, there are numerous examples of their traces. In my programme the obvious one is Rodolfo Halffter’s Bagatelas, but the same transparency and sharp rhythms are also heard in Bacarisse’s Carnaval parisien. Ternary rhythms, binary forms, modal scales, two-part writing, of course castanets, shoes and guitars...

RP: The music of Generation of '27 composers and the Grupo de los Ocho seem to have quite common roots and similarities (including a sense of irony - French perhaps?) but the key composers all seem to have devised their own unique solutions.

PR: This group of youngsters clicked because they shared the same goals: to get closer to Europe, listen to Paris (Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Les Six), and learn from their mentor Falla in order to build, like him, an international, modern style but with solid foundations in Spanish art and folk music. Besides, many were self-taught, which was partly an advantage. They were free of prejudice and had eclectic tastes, so we hear in their music Impressionism, Neoclassicism, Jazz, Atonalism, Dodecaphonism and Music-hall. A sense of emotional detachment from the music, irony and parody, was surely inspired by the French, as we can hear in Mantecón’s Circo, for instance. They were also busy as critics, researchers and activists. I think being together and surrounded by great talent helped them all give their best. Exile made them evolve differently; many adopted a more conservative style by choice or necessity, and others fought for a more personal path.

RP: To conclude, may I thank you for such an informative discussion. Clearly there is hope, with musicians like yourself, for us to hear once more the music of this lost generation.

PR: In Spain most of the exiled or neglected composers are rarely published, played or studied. However, I think they are beginning to be seen in a new light. There are hidden jewels and I hope some of them will eventually become part of our standard repertoire. Fortunately there is also new literature written by young musicologists who are doing very important work.
 

 

 

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