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NOVEMBER 2016 | Ray Picot in Conversation with José Menor

NOVEMBER 2016 | Ray Picot in Conversation with José Menor

The Spanish pianist José Menor opened ILAMS’ first Echoes Festival concert this month, where he performed the entire Goyescas suite by Enrique Granados. Menor is a fantastic pianist with a fast-growing international reputation, equally at home with music of past masters whilst trail blazing contemporary works. Whether it is Granados or Guinjoan, his presence and authority draws audiences into his world. This year he could be found performing at Martha Argerich’s festival in Lugano, Beijing and Carnegie Hall. His approach to the written note is quite personal with an underlying spontaneity whilst also drawing on a scholarly understanding of the music. When I met José earlier this year we discussed many of the fascinating developments and discoveries in this the Granados anniversary year. We had a wide-ranging discussion including recent discoveries and recordings, including chamber and orchestral music, as well as his recital performances of Goyescas. With this in mind we agreed to exchange a few views on this important work which single-handedly brought the composer international recognition.

RAY PICOT: There is no doubt that the listener gains immeasurably from listening to the entire Goyescas suite, as the composer intended, but one should not underestimate what is required from the artist in presenting such a large work in a concert programme. How do you approach this and what do you feel are the gains for you as an artist and for the audience?

JOSE MENOR: In terms of why performers choose movements rather than performing the whole suite, there may be other aspects to comment here, and I am inclined to think that those are purely practical. First, the suite is about 48 minutes, which is a long half of a recital. On top of that, it ends 'badly', in the sense that performers want the audience to give them a big applause at the end of their performance. That is why people normally add 'El pelele' after playing the suite. Then it goes to 52 minutes, too long for a half recital, but too short for a full recital. And of course, a difficult piece to keep the stamina throughout the cycle. When I started playing the full cycle, I played 'El Pelele' as an introduction. Then I got some comments from critics suggesting it should go at the end. And then I realised that it works much better pianistically and for the audience to play it after the suite. I take a break - I can't play it immediately after, since musically it makes no sense at all, it just doesn't belong to it or relate to it under any musical consideration. At this moment, that is the way I normally perform it.

RAY PICOT: We have a few piano roll and acoustic recordings of Granados playing his music, and taking into account the limitations of the media I wonder what you have taken from his interpretations. You also told me that you have consulted with original manuscripts and I wonder how this has informed your perception of the pieces?

JOSE MENOR: This is a very important question. Yes, I have consulted the original manuscripts and in fact, I have most of them scanned and carry them in my computer all the time. To hear Granados' piano-rolls is always a revelation, both at an interpretative level and a compositional level. The first thing that really shocked me was to actually hear that important performers have been playing some of the most well-known pieces of the suite throughout history with wrong notes in the text. If you ask people, they would normally say: well, he was an improviser and would play this way one day, and another way a different day. Whoever gives this reason is really not taking a deep approach to the subject. As you know, music is a hierarchy, and it is not the same to modify ornaments or re-arrange the placement of notes within a chord, than actually change the important structural chords that provide the meaning to the piece. I am a composer myself and that is why I consider this subject extremely important.

I will give you a clear example, and I am just working on a article about it that will be published in the EPTA Magazine very soon, plus a bigger analysis of the suite for a different publication. A few years ago, I was recording the piece that is probably the most famous of the whole suite, I am sure you know which one I mean: 'Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor'. That particular day I was not very inspired by the recording, so decided to listen to one of Granados' piano rolls to see if I could motivate myself to get into the mood. What struck me was that I was hearing the composer playing and actually emphasizing chords, notes and melodic turns that were just not written in the score. I didn't finish that CD and I flew straight to Barcelona to check all the manuscripts. I could see clearly that the composer actually plays what's written in his manuscripts. On top of that, there is a version for voice of that particular piece in which the composer clearly writes the accidentals for the singer, according to the harmonies he plays on the piano roll. Many things shocked me which I will be looking at in the article I mentioned.

After that, I investigated other pieces in the suite, just to arrive at the same conclusion: publishers' mistakes have been perpetually reproduced (all available editions are actually based on the first one as primary source, having the manuscripts only as a secondary source), perpetually performed, and perpetually recorded. I just found it unbelievable. There is a lot to discuss here as you can imagine. In terms of actual interpretation, it is also very revealing to hear Granados' rolls, his amazing flow, constant waves, push and pull, and very personal rubato, which sometimes sounds completely different to how modern pianists play. He jumps into the climaxes to stay floating and gradually recover instead of stretching dramatic tension to the climax and releasing afterwards. It's just another era. However, I do not think that this music is intended for pianists to imitate the composer's way of playing. I think the wonder of this music is that actually allows each interpreter to be extremely personal (within the style) and express themself in a very free way. For me, it is the ideal music for interpretation.

RAY PICOT: There have been some outstanding interpretations of Goyescas over the last 50 years which, for a modern artist, must be interesting. How does this impact on you in terms of perhaps maintaining a great tradition or perhaps adopting a revisionist approach?

JOSE MENOR: I have been playing Goyescas this whole year and I always get the same comment: your version is extremely personal, thank you very much for freeing us from the standardised versions. I try to be myself. I don't try to keep or break any tradition. Revisionism may be a more applicable definition to what I do, in the sense of departing from my own knowledge, judgement, research and musicality and just being honest with myself. That is the real way to enjoy this wonderful music. 

 

 

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