David McDade
MusicWeb International
January 2024

As evidenced by the late work of Britten and Shostakovich, it takes a huge amount of skill to write very simple, spare music. Anyone can spill notes garrulously onto the page but to fine them down to bare essentials is a life’s work. The music of Federico Mompou displays just such mastery over the simple.

It is worth dispelling a myth about Mompou’s music for the benefit of the novice listener—beyond a passing resemblance to the Gymnopédies, it is nothing like that of Erik Satie. If nothing else, it is more serious than that of the maverick Frenchman.

By the time he came to write his Música Callada (which translates approximately as 'Music of Silence'), in the decade from 1959 and 1967 that seriousness of purpose was all pervasive. Moreover this is devotional music inspired by the poetry of St John of the Cross. With typical austerity, the pieces contained in its four books are without titles so we are left to guess at the relationship between the poetry and the music. Rather than being directed toward particular topics or objects of contemplation, the listener is left undirected faced with these brief, quixotic pieces. They are probably best seen as aids to meditation, perhaps as ways of helping the listener to experience silence not just as an absence. The pieces do not feature double bar lines at their end but are left open ended as if opening onto the silence of the title of the collection.

The pieces are arranged in four books, played complete on this recording but it is unlikely they were ever intended to be listened to in that way. It could be argued that each short piece should be seen as an individual opportunity for contemplation.

As for the music itself it is mostly quiet and slow and requires little technical virtuosity on the part of the pianist. There is little in the way of climax involved in any of the pieces. Whilst not quoting any folk music directly there is a feeling of Spanish song about much of the melodic content though in a very muted way. There is no flamenco foot stamping or castanets in this music! This is music for the still quiet of a monastery quad on a ferociously hot Spanish afternoon.

As can gleaned from this description, Mompou’s music and the Música Callada above all, divides the crowd. Surrender to its hushed charms—and following the mystical tradition of St John of the Cross it does require surrender—this is music that goes surprisingly deep given its rather humble exterior. There will be those who get it and those who are left mystified and bored. There are few better guides to lead the listener into those hidden depths than Stephen Hough.

As an artist, I have always thought of Stephen Hough as decidedly more Cavalier than Roundhead yet here he is in the guise of Catholic ascetic. Not that the extravagant recreative artist is wholly banished as he finds a delicate sensuality of touch amidst the pale colours of Mompou’s music of silence. It is telling that another pianist of ultra delicate sensibilities, Arkady Volodos, was also drawn to Mompou’s seemingly plain music (though the Russian gave us a mixed programme not just these very late austere pieces.)

It is hard to avoid thinking of the role Hough’s own Catholicism plays in these performances for which the most fitting description I can think of ‘devout’. This is not say that a performer needs faith to play these works well—I have no idea of whether Volodos has any faith or none. There is a sense of Hough’s performance as a devotional act which seems wholly appropriate to music that is always about what lies beyond the notes. Mompou’s silence is the silence of God after all. Whether this is the product of my imagination or not, it is this atmosphere that separates Hough from even the magical Volodos.

Mompou’s music is always going to be something you either like or you don’t. If you fall into the latter camp then even a performance as profound and beautiful as this is unlikely to persuade you otherwise. If, on the other hand, you don’t yet know this music, then start here. For lovers of Mompou, this is as deep a descent into the well of this music as you will come across.