January 11, 2021
Visca l’amor — Long live love — proclaims the title of this vibrant new recording whose less than rapturous subtitle, Catalan Art Songs of the XX and XXI Centuries, gives little indication of the beauties it holds. Performed in Catalan dialect by the dedicated team of tenor Isaí Jess Muñoz and his wife, Oksana Glouchko, the latest release from American indie label Bridge (due out later this week) is distinguished by the quality of its unusual repertoire and the strength of its ardent musicianship.
Ninety-eight percent of the time, Muñoz is a joy to listen to. Not only is his expression as pure as it is sincere, but the manner in which he sounds open vowels in the midrange is a bit reminiscent of the voice of the young Jussi Björling. Muñoz’s voice, however, is pitched lower, and sounds most comfortable at second tenor tessitura. At the top of the range, as heard on this recording, his voice can grow somewhat pinched and restricted, with a corresponding diminution of leading edge. But for so much of the time, his voice and renditions deliver such unalloyed pleasure as to ensure that many of these songs will find a warm spot in your heart.
The recording begins strongly, with the six songs of La rosa als llavis (The rose on her lips) by Eduard Toldrà (1895–1962). The opening melody is gorgeous, and the love poetry by Joan Salvat-Papasseit filled with romance and hardly subtle sexual allusions. The album’s title derives from this cycle’s final song, which ends, in translation, “Long live love that she as well desired. Long live love! I wanted her, and I took her.” After you hear Muñoz’s rendition, you won’t question the outcome of this attraction to a woman “all white like a sip of milk.”
For many listeners, the most familiar song on the recital will be Frederic Mompou’s poignant “Damunt de tu només les flores” (Lying upon you were flowers), the first of three songs from his Combat del Somni (Combat of the Dream). Perhaps no renditions are as free with rubato as those in the priceless 1971 video with soprano Victoria de los Angeles accompanied by Mompou himself and several recordings by soprano Montserrat Caballé (this one live with Alicia de Larrocha). Ultimately, that rubato may better serve the piano versions of these songs, but these irreplaceable artists make the best case possible for this approach.
No other rendition of “Damunt de tu només les flores” that I’ve heard is as filled with sadness as that by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard with Brian Ziegler. But as far as ardent tenors go, Muñoz is right up there with José Carreras, which is saying a lot.
Along with other contributions by Ricard Lamote de Grignon i Ribas (1899–1962) and Narcís Bonet (b. 1933) — the latter’s Haidé is just lovely — the recording presents the world premiere of the specially commissioned, 11-minute Imitació del foc (Imitation of fire) by Elisenda Fábregas (b. 1955), to poems by Bartomeu Rosselló-Pòrcel. The four-song cycle, which pushes Muñoz to the top of his range, begins strongly, with the animated churning of “Inici de campana” (Toll of the bell). As the cycle progresses, the mysterious melding of ardor, sadness, water, shadow, and “blood waves” gives way to exuberance. In the end, we are moved by the supreme mystery in which love, war, joy, and pain ride as one through the stricken and suffering heart.
I wish I could be as sanguine about the five Les paraules sagrades (The sacred words) of Joan Comellas (1913–2000). Muñoz, who often focuses on sacred as well as contemporary works, describes this music by the Mompou-influenced “Catalan Satie” as minimalist and infused with a “joyful and happy spirit.” I find it overly repetitious to the point of tedium. Regardless, there’s so much beauty to be had on this recording, which is available in both CD and hi-rez downloading/streaming formats, that I recommend it highly. I also expect that, upon hearing it, many vocal lovers will want to seek out more recordings by Isaí Jess Muñoz.