Some music seems to exist outside time. As dust settles on more progressive scores, musicians judged old fashioned in their own day come down to us fresh-minted, timeless. Bach was such a one. The Basque Padre Donostia is, in his own way, another. In the 1920s the piano music of this retiring Capuchin monk, like that of his compatriot Jesús Guridi, must have sounded impossibly conservative. José Antonio Donostia (born Zulaica y Arregui) wrote widely, but with the exception of one or two a capella choral works, very few of his compositions are known outside his native San Sebastián (Donostia.) Formally, he does little beyond Grieg. Harmonically Debussy is as close to modernism as he gets. His melodies, like many of Dvoraks, sound like folksongs even where they are original. Yet these serene Basque Preludes transcend time as effortlessly as the Catalan miniatures of Mompou and Blancafort, fellow Iberian petits maîtres from a strikingly similar musico-spiritual background.
Each of the 21 pieces here has its gentle point, its musical kernel. Donostia wrote most of them between 1912 and 1916, but even then he was swimming against the 20th century tide. Courting convention, content to use the tools passed down, he eschews individuality in favour of almost communal creation. Analysed coldly, the atmospheric opening of the Lullaby (track 9) is straight out of Debussys Pelleas, but that seems of no account given music of such certitude and limpid beauty. From the very first track, Bat-batian an improvisation on a tune sounding suspiciously like our own, dear Baa, Baa Blacksheep Donostia holds us in the spell of his pastoral but by no means unimpassioned vision.
Some pieces go deeper: the quietly contemplative landscapes of Singing in the Moonlight (12) and The Nightingale of Errotazuri (17) belie their brevity with a impressive sense of scope. The nagging ostinato of Errimia Nostalgie (23) recalls Suk in its sensitivity to emotion recollected without tranquillity. The strong, bass unison in zortzico rhythm at the opening of Distant Procession (13) may remind many zarzueleros of Santis song in praise of hearth and homeland from El caserío, maybe Guridis tribute to the pioneering work of his friend and contemporary. Only in one case the Andante for a Basque Sonata, a whimsical, Mozartian treatment of a close cousin to Abide With Me does sentimentality threaten to override sentiment.
A disc of Donostias orchestral pieces recently appeared in Claves Basque survey. That is valuable, but the Swiss companys 2-CD set of the complete piano music suffers from the heavy-handed somnolence of Ricardo Requejos playing. Jordi Masó here is excellent, awake to the virtuosic energy needed to put Donostias vision across without ever losing sight of its essential simplicity. The Teatre Ponents ambience is reverberant enough to add warmth to the sound picture without blurring instrumental clarity. Sadly Naxos are not planning a sequel to complete Masós survey, but meanwhile this well-chosen selection will alert many to the lovable qualities of a special voice. Like its modest composer, this CD is a keeper.
© Christopher Webber 2004