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Meyer KUPFERMAN (1926-2003)
Tuba Concerto (1982, rev. 2002)
Going Home, for guitar quartet (1994)
Into the Breach (2002)
Percussion Symphony (1997)
Structures (2001)
Edwin Diefes (tuba),
Roberto Limon, William Anderson, Oren Fadar, Marc Wolf (guitars)
Czech National Orchestra, conductor Paul Freeman
Oregon Percussion Ensemble, conductor Charles Dowd (Symphony)
Stony Brook Contemporary Players, conductor Matt Ward (Structures)
No recording venues or dates DDD
SOUNDSPELLS CD 135 [2 discs, 71’54+43’33]


Meyer Kupferman is a name completely new to me, so I listened to the music on these discs with ‘innocent’ ears. As the music began to take hold and I gave each piece repeated hearings, my curiosity about the composer grew. Thanks largely to Valentine Fabian’s excellent biography in the booklet, plus some of my own digging around, I have found that Kupferman has gained something of a cult following, particularly in America and parts of central Europe. Judging by what I’ve heard here, it’s easy to see why.

He is a phenomenally productive composer, even though he is now in his late seventies, with no less than 7 operas, 12 symphonies, 9 ballets, 10 concertos and hundreds of chamber works. Now, as we all know, quantity does not always equal quality, but all the works featured on this Soundspells double pack have something original to say and there is a distinctive voice at work here. In fact, one has to be grateful to this series of recordings for getting his music to the wider international public. As with so many composers, without the aid of records we would simply not have a chance to experience any of his music, and I for one would feel the poorer for it.

The Tuba Concerto makes an arresting opening item. This is not an easy solo instrument to write for, often sounding unintentionally comic in faster music. Typically for him, Kupferman admits to being fascinated with the expressive and virtuosic capabilities of the instrument, traits fully exploited here. The wonderfully swirling string textures that open the piece give way to what the composer calls ‘a dramatic incantation, or aria’ from the soloist, which is repeated in varying forms. Kupferman’s love of jazz is not long in surfacing (around 5’46), where the walking bass line and bluesy solo melody suit the sonority of the tuba. The feeling of this being a modernistic jazz concerto are strong in places, yet there is a structural organisation and solid integrity that are wholly winning, and it certainly repays repeated listening.

The three-movement guitar quartet entitled Going Home also shows Kupferman’s love of another (as he sees it) under-exploited instrument. He has written other pieces, including the evocative Echoes from Barcelona for solo guitar, and he clearly loves the exotic textural possibilities on offer with this combination. References to Spanish and Baroque music are quite audible, but he mixes this with modernistic atonality to create an alluring mixture of the old and the new. In fact, as with all Kupferman’s work, structure and form are crucial, and everything is tightly organised without ever sounding mechanical or routine. The artists involved are also important, as all are friends who have commissioned and premiered works by him, and the air of complete authority hangs over the performance.

Into the Breach is a four-movement orchestral work that again balances standard orchestral texture and symphonic structure with jazz rhythms and a liberal sprinkling of explosive syncopations. It is extremely approachable, with a magical third movement that introduces the alto saxophone as a quasi-soloist, something that also drives home the jazz orientations of the composer. It is played with confidence and not a little exuberance by the Czech forces under their American conductor, Paul Freeman.

The Percussion Symphony has an overtly political dimension to it, with the subtitle ‘…on Tibet and Tiannanman Square…’ clearly meant to conjure up for the listener extra-musical thoughts on brutality and repression. As Stravinsky realised early in his career, there is nothing quite like a battery of percussion, imaginatively used, for stoking up primeval or atavistic feelings and Kupferman doesn’t miss a trick. Structure is again important, with march-like rhythms aplenty, but there is much that is subtle and evocative, especially at the start. I particularly like the pacing of his climactic moments, and he even uses the voices of the players and audience part way through the second movement, where the human screams, far from being a cheap effect, plunge us into the horror of conflict and confrontation.

I’ve mentioned structure more than once, so it is fitting that the final work is actually entitled Structures. This dates from 2001 and was composed in hospital as the composer recovered from illness. As one might by now expect, it is a very tightly argued, large-scale one-movement work of symphonic proportions. It is also highly coloured, with Kupferman exploiting the idea of four small ensembles within the orchestra pitting sonorities against each other. The melodic language is quite angular and the harmonies fairly dissonant, making it sound a bit like a Darmstadt remnant from the early Sixties. The whole thing is very involving, particularly because the ear is constantly led forward with an exciting, inexorable momentum. The recording is a little dry and close for me (it also sounds live) but the skill and commitment of the players is never in question.

I rate the music on this pair of discs very highly. It is refreshing and challenging in its own way, with no reliance on gimmickry or electronics, just beautifully crafted and solidly organised. The composer’s jazz roots surface at intervals throughout, and I found it no surprise at all to learn he is the author of a widely used textbook entitled ‘Atonal Jazz’, as that is exactly what I felt I was listening to at times. A stimulating and rewarding issue, with fulsome biography and excellent musical notes by the composer completing the satisfaction.

Tony Haywood


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