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Meyer KUPFERMAN (1926-2003)
Orchestral Music Volume XVII

Invisible Borders (2003)
When the Air Moves ... (2003)
And Five Quartets (Symphony for Strings) (1986)
Czech National Symphony Orchestra/Paul Freeman
No Recording details given (2003)

This latest release from Kupferman’s own Soundspells label is now sadly posthumous. This notwithstanding, all the volumes in the series are still available to admirers of the composer through Albany. Two of the works in this valedictory volume – though it’s strongly to be hoped that more will be appearing and soon – date from the last year of Kupferman’s life. The Symphony for Strings, known as And Five Quartets is an earlier work written in 1986. As often before in this series the honours are taken by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Paul Freeman but no locations or dates are given.

Invisible Borders is cast in four movements and was conceived as a musical poem, with statement of the themes developed freely. The opening Adagio cleaves rather to the Mahler-Berg axis and is full of disconsolate brass calls, a sinuous bass line and a sense of coiled tension. As ever the percussion strikes a note of Comedia Dell’arte – the ironic, sardonic and satiric intent of which is occluded, though the nose thumbing is not. There are hints of a strong influence, Bartók. The lone flute soaring above the jagged upper strings and lyric lower ones takes the music to sparer, more rarefied vistas, with a ghostly marimba-like shimmer to end the movement. The restless Deciso scherzando revives the percussion’s jeering – but in the main this is dramatic, cinematic music, restless, unsettled, full of pom-poms and solo piano and all manner of percussive chicanery. In the slow movement the flute reappears. The solo violin generate together with the flute a burgeoning warmth with a ghostly dream-like cello solo. The music seems to refract and become absorbed by itself – before a renewed turbulence leaves us unresolved, hanging on. The finale is brittle, lurching into atonality, pans out into a solo for the piano, as if the music were groping for both complexity and simplicity simultaneously. It can’t last and we end in tough ambiguity.

This is the major work on the disc – austere and cackling, Mahlerian and verbose, transient and penetrating – a complete work that says much but never easily. It reveals but never shows; it lifts the lid and then screws it down again. When the Air Moves also comes from the last months of the composer’s life. It has a strong rhythmic charge, atonal in parts and highly chromatic. There’s swirling colour and drama in its fourteen minutes. Again it’s tough but not unyielding and in its bell episodes it carries a charge, a sense of momentum. Finally there is And Five Quartets (Symphony for Strings) an innovative work in which it’s necessary for five string quartets to sit apart in a semi-circle with the conductor in the centre and free to move to the ensembles. The fifth quartet is the only irregular one, consisting of two violins and two double basses. It divides pretty equally into three sections; the first has a propulsive rhythmic counterpoint overlapping like some huge organism. The second is lyric, folk-like and aerated and generates a true sense of a single tensile unanimity whereas the dissonant drive of the finale has a Bartókian chug that may threaten dissolution but recovers, freshly, to conclude.

The major work here is the late Invisible Borders but Kupferman’s admirers will find much to perplex, excite, rouse, alarm, concern and, ultimately, warm them. He’s not always an easy listen and there’s little of his jazz-ward looking side here. Is integrity an over-used word? Well then, Kupferman had integrity.

Jonathan Woolf


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