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In A State of Jazz
Friedrich GULDA (1930-2000)
Exercises from Play Piano Play (10 Übungsstücke für Klavier) (1971) No.1 [1:45] No.4 [3:58] No.5 [2:20]
Prelude and Fugue (1965) [3:42]
Nikolai KAPUSTIN (b.1937)
Sonata No.2 Op.54 (1989) [21:49]
Alexis WEISSENBERG (b.1929)
Sonate en état de jazz (Sonata in a state of jazz) (1982) [19:26]
Six Arrangements of songs sung by Charles Trenet [14:13]
George ANTHEIL (1900-1959)
Jazz Sonata (1922-23) [1:30]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 10-12 July 2007 
HYPERION CDA67656 [69:07]
Experience Classicsonline

In case you’re wondering the disc’s title derives from the English translation of Alexis Weissenberg’s 1982 Sonata. It’s part of a free-ranging conspectus of music spearheaded by two iconoclastic European pianists – Gulda and Weissenberg himself – and seconded by the Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin. To fly the flag for American iconoclasm we have George Antheil’s ninety-second Jazz Sonata.

Three of Gulda’s exercises are scattered throughout the programme. The First features some elegant rolling left hand work and some Tatumesque right (all classical composers and players seem fixated by Tatum and Bud Powell; why don’t they go and listen to Earl Hines or Jess Stacy for a change?) The Fourth Exercise is longer, at nearly four minutes; it plies a subversive railroad blues cross pollinated with deft Harlem Stride - a sort of modified Meade Lux Lewis meets James P Johnson – before taking the branch line toward cosmopolitan modernism; evocative, kaleidoscopic, worthwhile. The Fifth has some rolling bop lines and hints of Oscar Peterson. I also rather like Gulda’s Prelude and Fugue; despite the academic title this is a swinger. It’s also an arpeggio driver, boppish, with incessant tidal waves of funkier Cubano material – something like a pared down version of Ray Bryant.

Kapustin’s four-movement sonata was written in 1989. It has an ebullient tunefulness that means an enjoyably inventive twenty-one minutes in Hamelin’s typically resourceful performance. There’s enviable charm with bluesy lay-bys in the first movement, boogie intimations and Gershwin as well, and also a reflective coda. There’s an energetic scherzo with a pert and swinging trio section – classical form in Kapustin’s music put to the use of that most disputable of things, notated jazz – as is the case with all these pieces of course.  The slow movement is wistful and it’s followed by an allegro section that leads to a free wheeling finale. Apparently Kapustin has said that this movement is generally taken too fast by pianists and that he didn’t have – wait for it – Art Tatum in mind but – wait for it again – country and western. Well I’ll be darned. It’s certainly fast for C & W.

Weissenberg’s Sonata is, in its composer’s words, a classical construction contaminated by jazz. The first movement is a tango, whilst the second is a helter skelter Charleston and quixotic. The slow movement is a rather withdrawn and evasive blues somewhat impressionistically objectified and contoured. The finale is a samba with appropriately fulsome voicings. It’s a jazz sonata in the broadest sense really; more of a musical travelogue. His Trenet arrangements were published anonymously as it was considered career suicide to be associated with anything as “commonplace” as this back then. He takes some well-known songs and others that are not as popular, six altogether. Coin de rue evokes a barrel organ whilst Vous oubliez votre cheval is glitteringly busy and saturated with dance vigour. En Avril, à Paris is suitably romantic and that terrific song Boum! has a healthy infusion of Errol Garner. Vous qui passez is a veritable moto perpetuo of Lisztian bravura. Talking of which the concluding item in Hamelin’s programme, the Anthiel, is, in the pianist’s words, ninety seconds of musical nonsense. It’s a sort of crazed varsity rag, the Charleston on amphetamines. Great fun.

Hamelin convinces us, almost, that these pieces are aerated by unnotated freedoms. They’re not, of course. Everything is written down. The trick, the gift, is to bring them to the kind of life that Hamelin displays throughout.

Jonathan Woolf


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