Alexis WEISSENBERG (b.1929)
The Piano Music
Sonate en Etat de Jazz (1982) [30:04]
Le Regret (1962) [11:04]
arr. Simon MULLIGAN (b.1973)
Four Improvisations on Songs from (Weissenberg's) 'La Fugue', for piano, with alto sax (one movement only*) [28:34]
Simon Mulligan (piano); Frank Walden (alto saxophone)
rec. Wyastone Leys, 14-15 January, 21-22 April 2001. DDD
NIMBUS NI 5688 [69:59]
This CD was originally released in 2001, but has recently been re-issued by Nimbus. Bulgarian-born Alexis Weissenberg will certainly be better known to all as a pianist - see this recent review, for example. The reviewer's use of the past tense seems to imply, incidentally, that Weissenberg is deceased, whereas he is in fact alive and well. Not even his own website - a contender for the most dysfunctional on the internet! - has anything on his music, other than a reference to this particular CD, which, by the way, appears to be the first and only dedicated to Weissenberg the composer.
Simon Mulligan himself has written music, subsequently recorded with his own Quartet - including saxophonist Frank Walden, who puts in a cameo appearance here - on the catch-all CD Baby label. That album, featuring tracks tellingly entitled 'Wet Walnuts', 'Pure Meths', 'Sauna Trauma' and 'Blues for Frank', is best filed under 'Jazz'. Those wondering about this Nimbus disc can rest assured: despite Weissenberg's titles and the presence on one track of an alto saxophone, and even despite the fact that this disc was reviewed in jazz circles when it first came out, the material here is more 'classical' on the whole.
One caveat: the booklet gives the misleading impression that the Four Improvisations are by Weissenberg, whereas in fact they are Mulligan's own improvisations on material of a different kind - La Fugue is an obscure 1960s French musical that Weissenberg wrote the score for, presumably because the money was good. Mulligan's first Improvisation is prettily pleasing, in a jiggy-jazzy kind of way. The second, with the tell-tale addition of that sax, is sure to satisfy those who like their jazz easy listening, going nowhere, saying nothing, never ending … and strangely only four minutes long. The third, 'C'est si Facile' is beautifully delicate and fragrant, although by the end of fourteen minutes Mulligan has stretched the already sparse material quantum-thin - but that is, admittedly, a defining trait of this kind of international bluesy style. The short 'finale' is Gershwin at 2.00am, winding down with a mug of cocoa.
In other words, there are only forty minutes' worth of Weissenberg proper, but they are of some value. Le Regret is evocative in a Gallic kind of way: the music is gentle, somewhat long-winded, and sounding a bit like Skriabin if he had been into jazz rather than mysticism. The most interesting work, at least for those not out for the jazzier end of things, is the Sonata. Mulligan has some stiff competition: the Sonata appeared on a Hyperion CD in 2008 as one of a number of jazz-flambéd works played by Marc-André Hamelin - see review. Hyperion gave that disc the subtitle of Weissenberg's Sonata, but if "in a state of jazz" seems to verge on the semantically vacant, the explanation is that first translations, however duff, have a habit of sticking. 'En état de jazz' should be idiomatically rendered by 'in jazz style', as Weissenberg's own English-language notes indicate.
The Sonata is one of an intended cycle of seven Studies, each attached by title to a different state of mind. The influence of jazz can be heard in the rhythms and harmonies, but above all in the improvisatory nature of the music, which is of course illusory - Weissenberg uses up to four staves to communicate his intentions to the performer precisely. Nevertheless, the work, though generally lyrical, spends much of its time ranging intricately in chromatic territory, with forays into groove-free Skriabinesque atonality that will have jazz aficionados grabbing their coats. The four movements each represent a once-popular dance style - tango, Charleston, blues and samba - that add up to a nostalgic, attractive, if not always strictly coherent whole.
Simon Mulligan is a fairly high-profile performer; indeed, he can be said to be known to millions through two particular recordings much beloved of Classic FM and compilation CDs: Peter Maxwell Davies's Farewell to Stromness and Michael Kamen's Band of Brothers main theme. Unlike some pianists, however, Mulligan is fully deserving of the plaudits he has received over the years. He takes the technical complexities of the Sonata in his stride with room to spare, and seems genuinely to relish the rhythmic and harmonic vitality injected by the jazz idiom. On the other hand, what a treat it would have been to hear Weissenberg himself playing his own music!
Sound quality is very good. The English-French booklet is one of Nimbus's better ones, with a cinematic cover and black-and-white photos, clean and clear layout and informative notes by Weissenberg and Mulligan.
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Music that is nostalgic, attractive, if not always strictly coherent.