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Boris PAPANDOPULO (1906-1991)
Small Concerto for Piccolo and String Orchestra (1977) [14:33]
Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra (1962) [21:53]
Five Orchestral Songs for baritone, string orchestra and harp (1961-62) [24:09]
Michael Martin Kofler (piccolo flute)
Jörg Halubek (harpsichord)
Miljenko Turk (baritone)
Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim/Timo Handschuh
rec. 2015/16, Ev. Matthäuskirche Pforzheim-Arlinger, Germany
Song texts and translations included
CPO 777 941-2 [60:50]

How many piccolo concertos can you name? Well there’s the one by Peter Maxwell Davies, and ... Here’s one by Boris Papandopulo, a twentieth century Croat (despite the obviously Greek name) in whom CPO have been taking an interest over the past few years – indeed this is their third release to include at least one of his concertos (read the MWI evaluations of the other two here and here). One joy of this series has been the opportunity to see some fine examples of the style known as Croatian Naïve art on the CPO covers, and the present disc boasts a particularly lovely example by Ivan Rabuzin. A confounding issue, however, is the billing on the same cover of this Small concerto for piccolo and string orchestra’ as a ‘flute’ concerto. It patently isn’t. A terse, sustained string chord announces the work, while the piccolo plays a nature-influenced, questioning theme, before the folk-like credentials of the piece take over. Of the two main themes in this first movement marked Predigra (Prelude), one has a rustic Balkan character, the other seems to project a more Oriental style of pentatonicism. The, yearning central Romanca is affecting in its undemanding simplicity, though the quicker music in the central section hints at a vaguely Poulenc-like sophistication. The Igra finale is a vivacious, dance-infused confection whose main theme Papandopulo borrowed from Marulic’s Song, an earlier operatic work set in Dalmatia. The concerto is idiomatically conceived for the unusual solo instrument, and while it is light in spirit, the music is undeniably attractive, and the solo part is dispatched in effervescent fashion by Michael Martin Kofler. Papandopulo’s Small concerto unabashedly shares the same aesthetic as the painting adorning the disc’s cover.

The concerto for harpsichord and string orchestra of 1962 occupies somewhat spikier terrain. The opening harpsichord theme is certainly chromatic; indeed it transpires that the material in this Toccata is built on a twelve-tone melody, although rhythmically the feel is arguably more neo-classical Stravinskian than dodecaphonic Schoenbergian. The string orchestral accompaniment offers up a plethora of attractive baroqueries. The lovely Aria slow movement is perhaps a rural sibling of the equivalent section in Frank Martin’s marine-inspired harpsichord concerto, the mildly chromatic piquancy of the melodic and harmonic material illuminated by finely wrought neo-classical orchestration. The main theme returns at the conclusion of the movement with suitable elaborations and ornaments. The Rondeau conclusion is pleasantly motoric and of an easily identifiable Eastern European provenance. I have to say that on this evidence Papandopulo was a fine exponent of composing for the more outlandish twentieth century concertante instruments, and the writing for harpsichord in this finale is particularly impressive and idiomatic. It is technically challenging too, especially in the cadenza which occurs just before its decisive conclusion. The concerto receives fervent advocacy from Jörg Halubek and the Pforzheim band under Timo Handschuh and reveals itself to be a fine addition to the rather exclusive group of twentieth century harpsichord concertos.

The Five Orchestral Songs are broadly contemporary with the harpsichord work and offer a glimpse of Papandopulo’s more serious side. Again the craftsmanship of this composer is readily evident, while his word-setting (in German) is of a very high order; this music is eminently well-suited to the mainly gloomy subject matter in these five, rather disturbing poems by the East German poet Kurt Barthel (1914-67), who assumed the pseudonym KuBa. The prevailing mood of the cycle is established immediately in the bleak opening number Totensonntag (Memorial Sunday), in which a recently bereaved mother explains the picture of her late husband to their child, and recounts the circumstances of his death during the war. If the language is unadorned and to the point, Papandopulo’s economical setting constitutes a perfect match. I found the direct, recitative-like style of the baritone here, Miljenko Turk, sympathetic yet and appropriately objective. He delivers the grim verses almost in the style of reportage. The ‘odd man out’ of the cycle is the darkly ironic Rock’n’Roll, a setting of a 1959 poem which views the then nascent musical form and its followers with barely disguised condescension. This quality is convincingly conveyed by Turk. The clear emotional core of the cycle is the mournful, tragic Judenliedchen (Little Jewish Song), conceived by KuBa in 1933 as the Nazis’ persecution of Jews was gaining momentum; the poet links the Passion of Christ to these terrible, contemporary events. Papandopulo’s neo-Mahlerian death march projects a stately melancholy, while the calmness of Turk’s reading is subtly undermined by the barely suppressed anger of KuBa’s words. The astringent, jagged Lied der Granaten (Song of the Grenades) acts as a dark scherzo – the words characterising threat and destruction from the cold, bullying perspective of the weapons themselves, while the concluding Sing in den Wind (Sing into the Wind) is an autobiographical poem referencing KuBa’s own internment in England during World War 2. It is appropriately yearning and defiant in tone, its moods skilfully painted in Papndopulo’s setting. A beautifully written (and played) harp part is expertly woven into the orchestral fabric of all of these songs.

Having heard both previous CPO discs in this series, the new volume has revealed another side of Papandopulo to this reviewer. I have to say I found the concertos, especially, on the previous instalments rather unmemorable, and while the (Small) Piccolo concerto here is rather light in tone, the two couplings dig considerably deeper. In fact I would go further regarding the Five Orchestral Songs; Papandopulo’s response to KuBa’s powerful words conveys profound sensitivity, and his settings are consequently communicative and involving. The performance by Miljenko Turk and these Pforzheim musicians strongly suggests they treated this work as something more than just another song cycle; their commitment to the cause is obvious. The CPO recording is more than adequate; the soloists in each piece are nicely balanced with the orchestra. If I was to commend just one Papandopulo disc to readers, it would be this fine issue.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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