Composer leads the way in swinging classical music


In 1936, discerning listeners may have sensed that the novelty “Rhythm Saved the World” was not just about its nominal subject: the drummer boys who motivated the Revolutionary War soldiers at the Battle of Bunker Hill. No like played by Louis Armstrong, it was clear that the song’s real subject was jazz itself and its ability to conquer foreign lands – and other genres – with ease.

It wasn’t boastfulness. Berlin already had thrilled to fox trotting in the 1920s. Stravinsky did not hide his thirst for jazz. And the Parisian public, including composers like Georges Auric, received Armstrong with delight in the early 1930s.

Yet audiences today don’t often have the opportunity to appreciate the overall impact of American improvisers on classical music. Among the great American orchestras, the coming season features almost no work influenced by jazz – with the occasional exception of a piece by Duke Ellington or John Adams’ bebop-tinged saxophone concerto. This sad state of affairs has led to long periods of inattention to works like the chamber orchestral version of Mary Lou Williams’ “Zodiac Suite”.

A new album of works by Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin (1937-2020) is here to remind us of the reach of jazz. Posted this month on the Capriccio label, the recording is anchored by a fiery and jubilant interpretation of Kapustin’s Piano Concerto No. 4, performed by Frank Dupree and the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Case Scaglione. In addition to its obvious debts to the Russian classical tradition, the one-movement work features passages with a rock edge, and others with the groovy energy of 20th century pianists like Oscar Peterson.

This makes it one of the most entertaining and rehearsed recordings of a dreadful year. It is complex and courageously exuberant music that is also very accessible: a cadenza, towards the end of the concerto, seems to be driven by Rachmaninoff tool motors in the bass, with an American blues coach high up.

“I would say a mix of Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Schnittke and Prokofiev,” Dupree said in an interview, describing the elements that Kapustin mixes with the blues. “It’s a mix of American influenced jazz music and Russian education.”

As a piano student at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1950s, Kapustin immersed himself in canonical piano literature. But a concert by visiting American pianist Dwike Mitchell in 1959 left a dramatic impression. (The anecdote is recorded in the composer’s conversation book with writer Yana Tyulkova.) The die was cast: Kapustin’s pieces are now marked by the strong influence of jazz – whether he writes sonatas, studies or concertos.

After decades of obscurity for Kapustin, his cult has grown over the past two decades, in part thanks to a series of recordings by Marc-André Hamelin and Steven Osborne on the Hyperion label. Hamelin was first exhibited to Kapustin’s music in the late 1990s, from a recording by Nikolai Petrov. “My jaw dropped to the ground,” he recalls recently. “And I thought: what is this? It is really quite amazing.

“You won’t believe it,” he added, “but it’s true: Google’s name Kapustin didn’t yield any results. Getting scores was next to impossible. You had to know the right people. Steven Osborne had preceded me in this regard, and I got a bunch of scores thanks to him.

The versions of Hamelin and Osborne suggest their own tastes in American music. While Hamelin’s journey through the second sonata reveals his appreciation for the intensity of ragtime, Osborne’s more dreamy, moderate-tempo approach shows the influence of Keith Jarrett.

These Hyperion albums, along with Kapustin’s reissued recordings, helped inspire a new generation of pianists, including Dupree. Now stars at Yuja Wang’s level could play a Kapustin song as an encore. But as so far attention has been focused on solo piano pieces, Dupree’s record with the Württemberg Orchestra is particularly valuable.

In their rendition of the Concerto for Piano, Violin, and String Orchestra, the double-set writing in the solo violin part suggests part of Kapustin’s affection for American country music. The third movement even incorporates climactic passages full of hoedown stomping.

After praising the playing of her colleague in the concerto, the violinist Rosanne Philippens, Dupree added: “What I also hear is country music, but from Serbia, Croatia. And, as a consequence of the passages in 7/8, “it really feels like a Hungarian dance, or like Bartok”.

Dupree’s upcoming album Kapustin, already recorded, highlights jazz trio interpretations of works for solo piano. Scheduled for release early next year, it features his partners – bassist Jakob Krupp and drummer Obi Jenne – improvising, while he plays, as written, excerpts from works like the Eight concert studies.

Although Kapustin had a first experience as an improviser in jazz ensembles, he made no room for improvisation in his noted works. Osborne describes it as a kind of blind spot, and on his Hyperion record he includes brief improvisational pieces (although he’s modest in his own jazz skills).

“It doesn’t seem natural to feel completely connected to the score,” he said, in music “that so obviously tries to give a sense of freedom”.

Such improvisational interventions bring this music even closer to American trends. Dupree’s upcoming trio recording is reminiscent of what composer John Zorn has done with some of his recent pieces: note a piano part with precision, while freeing up a rhythm section for improvisation.

These and other connection points are waiting to be explored in mainstream classic American programming. It’s easy to imagine a concert series linking the music of Ellington and Williams with that of Gershwin and Bernstein – before venturing into the larger catalogs of global orchestral swing.

“Bernd Alois Zimmermann can write his violin concerto and have incredible bossa nova grooves in the last movement,” conductor James Gaffigan said in an interview. “Or William Grant Still wrote these symphonies so jazzed up and so well conceived. “

This litany could also include some of the works of Friedrich Gulda, a star pianist particularly famous for his interpretations of Mozart, who improvised and composed with an attentive ear to jazz influences. His Symphony in G – a hard-hitting piece that gives pastiche a good name – had its first recording this year.

And when Gaffigan made his debut with the Komische Oper orchestra in Berlin this spring, the program included Gulda’s Concerto for cello and wind orchestra. “Even the most cynical viewer has to smile in this room,” he said.

While American music may have swept the world in the last century, the works of composers like Kapustin and Gulda – and the efforts of their contemporary champions – might now help return the favor.

“In a place like Berlin or New York, the public needs a balanced diet, not just Mahler all the time,” said Gaffigan. “We have entered strange patterns, in the United States in particular. And it’s sad because American orchestras are so big and versatile, and they can do anything.


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