Papandopulo’s Music Strange, Mysterious, Yet Lively

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PAPANDOPULO: Piano Concerto No. 3.* Violin Concerto+ / *Oliver Triendl, pianist; +Dan Zhu, violinist; Rijeka Opera Symphony Orchestra; Ville Matvejeff, conductor / CPO 555 100-2

If you’ve heard, or heard of, the music of Boris Papandopulo, you’re ahead of the curve. I never had, so I took a chance on this strange but fascinating CD. Papandopulo, who was born in Honnef am Rhein in 1906 and died in Zagreb in 1991, was a Croatian composer of Russian Jewish descent. He wrote an astounding 460 works (!), his music combined elements of folk music—particularly its strong rhythms—with an almost Baroque style of continually fast, virtuosic passages with modern harmonies. He also used some very modern harmonies, alternating between moments of ebullience and strangely dark, mysterious passages. These are but two of his works, but fine ones.

The son of a musical family, Papandopulo’s father was a Greek nobleman and his mother, Maja Strozzi-Pečić, a famous Croatian-Jewish opera singer. In order to make a living, Boris Papandopulo1worked as a music writer, journalist, reviewer and piano accompanist while he wrote his music. He started piano lessons as a child and studied composition at the Musical Academy in Zagreb. He enjoyed writing in a style of “European Moderne” without “departing from the traditional formats of musical cells, from the settled development of motif and facture or the well-established laws of melodic movement.” He thus combined motor rhythms and a style of composition in which notes were reeled off in a continuous forward sequence with astringent modern harmonies. It’s music that is easy to understand when you’re listening to it but difficult to describe. Even in the third movement of the piano concerto, clearly mixing classical form with jazz, Papandopulo’s aesthetic defies convenient explanation. Yes, the music swings somewhat and had the outer trappings of jazz, yet maintains his basic approach of unreeling long spools of notes in his linear style. For him, jazz, like everything else, is merely a vehicle for his imagination, another way for him to express the same basic tenets using varied rhythms and forms.

Oddly, the violin concerto begins in a much more lyrical vein, an unusual mode for this composer’s work, and it is when the solo violinist enters that the music becomes more moody and mysterious. He puts aside his obsession with motor rhythms in the first movement, focusing instead on the solo instrument’s penchant for a long, singing line—another side of his musical personality, so to speak. To a certain extent, this piece is a bit more conventional in form and certainly in rhythm, yet it is still an engaging and fascinating piece…in fact, if anything it is even more appealing to the average listener than the piano concerto. The first movement, at 24:31, is practically an entire work in itself, dramatic, lyrical and with never a wasted phrase or gesture.

The second movement, which clocks in at 13:48, takes us on a journey of floating melody with interesting chords underpinning it. The very upbeat third movement opens dramatically, almost wildly, with a brass and string fanfare before the violin enters and begins playing in and around a bevy of horns and percussion. This one really does fall back on Croatian-style rhythms and harmonic modes, recalling if not actually quoting folk music. The violin gets in the spirit, too, playing rapid figures, sometimes with the edge of the bow to simulate folk fiddling. It’s a rousing finish to a wonderful recording.

Highly recommended!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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