KAPUSTIN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Elegy. Nearly Waltz. Burlesque / Duo Perfetto: Clorinda Perfetto, pn; Robert Witt, cel / Brilliant Classics 95560
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since the turn of the 21st century, you must have run across the music of Nikolai Kapustin by now, and been bowled over by its strong affiliation to jazz. It has jazz swing and swagger, the solos feel improvised, yet as Kapustin himself has said, “the classical part is more important. The jazz style is there to give color – I don’t like jazz ‘forms’…which is why I’ve adopted those from classical music.” Indeed he has, but unless you’re a classical performer who also understands jazz your performances of Kapustin’s music are bound to be stiff and disappointing.
Enter Duo Perfetto, a young cello-piano pair (they’ve only been together for two years) who tackle Kapstin’s music like old hands. And good ones. Without slighting cellist Robert Witt, who catches the feel of the music extremely well, Kapustin’s sonatas—even those built around violins or cellos—must have a jazz-oriented pianist. Duke Ellington’s old maxim, “It Don’t Mean a Thing ifit Ain’t Got That Swing”—was never more meaningful than in the music of Kapustin or that of his younger, Swiss-born counterpart, Daniel Schnyder. This is particularly crucial not just in the fast movements, where a jazz pulse is a little easier to create and sustain, but also in the slow movements where the feel of the pulse is much trickier. Listen, for instance, to the second movement of the first sonata. Every so often, and not for long, one or the other of these gifted musicians lapse just a bit from a true jazz pulse, but by and large they are able to sustain it through the most complex and well-thought-out variations. Once in a while, Witt swings a little more loosely than Perfetto, or vice versa, but by and large they are able to pick each other up.
I make this point so strongly because, in the classical world, sticking to a strict pulse is more or less essential to the successful performance of most formal or classical music. This is the reason so many classical musicians fall flat when they try jazz. Remember that it took Yehudi Menuhin close to a decade of playing with Stéphane Grappelli before he was finally able to swing fairly well, and he had been playing the violin professionally since the age of 12. In addition, pianists in particular are more familiar (and comfortable) with the works of George Gershwin, which have a nice ragtime swagger but do not swing. Contrary to popular belief, Gershwin was not a jazz composer. He was a composer who, like Kapustin, took the rhythms of his day and inserted them into classical forms, and the predominant white culture of his time did not have a real jazz pulse. They didn’t swing, they clomped along.
But Kapustin swings and he expects his interpreters to do so. The last movement of the first sonata is a perfect example of what performers are up against. At about 2:50 into the movement, the cellist is required to play rapid bow-edge strokes against the pianist’s part. It’s very hard to do this and still be able to swing. Perfetto does a good job of helping Witt out, and he in turn pushes her towards a greater swagger with his playing. Towards the end of the movement, the tempo suddenly turns into an eight-to-the-bar that isn’t quite boogie woogie, but comes close. Again, a very difficult passage, and Duo Perfetto gets through it fairly well (although I think listening to a few Meade Lux Lewis or Pete Johnson records would help Ms. Perfetto get a little more into it).
By contrast with the first sonata, the second opens up with a relaxed, almost meandering movement in which the composer allows the performers to “catch” the swing without having to extend themselves too much, yet later on there’s a “walking bass” passage against the piano that could have been a bit more swinging. Clorinda and Bob, pull out those old Jimmy Blanton-Duke Ellington duet records and take a listen (particularly Pitter Panther Patter)! You come very close, but a little closer to jazz would have been ideal. Oddly, there’s a theme in here that sounds very similar to Rock-a-Bye Baby. The second movement, more lively than reflective, is built around pizzicato bass played against the piano part. In the last movement, built around a syncopated figure that catches both instruments up in its swirl, the duo acquits itself very well.
Elegy begins quietly but later on Kapustin indulges in his patented cross-rhythmic devices. Nearly Waltz shifts randomly between 5/3 and 3/4 in the opening before settling down to a regular waltz, and Burlesque grumbles its way along in a quasi-charming sort of way, with repeated syncopated figures in the piano part driving the cello to similar responses. This is very tricky music (see score excerpt below), and Duo Perfetto does a splendid job, particularly in catching the humorous outbursts in the latter piece.
This is a very fine CD, both of the music and for the performers.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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