Kapustin’s Music for Saxophones

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KAPUSTIN: Quintet for Saxophones & Piano (arr. of Piano Quintet by C. Enzel).* Quartet for 4 Saxophones (arr. of String Quartet, Op. 88 by Enzel). Duo for Alto Saxophone & Cello+ / *Elisaveta Blumina, pno; +Peter Bruns, cello; clair-obscur Saxophone Quartet (Jan Schulter-Bunert, s-sax; Maike Krullmann, a-sax; +Christoph Enzel, a-sax; Kathi Wagner, bar-sax) / Capriccio C5369

It seems a bit odd that a composer whose work is so strongly influenced by American jazz has only actually written one work for the saxophone, that being the Duo that closes out this CD, but Christoph Enzel of the clair-obscur Saxophone Quartet managed to convince the now-aged composer (82 going on 83 years old) to authorize transcriptions of his Piano Quintet and String Quartet for that group of instruments. I was, to be honest, a little leery of how this would work out, in part because I am generally against transcriptions unless they are actually done by the composer him or herself, and in part because, to be perfectly honest, in a jazz-influenced musical environment the way one treats saxophones runs generally counter in terms of rhythm and rhythmic emphasis to the way one writes for strings.

To a certain extent, my fears were realized—not so much in how these sax players handled the rhythm as in the general “smoothness” of the writing as well as the very classical timbres of the soprano and alto saxes. Yet, in other ways, they allayed my fears because they do have a feeling for the jazz beat in those passages that call for it. Pianist Elisaveta Blumina, whose work I have praised quite highly on this blog, occupies a style somewhere in between the two worlds. She is not as loose rhythmically as Catherine Gordoladze, Daniel del Pino, Vadim Rudenko, Ludmil Angelov or Kapustin himself (I own a recording of the composer himself in the original Piano Quintet), playing more of a ragtime than a jazz beat, but within the context of the Quintet and with the help of the swinging saxes it’s not too much of a detriment. She at least tries as well as she can, and her technique is so fluid that it falls within the parameters of what Kapustin requires without hurting the music. Some of best moments come in the whimsical second movement of the Quintet, where her precise rhythmic approach is rather delightful and not too metronomic. Yet, ironically, it is in this movement that the sax quartet sounds the least jazzy, and I attribute this more to the music that Kapustin originally wrote for strings…as mentioned earlier, string writing, unless one is steeped in the tradition of such modern American jazz string groups as the Turtle Island Quartet or Poland’s equally jazzy Atom Quartet, is not going to swing like music initially conceived for saxophones.

If the reader thinks that I am marginalizing or dismissing these performances, he or she will be mistaken. I am nit-picking because I have a wealth of experience in listening to and evaluating jazz-classical hybrids, which I dearly love and wish there were more of. And I rush to point out that what happened here is not unique to the music of Kapustin. It is the reason I am generally against MOST transcriptions of classical music of all eras and styles from one instrument to another. Once in a while it works, but often it changes the coloration and impact of the music to such an extent that even the uninformed listener can sense that something is amiss.

In the fourth movement of the Quintet, Blumina plays very strong syncopations, which help to propel the sax quartet very well indeed. Yes, I would have liked a little more of a jazz feel in the fast right-hand runs, but she acquits herself well. And happily, the saxes have exactly the right feel for jazz syncopation, which helps propel the music with the right feeling.

In the saxophone version of the string quartet, ironically, there is less of a problem in the transference of a swing beat, largely because the clair-obscur Quartet has, as I mentioned, a fairly good idea of the jazz beat despite the ultra-pure tones of the soprano and alto saxes. By contrast, baritone saxist Kathi Wagner has a ball with the music, and in fact it is her sense of jazz time that helps to propel the entire group except in those obviously lyrical passages where a classical sense of time is more prominent. The concluding “Fuga” is perhaps the most formally classical of the four movements, but the quartet still manages to get a feel of jazz syncopation going in this music as well, with baritone saxist Wagner throwing in some neat slap-tongue effects.

The alto sax-cello duo is the one work on this album written for a saxophone, and happily cellist Peter Bruns seems to have some experience in playing jazz time, because he plays his instrument almost like a jazz bass (or at least like a jazz cello, reminding me of Oscar Pettiford and Fred Katz). It’s a wonderfully imaginative piece, too, in which the alto sax plays almost continuous eighth-note figures while the cello prods him rhythmically, and occasionally our saxist, Christoph Enzel, puts some grit in his tone which helps to bring out the jazz connection very well. The second movement in particular (“Sonatina – Animato”) brings out some pretty nifty counterpoint while still having at least a foothold in jazz time.

In toto, then, an interesting album with good music from start to finish and some really good performances of it. I can only hope that someday, a jazz saxophone quartet with good technique and a jazz pianist with an equally good sense of jazz time tackles the Quintet or even the Quartet. Happy listening!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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